Lilly (Taranaki Tuturu, Ngāi Tahu) is a PhD student in chemistry. She is exploring how to recreate useful natural chemicals in the lab, because the wild sources are in short supply.
What do you do on an average work day?
Every day is different - although they all start with coffee!
Building a molecule is a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except you also have to go on a treasure hunt to find the pieces, and you don’t know what all the pieces look like, you just know the final picture they need to make.
So sometimes I need to spend a whole day looking through literature, seeing what pieces are already out there that I could use, and other times I’ll spend the whole day in the lab trying to connect the pieces together, or making new pieces.
I then use a spectroscopy technique called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) which works a lot like an MRI does except it visualises molecules instead of people, to check I’ve made the right structures. This is always exciting.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I didn’t grow up in a position where I could stay at school, I needed to work so I left school at 15.
However once I was 21 and could get into uni as an adult student without NCEA, I took a chemistry, physics and biology paper in my first semester and fell in love with chemistry so I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve always loved science, art and conservation, and chemistry combines all three - especially organic chemistry.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Definitely! I structured my degree in a way that gave me the maximum amount of chemistry courses, specifically courses with practical research opportunities relating to organic synthesis - which is what I do full time now for my PhD.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
A lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, and I think as wāhine we are great at making up reasons for why we can’t do something - but they’re not true.
If you are passionate about something, you deserve to pursue it and the field will benefit from having you.
It won’t always be easy, but there are so many wonderful people who are in or have been in the same position - so build a network around you of mentors, friends, mentees, and you won’t have to do it all on your own. He waka eke noa - we are in this together.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I think when you come into a career from the background I did as a school drop-out, everything feels like a highlight.
Passing every exam, learning every new lab technique, finishing the degree, finishing honours. Everything step feels like a massive achievement and you don’t take anything for granted.
In saying that, a huge highlight was being selected as part of Team Kiwi for the fourth Homeward Bound Program. I get to share this one-year leadership journey with five other amazing Kiwi wāhine in science, and 95 female scientists from 32 other countries and the last month is actually spent in Antarctica together.
It still seems like some kind of surreal dream.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Even if someone isn’t going to become a 'scientist', everyone deserves to be able to make informed choices and understand the decisions being made around them that affect them.
We are battling some big challenges. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, our current reliance on finite resources like fresh water and petroleum, the approaching food crisis. Many of these dilemmas require advancements in STEM fields to solve. They also require the entire public to be on board, so we can all work together to help limit the damage and buy us more time to develops solutions.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I think it’s important to have as much diversity as possible so STEM fields can benefit from a larger range of perspectives and ideas.
Woman are hugely underrepresented, especially at higher levels of STEM academia and in leadership and decision-making positions. The same goes for indigenous people and people who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and these perspectives are also needed.
Of course the latter two groups also include women, so hopefully by having more women we also increase the number of people from these underrepresented backgrounds too.
Lilly (Taranaki Tuturu, Ngāi Tahu) is a Māori PhD student in chemistry. Her research focusses on designing strategies to make valuable natural compounds synthetically. Currently these compounds, which may have major health benefits, can only be extracted in milligram quantities from unsustainable sources such as marine sponges or rare plants - so this work enables us to access them in usable quantities without destroying whole ecosystems.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.View all profiles