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Nicola Gaston

Dr. Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington and Deputy Director at The MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Dr Nicola Gaston with her computerWhat do you do on an average work day?
There is no such thing as an average work day! Sometimes I am lecturing, teaching anything from first year physical chemistry to quantum mechanics and nanotechnology to our postgraduate students. Other days I will spend talking to my postgraduate students about their research projects, brainstorming ideas and different explanations for their results, reading about what new research has been done recently and what we can learn from it. And other days I get to go and talk to people about the research I do, and travel to international conferences where I present the work done in my group – so it is a very varied work environment.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
Science and languages – at university I did a conjoint BA and BSc, and studied Physics, Chemistry, French and Japanese. It meant I always had a full timetable, but it also meant I had a lot of variety in what I was learning.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, but I wouldn't necessarily have seen that at the time. Sometimes the skills you learn are applicable to problems which are not the reason that you learned those skills in the first place – but I can see the connections in retrospect. Even things like learning languages, which made it easier to pick up programming languages which I never studied properly, for example.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Do what you enjoy, and what you want to do. Usually you'll enjoy things that you're good at – but don't be scared to put time and effort into getting good at something if it is something you want to do – if you're motivated, hard work ends up being something you enjoy.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
Often the things I am proudest of – or that make me happiest about my job – seem pretty small. Sometimes it's just publishing a paper – but if that paper has shown that a crazy idea I had a couple of years earlier was a good idea, that can be a thrill! And seeing students learn to trust their own ideas in research is always great – sometimes I quite like being argued with!

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?
Oh – there are a number of reasons. First of all, living in a democracy, it's in everyone's interests to ensure that everyone is as well informed as they can be about the science behind environmental policy, modern technologies, and medicine, just to give a few examples. Good policy should be made with the best evidence available. But more than that – working in science is a really satisfying career – there's something really beautiful about knowing that you're contributing to the sum of human knowledge. It's that knowledge that then has all kinds of benefit to New Zealand – because we can feed it back in to policy making, but also into education, and also into industries that provide economic benefit to New Zealand. But we shouldn't forget, despite the importance of that economic value, that science and the arts have a great deal in common – they produce knowledge that itself has intrinsic value.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
For the simple reason that the low participation rates of women in science – which were of course even worse historically – are the reason for our unconscious biases around science that make it harder for women to succeed in scientific careers. This has nothing to do with ability, but stereotypes and judgments made by others or even by women about themselves. More women in science will level the playing field for the future.

It shouldn't just be possible for women to do science, it should be equally easy – and we know that that isn't currently the case. But we are getting there – it won't be like this forever.

Dr. Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington and Deputy Director at The MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

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