Pauline (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine) is an astrophysicist researching and sharing Māori knowledge about tātai arorangi (astronomy) and maramataka (Nature's calendar).
What do you do on an average work day?
A lot of my time is spent developing lecturing materials and teaching students ranging from first years to masters level.
I used to teach astrophysics, which I really enjoyed, and now I am teaching within the Science and Society programme at VUW, where I talk about climate change, science and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge and ways of knowing), and issues within science that are important to our culture. We look at lots of different topics from environmental issues such as microplastics to the oil industry and energy production, to things like genetic engineering and xenotransplantation (transplanting animal organs into humans).
A lot of my time is spent on research as well. I’m working with communities and practitioners to develop projects together, or research on maramataka – our Māori lunar calendar – or Māori astronomical knowledge. I’m also Chair of the Society for Māori Astronomical Research and Traditions and we do a lot of this work together in this space.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I was brought up in Paraparaumu and went to Porirua East Primary, Paraparaumu Primary and then Kāpiti College. When I was at school I was really into science. I loved science! So when I was at high school I did chemistry, electronics, physics and biology, with maths, English and journalism and some history.
I used to play a lot of sports, too. My favourite sports were softball, basketball and netball and I played at representative levels in softball and netball.
After high school I went straight to Victoria University to do a degree in mathematics and physics, and then went overseas before starting a Masters at Canterbury University.
At Canterbury, my Masters was in in cosmology, the origin and development of the universe, and specifically looked at inflation in cosmology [universe expansion after the big bang]. I followed that with a PhD in which I worked on detecting neutrinos [particles tinier than an atom] with a telescope in Antarctica. During my PhD I had my daughter, Te Paea, who’s now 15 years old.
I then went back to Victoria University in Wellington to do a postdoc on microlensing, a technique used in the search for planets outside our solar system.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yeah, definitely. Even though I’ve moved into the area of mātauranga Māori, I regularly use the skills and knowledge that I learnt from my studies, especially astronomy, to assist the revitalisation and recovery of our ancient knowledge as well as developing new knowledge.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I think it’s really important to find out what your passion is about, and what you really want to do. Stay focused on what you want to do - don’t get deterred by other people’s negative attitudes towards you, or any sort of thing that might deflect you off your path.
Try and keep a balanced lifestyle as you head towards you career choice as having a good balance with your family is very important.
Most of all, it’s very important to keep your passion alive. It’s also ok if you go along on your journey and you develop different interests, it is ok to change that view of what you find passionate and to readjust your course accordingly, so that you can head towards a career that you actually enjoy.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Some of my career actually are around my work with kids. I go out and do a lot of outreach with kids so the highlight for me is sharing the knowledge and research that we’ve developed and creating programmes that excite children into wanting to know more. One of the best things for me is when they turn around and go, ‘oh wow, that’s amazing!’ when we’re showing them different things about stars.
I also love watching how the Māori kids - in the programmes that we run in te reo Māori - really engage with the people that we hire and our volunteers, because these people are able to talk about the stars and talk about our mātauranga Māori within a context and in a learning methodology that is specific to our people. It’s actually very different from mainstream delivery, so it’s exciting to see these kids really light up.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
It’s absolutely important! I think a lot of our problems that we have today can be solved with science, technology, engineering and maths. But I think that while a lot of our environmental problems - like microplastics pollution and overuse of oil consumption - can be solved with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they can also be solved by the way we live.
There needs to be changes in social attitudes and changes in personal attitudes about how we use the environment, and maybe we should be thinking about how we can live more harmoniously with the environment. But because we’ve made such a mess we really need STEM to help us solve a lot of those problems. STEM can also help us develop technologies to help mitigate these really big issues around environment. And this applies in NZ too – it is really significant here, especially with our ‘clean green’ image.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I think it’s vital that women are in STEM. It’s unhealthy for it to be too male-dominated; women have a unique way of working together. We are able to bring people together and to work collaboratively together.
I think women in general can be more cautious - which I think is a good thing to have in research, like skepticism - and I think sometimes we are able to look at things in a different way; a more detailed way. We are able to look at all the different aspects that can affect technological development, such as the social aspects of that development, so having more women in STEM can provide a more holistic outlook on different sciences and technologies.
Pauline Harris (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine) is an astrophysicist researching and sharing Māori knowledge about tātai arorangi (astronomy) and maramataka (Nature's calendar).
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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