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Laurie Winkless

Laurie is a physicist-turned-science writer originally from Ireland, but now based in Wellington.

Laurie WinklessWhat do you do on an average work day?

I’m self-employed, which means that no two days are the same – sometimes I’m working on a specific project for a client, which usually means I go into their office or labs. On other days, I might be researching topics for my next book, or writing an article for an outlet.

I’m an early riser, so on work-from-home days, I start off by going to the gym at about 6am. I check my emails as soon as I get back, and update my list of priorities for the day before hopping in the shower. I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated office in my home, so my desk is always ready for me.

I usually start the day by logging on to Twitter. I use the site a lot – some might say too much – but it’s a ‘place’ that I really enjoy spending time. My corner of Twitter-land is filled with a fantastic, supportive community of scientists and science communicators who share stories from all over the globe. It also lets me reach lots of non-scientists too, and is an important outlet for my work.

Anyway, once I’ve caught up on that, I start on my tasks. Like all jobs, writing can be tough sometimes, especially when the words just won’t flow, or if you’re dealing with a really complex topic. I spend a lot of my time reading research papers and interviewing scientists about their work, and then trying to translate what I’ve learned into something interesting and engaging.

I tend to really bury myself in my work, so I don’t take as many breaks as I probably should. Like most people who work for themselves, I don’t have a particularly good work-life balance! But I do always stop to have dinner with my husband. He’s also a physicist, and works at a big engineering consultancy firm here in Wellington.

I like to read in the evenings – I think all writers are bookworms – and I try to be in bed by 11.

Laurie with her husband at a rugby game

What did you study at school? And after high school?

I went to school in Ireland, which has a different education system to New Zealand. We had to study twelve subjects for the first three years of secondary school – in my school, the compulsory ones were English, Irish, Maths, Civics and PE. I also did Science, History, Geography, Business, Art, French, and Further Maths. After the Junior Certificate (a set of national exams that you take in all subjects), we moved into the Leaving Certificate cycle. There, we picked seven subjects to focus on for the final two years – mine were English, Irish, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, History, and French. I also did Further Maths outside of school for one year.

Then, I went to university – Trinity College Dublin – where I studied for my four year double-degree in Physics and Astrophysics. After that, I moved to London to do my masters in Space Science and Spacecraft Technology at University College London.

Studying science is one thing, but I didn’t actually learn how to be a scientist until I joined the Functional Materials team at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). My seven years there were among the happiest of my life.

Laurie in a London Crossrail tunnel

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes and no. What a lot of people don’t realise is that scientists spend huge chunks of time writing – it might be papers or reports, proposals, applications or conference presentations. So if you’re a good writer and enjoy the process, it’s a big plus. Certainly, my writing skills were seen as an advantage in my research career.

My scientific training changed the way I see the world, and despite not working in the lab now, that has never wavered. I know how to ask good questions, and I can do the research needed to find the answers.

The fact that I’m a trained scientist definitely helps when I’m interviewing people – knowing that I speak their vocabulary helps them to relax. They can trust that I’m there to learn something, and to understand their research – I’m not interested in hype.

My first book, Science and the City, was a directly inspired by some of the research I did at NPL. It looks at the hidden science, engineering and technology that keep our cities moving, and it’s stuffed full of cool materials! My next book, Sticky, is set to be even more linked to my scientific training – it’s all about surfaces and the forces that act on, and between, them. Think ‘everything from ice to geckos’ and you've got the idea.

Laurie on live TV in the UK

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Know that no career decision is truly irreversible. Plans alter, interests grow, priorities are ever-evolving, and so are you.

Rather than worrying about what you want to do, which path you should take, or what career you’re aiming for, focus on the things you enjoy, the things you want to learn more about, and the type of person you’d like to be.

For example, do you enjoy travelling? Do you like working with people? Are you good with your hands? Are you a natural with numbers? Remember, most of tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented yet! So, if you follow a path led by your passions, you won’t go too far wrong.

When I was looking at university physics courses, I could never have imagined that, one day, I’d write a book that would be published worldwide. Luck played a big part, but following my instincts and interests, and saying ‘yes’ to opportunities definitely helped. Having said that, if I could live my life over, I think I’d have done an apprenticeship before going to university.

What are some of your career highlights so far?

I was lucky enough to be granted a scholarship from the Irish government in my third year of university and I spent a summer studying at the Kennedy Space Centre.

I also loved building pieces of scientific equipment while I was at NPL – seeing something through from a concept to a physical bit of kit that could be (and was) used by other scientists was incredibly satisfying.

And, of course, publishing my first book in 2016 and all of the amazing opportunities that it led to.

Laurie presenting at New Scientist Live in London

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? 

Every aspect of everyday life is shaped by science. The smartphone that wakes you up in the morning, the pasteurised milk that you add to your imported coffee, the air you breathe as you sweat at the gym, the train that carries you to your destination, the streetlights that guide you home at night. All of these are enabled by fundamental chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and maths.

Yes, it’s possible to live in that world without speaking the language of science, but everything is so much brighter and more interesting when you can. Being able to understand how something works just changes your view on, well, everything.

We’re also at a critical point in human history – climate change is no longer a far-off threat. We’re feeling the impacts of it here and now, and we already can pinpoint many of the causes. And yet, despite this knowledge, New Zealanders are buying more cars than we did ten years ago, we’re eating more meat and dairy than ever before, we use water and electricity without thinking, and discard waste as if it goes to a magical place called ‘away’, rather than to landfill.

Science tells us that our behaviours need to change, but too many of us just put our fingers into our ears in the hope of blocking that reality out. A more scientifically-engaged public would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Laurie with her husband in the Royal Society of Chemistry's library

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

It’s very simple. Science does not sit in isolation from the wider world – is a part of it. So, I believe that those working in science should also reflect our society.

In other words, it should include people from as diverse a spectrum as possible, because with that comes strength. It brings new viewpoints and experiences, new ways of thinking. It makes us questions the falsehoods that have become part of today’s societal narrative, and pushes us to ask bigger and braver questions.

Women have always played important roles in STEM, and have always been just as capable as men. It’s just that, for much of history, their contributions were ignored or deliberately written out. Women like Caroline Herschel, Lise Meitner, Barbara McClintock and Mary Jackson made significant impacts on the world, but many people have never heard of them!

For all those interested in women in STEM, I highly recommend reading Inferior, a genuinely life-changing book, written by Angela Saini. You can thank me later!

Laurie is a physicist-turned-science writer originally from Ireland, but now based in Wellington. You can follow her on Twitter: @laurie_winkless

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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