Renee (NZ-born Chinese) works as a paediatrician, child health researcher and writer.
What do you do on an average work day?
It depends on what day it is! I work in different hospitals around Aotearoa and Australia so some days I wake up in a different city to the one I usually live in. Some days I go to a hospital and do a ward round seeing all the sick kids and babies that need to be in hospital.
Other days I go to my office and do a clinic which is about working with families to solve problems such as kids not being able to move their joints enough, or being angry at school. On other days I’ll be reading the latest scientific research, especially around my research interest which is in child development (as part of Growing Up in New Zealand).
After the usual ‘work day’ as a doctor (the day sometimes takes all night as well!) I go home, see my family, cook dinner and we do the family stuff. In the evenings and on weekends I like to do writing, rehearse plays with my friends, or plan the latest community arts events I’ll run.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Calculus, Statistics and English. They’ve all come in handy in different ways, but one of the things I regret dropping after Year 11 was languages. Languages can really stretch your brain in different ways and allow you to adapt quickly to new situations and understand things from a different framework.
After high school I studied medicine, and after that I worked as a doctor but also took time out to travel around the world as a backpacker. That was a huge part of my education.
When I became a specialist paediatrician (after some more exams) I took time out from my medical career to do some postgraduate study in the arts. It’s always worth it to listen to your heart and follow your passions, and it’s okay for those passions to change.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
It was, but after doing both medicine and arts, I believe that academic study is only one possible route to developing a career.
Medicine and arts both have a culture of ‘learning by doing’. Medicine is more of a lifelong apprenticeship than just a professional degree. And in many fields of the arts, the only way to become an expert is to learn by doing.
A few years ago I was asked if I wanted to write an opera. I was really scared because I had not written one before and there are no books or courses. But I found some people who could guide me, and a really wonderful composer partner, and lots of other support from the Auckland Arts Festival who believed I could do it. It turned into this magical project that become much bigger than my original story.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Follow your passions. Don’t let the fact that no one has tried it put you off.
Don’t think you don’t have the skills – you can always grow them, if you ask for help from the right people. Get a group of supportive mentors around you – at high school I had some teachers who really believed in me, and at each stage of my career there have been people stepping forward to offer their help.
Stay humble because it’s when you don’t believe you have the skill set yet, that you push yourself towards the goal even harder, staying alert for stumbling blocks along the way. But also have confidence that you will make it.
Also, I have a young family, and that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing my dreams. That’s because I talk with my family about how they can support me and I try to include them in a lot of the things that I do. You might get people saying that you can’t do certain things when you become a mother. Prove them wrong.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
In medicine, it's becoming a paediatrician and working in hospitals in many countries, which means I can bring my learnings from each centre to the next one. I’m like a bee with pollen!
In research, my work as one of the researchers on Growing Up In New Zealand, which will hopefully help us understand how to support New Zealand children to be the best they can be. It’s exciting because it stretches across many different fields (health, psychology, education, culture and social) and is very collaborative with other fields that can support us and put the research into practice, such as policy. The scientists on Growing Up in New Zealand also talk to scientists on many similar studies around the world, which means that what we learn will contribute to international knowledge and practice.
Every new project I do in arts is exciting and breaks new ground for me! Currently, I’m working with friends to make four different versions of the same play in four different languages, to show how different cultures in NZ are both different and alike.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
I believe in STEAM – adding Arts in there. Arts and Science are not that different – I am proof you can use the same set of skills for both.
Engaging with these fields and across fields will allow collaboration and problem solving in new ways. It’s the only way we can solve some of the big issues facing New Zealand and the world – for example, climate change, the move from an agriculture-based economy to an ideas- and tech-based economy, adapting to a population where there is far greater diversity of culture and language, and making sure we have enough food and water for the future.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women are half the population! Their brains are needed! Also there is some evidence to suggest that women approach problems and teamwork differently, so it’s good to have a mix.
Renee is a NZ-born Chinese who works as a paediatrician, child health researcher and writer.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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