Dr Sarah Morgan is Project Manager for SouthSci, South Auckland's Participatory Science Platform.
What do you do on an average work day?
While my title is ‘project manager’ I think a more honest one would be ‘Problem Solving Organiser’, but maybe that’s what management is in general. The PSP pilot is hooking up community groups and scientists to start some research to answer a question that they’re interested in, and in South Auckland it has been amazing. On an average work day currently, I visit one or two of my project groups either for organising purposes or to attend an ‘event’ and gather photos and stories for reporting. I send and receive about a hundred emails: coordinating things, setting things up, investigating things to help out my groups or spreading the word/answering questions about the PSP.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I was your classic over-achieving nerd all through school. At primary level I was a librarian’s assistant then in high school I studied the core subjects and all three ‘sciences’, and was, of course, Academic Prefect. As a kid I was the one playing down the back of the garden mixing up magic potions (mud, leaves, flower buds…). This is probably an important distinction – magic potions, not experiments. My creative bent has led me on a weird and winding academic journey. At university I studied a range of subjects during undergrad, including management, philosophy and a minor in psychology. I majored in Genetics for Honours and PhD, and was in the ‘school’ system for 21 years.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
This is a tricky question. The oblique answer is ‘no’ – the science I’m working on currently with my groups is stuff like decomposition of kai waste and particulate pollution in the air – very different from molecular genetics or psychology.
But, in the case of using the skills and experience I gained during my education: yes, absolutely – every single day.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Diversity is the key to successful adulthood! Study the things you are genuinely interested in, who cares if they lead to a specific job in a specific field. A diverse range of experiences and interests will make you more attractive to any employer than someone with a direct and unvaried life path. Take up part-time jobs in random areas, do summer studentships every year in different fields, meet people from different walks of life than yours. Follow your interests – nothing else matters in life at the individual level. Some of my favourite people in science came from arts backgrounds, and I’ve been in situations where my science background has been beneficial to conversations varied from education to public policy.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Every job I get is the best I’ve ever had; this is in part opportunity, but also personality – I’m inclined to commit completely or not at all. So when I’m studying compost gases it’s the most fascinating topic I’ve ever encountered. When I’m researching sensors for measuring oxygenation level in running water, that’s the most fascinating topic ever. My friends frequently mock me for the words “that’s interesting” coming out of my mouth so often, but it's true – the world is interesting.
My last job was working with teachers and students to integrate health science research into the curriculum as a way to induce behavioural change. If you know why, you’re more likely to make a change, rather than the majority of current public health messaging which just tells people what to do.
Currently I’m much more hands-on, on the ground out in the community and I love it. I’m also at a higher conceptual level with regards to management of a project and that really appeals to my uber-organised, in-control personality type.
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?
It’s important to every single person alive. How can society progress positively without an increase knowledge and understanding driving it?! Science literacy in New Zealand is pretty bad, take the child vaccination and water fluoridation debates as examples.
I’m a firm believer in the sciences teaching you a way to live in the world, rather than a way to a specific career. The ability to question your environment and logically find your way to an answer is essential in our current society. We are bombarded with information, being able to find the facts you want, and filter the truth out of the rest, stops you from being hoodwinked in so many areas (medicine, nutrition, environmental change and protection, child rearing, world economy…)
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I’m going to be a bit picky here and say it’s important to have equality in access and attainment across all subjects and employment industries for all demographics – ethnicity and gender being the top two in the ‘suffering’ stakes. This comes back to the diversity point I raised earlier – better answers and outcomes come from diverse teams of people, who are able to consider more and wider angles to a problem/question/task.
The issues currently are both male-dominated careers being unattractive to women/ethnic minorities, and careers/workplaces being either overtly or subversively hostile to women/ethnic minorities. This is not an issue that can be solved overnight, most people find it very hard to overcome an entire childhood of conditioning, which is what we still see – in my parents’ generation, women were nurses or teachers or secretaries or stay-at-home mothers, and children were raised to this norm.
I used to think during my uni days that it was OK, our generation where women outnumbered men studying at uni, and ethnic diversity was increasing, would move up to fill the ranks of authority and even out the stats. However this hasn’t happened: something else needs to change to improve the diversity balance in positions of management and authority in our society.
Everyone should be able to live, study and work in whatever area they want (including traditional roles), and have the same chance at advancement and happiness as their peers.
So – if you want to work in a STEM career, do it.
Dr Sarah Morgan is the Project Manager for the Participatory Science Platform (PSP), South Auckland pilot, which is co-hosted by COMET Auckland and the Auckland STEM Alliance, and is an initiative under Curious Minds.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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