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Rebecca Priestley

Rebecca is the prizewinning author of several books, writer for the Listener and Associate Professor in Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington.

Rebecca PriestleyWhat do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?

I don’t think I have an "average" work day – every day is different!

Most days, after walking the dog and making sure the kids are awake and starting to get ready for school, I bus to my office at the Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington.

Yesterday I spent five hours in a Antarctic Science Platform workshop with scientists and stakeholders from around the country, then raced to a meeting with two science communication students.

In my lunch and morning tea breaks – and once I was home – I managed to deal to a few emails (while twice as many as I dealt with came in), have a few text conversations with my colleague Rhian Salmon, and write an abstract and biography for a talk I’m giving next month.

My ideal day would always involve some writing time but that’s not always possible, so I tend to binge write when I get the chance.

What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?

In my senior years at high school I studied English and maths and all the sciences on offer: biology, physics, chemistry. But my “best” subject was English, and I didn’t quite know what I wanted to study at university, so I took a year off, and trained as a meteorological technician for the MetService.

The next year I started Victoria University where I worked towards a BSc in geology followed by an honours year in physical geography. I loved studying earth sciences but needed a break from university and that’s when I started working as a science writer, which was my focus for more than a decade.

I was in my 30s, and pregnant with my first child, when I started a PhD in the history and philosophy of science (three children, two books, and nine years later I finished it).

Then in 2017 I did an MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Before I started my PhD I did some papers towards a BA … who knows, perhaps I’ll finish that one day.

Rebecca with a large piece of pumice

Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?

Well, I am working with a lot of earth scientists on both the NZ SeaRise programme and the Antarctic Science Platform, I’ve published books, given lectures, and am supervising a PhD on the history of science in New Zealand, and my next book is a creative non-fiction work I started during my MA - so yes, very much so. 

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?

When I was in my early 20s I started writing lists of what I wanted to do – and they always had “go to Antarctica in a professional capacity, get a PhD, and publish a book” on them. I was in my early 40s before I’d achieved those things, but I think it was really helpful to have some long-term goals, things I was really passionate about doing.

One key thing was I didn’t have a “career pathway” set out – I knew to some extent where I wanted to go, but I didn’t have any fixed ideas about how to get there. And that’s where the fun comes in. I think it’s important to be open to opportunities. When these opportunities come up, ask yourself if they’ll take you closer to or further away from where you want to go.

In the medium term, if you’re planning on going to university, make sure at least part of your programme of study (preferably most of it!) is something you think is fun and super interesting. University is a chance to get in depth with something that you’re really interested in, I don’t think you should think of it as training for a job – you’ll probably end up in a job you’d never imagined anyway. 

Rebecca in Antarctica's Dry Valley

What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?

Where do I start? Camping in the transantarctic mountains? Snorkelling with Galapagos sharks next to Raoul Island? Collecting floating pumice from a recently erupted underwater volcano?

Being a science writer has given me the opportunity to visit some incredible places. A definite highlight for me was visiting Antarctica for the first time in 2011, on an Antarctica New Zealand media programme.

The following year, I got to travel, on the HMNZS Canterbury, to the Kermadec Islands with a group of scientists sponsored by the Pew Environment Group. I’ve been back to Antarctica twice since. I’m a nervous traveller – flying in a giant cargo plane to the bottom of the planet, and being confined to a ship for 12 days do cause a bit of anxiety – but they were wonderful adventures.

But by the time I started getting opportunities like these (I wish they’d come when I was younger!) I had young children, so it’s always a juggle and a fair bit of guilt about leaving them at home while I travel.

Rebecca with 2016 Prime Minister Bill English

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?  He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?

As citizens, we have decisions to make about some really important issues facing our future, around climate change, new technologies, and more.

Science doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, but it’s got a big role to play. We need scientists working on these problems, and we need citizens who can engage in meaningful debate and make informed decisions.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?

If we want science to be involved in tackling important global, national and local issues, we need a diverse range of experiences and perspectives and voices in the debate.

We need to do more than get “more women” into STEM, we need to ensure we’re creating workplaces and discussions that don’t exclude or intimidate people because of their gender, ethnicity, cultural identity, disability or sexual identity.

Rebecca with another science writer, Marcus Chown

Rebecca is the prizewinning author of several books, writer for the Listener and founder of the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund. She is also Associate Professor in Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington.

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

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