Lucy Stewart is a postdoctoral research fellow at GNS Science. She looks at things that grow at high temperatures without oxygen.
What do you do on an average work day?
That depends where I am. I work at GNS headquarters in Wellington, but the lab I use for my experiments is in our office at Wairakei, near Taupō. If I’m in Wellington then an average day usually involves writing (things like grant proposals, reports, or papers), analysing and organising data, meeting with colleagues, and if I’m lucky catching up with the scientific literature or learning about a new skill or technique I can use in my work. You don’t stop learning just because you’ve left uni!
If I’m in Wairakei, then I spend almost all day in the lab doing experiments and cleaning up/preparing for experiments (microbiology involves a lot of dishes…) or writing up data and methods, as well as talking to my colleagues who work up there permanently. Because I’m a research fellow I have a lot of flexibility about when I do things, so there’s generally no set order to the day. But I always try and get out for a walk around lunchtime to clear my head.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I took Chemistry, Physics, Classics, English, Calculus, and a lot of languages (Latin and French to Bursary/NCEA Level 3 level, Māori to NCEA Level 2). At university I studied microbiology for my BSc(Hons) and history for my BA, at the University of Canterbury. I took a year off and then did a PhD in microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the United States. I did a double degree in undergrad because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to only doing science quite yet, but all the writing and reading I had to do in history turned out to be really good practice – you do a lot of both of those as a scientist.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
My university study, yes; my current job is directly related to my PhD work, and I still study the same kinds of organisms now that I did for my PhD (thermophilic anaerobes, microbes that grow at high temperatures without oxygen). My study at high school, not really – I found out I’d still have to take all the first-year biology courses at university no matter what I did at school, so even though I knew I wanted to study microbiology, I decided not to do biology at school. Instead I did all the other stuff I wasn’t going to study at uni. The most important thing to do at secondary school is actually maths; that’s the hardest thing to pick up at uni level. But even though it wasn’t directly related, having that background from secondary school in other areas of science (chemistry and physics) and also in writing-heavy subjects has been really useful. I even got to use Latin when we were thinking of names for a new species!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
One of the things I found really confusing when I was at school and uni was figuring out what jobs in science actually looked like. I was told there were jobs for people with science degrees in certain industries, but I didn’t know what that meant. Science jobs don’t always involve wearing a lab coat and doing experiments at a lab bench – even though I’m a research scientist and that’s a part of my job, it’s still not how I spend the majority of my time.
Checking out job ads and looking at company websites is a good way to get a sense of what people in science jobs actually do day-to-day. A lot of people in my company (GNS Science) don’t directly do science but need to know about it to work with scientists – like the people who run our Research Office, which helps people look for funding and write grant applications, or the people who do ordering of scientific supplies. You can end up doing almost anything with a science degree – explore the whole range of possibilities.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Fieldwork is probably the biggest highlight of my career to date. I’ve gotten to visit places like Raoul Island and White Island to get scientific samples, as well as spending a lot of time at sea during my PhD, working with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to get samples from submarine volcanoes. It’s hard work and it’s isolated, but it’s just really cool. I was really excited to be able to help write a paper officially naming a new species of archaea (a kind of microbe, like bacteria) – I love the idea that no matter what else I do, I’ve given something a name.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
STEM issues affect every aspect of our lives. New Zealand, as a country, relies on people working in STEM to monitor and look after our environment, to improve our industries, and to understand how to make our lives better. Even if you’re not working in a directly STEM-related job yourself, you need to understand science to understand how this work relates to everybody else. Often the research is out there but people don’t know about it or know how to interpret it – engaging with STEM lets you engage with what’s already being done.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Increasing the number of women in STEM increases the diversity of approaches and ideas in STEM – it leads to better work, better research, and better companies. If women are half the population but way less than half the people in a STEM field, it means there’s a whole lot of very smart women who could be good at that field but are doing something else instead, so we’re all missing out.
While I’ve mostly worked in a field (microbiology) which has a lot of women, I’ve been in plenty of situations where I was one of only a few women at a meeting or on a field expedition. Even if everyone else is great, you still feel like you stick out. The more women there are in STEM, the more we can get on with our jobs without feeling like we stick out – or like we have to be the absolute best just to prove women can do things, because we’re the only woman, or one of only a few women, in a room.
Lucy Stewart is a postdoctoral research fellow at GNS Science.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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