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Siouxsie Wiles

Siouxsie and her team at the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab make nasty bacteria glow in the dark to understand how they make us sick and to find new medicines.

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What do you do on an average work day?

As an academic my job involves research, teaching, service and administration. That means that what I do each day is quite variable, but mostly involves talking to people or writing things. Some days I’ll be teaching undergraduate or postgraduate students about infectious diseases, other days I’ll be meeting with my Masters and PhD students to talk about their experiments and their results.

I also spend a lot of time writing funding applications to try to get money so my lab can afford to do the experiments we want to do, as well applying for permission from various government and university committees so that our work can go ahead.

Writing funding applications is the hardest part of my job, as most of the time I’m not successful. This can be really depressing, as I put a lot of time and effort into these applications. But there is only enough money to fund 1 or 2 of every ten applications, so I’m not the only one who doesn’t get any money. Dealing with the constant rejection is really hard, as it makes you start to doubt whether your ideas are any good.

One idea I’ve really struggled to get funding for is to try to find new antibiotics that kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Bacteria are becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotics that normally kill them. This means that in the future it won’t be possible to treat some infectious diseases, and common medical procedures and treatments we take for granted, like operations and chemotherapy for cancer, will become life-threateningly dangerous to perform.

We think New Zealand fungi might be a good source of new antibiotics, and I’ve been applying to various charities and government funding agencies for the last 5 years to do this work. The Charity Cure Kids have been able to give us some of the money we need for the last few years, and last year did a crowdfunding campaign to raise money from the New Zealand public to keep our experiments going for another year. It was amazing to see so many people interested in our research and I’m often stopped on the street and asked how our search for new antibiotics is going.

I also spend quite a bit of my time visiting schools and community groups to talk about microbes and the antibiotic resistance crisis. Many people don’t realise our rates for many infectious diseases are really high in New Zealand, so it’s good to get people talking and thinking about this. I even spent one of my summers writing a book about the issue. It’s called Antibiotic resistance: the end of modern medicine?  

What did you study at school? And after high school?

I went to school in the UK, and studied chemistry, physics, biology, philosophy and psychology. It was biology I was most interested in, so that’s what I ended up studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I majored in medical microbiology, which is the study of infectious microbes. During one of my summer holidays I got a scholarship to do some research in the lab of one of my lecturers. I was making tobacco plants glow in the dark, and it got me completely hooked on research.

My lecturer told me I should think about doing a PhD after my BSc. I didn’t know what a PhD was, so I had to ask around. It turns out that you study for a few more years and then write a big book called a thesis and if you pass, you get to call yourself Dr! I decided to give it a try and ended up doing a PhD making bacteria glow in the dark to study industrial pollution. At the end of my PhD I decided I really like the making bacteria glow part, but not so much the pollution part, so my next move was to do more research but this time making nasty bacteria glow in the dark. And that has become my career!

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes. Both my undergraduate degree and PhD led to me combining the two things I’m really interested in – creatures that glow in the dark and understanding how bacteria make us sick.

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What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Being a scientist in academia is equal parts really really rewarding and really really challenging. As well as the lack of funds to actually do science, people will make judgements about you based on your gender and what you look like. Just my hair has nearly cost me both my PhD place and a university job. But that just made me determined to keep my hair pink - to show that it has nothing to do with my abilities as a scientist!

I think it’s really important for young women to have good mentors and sponsors who will help them navigate their way through the system. A good support network is also crucial. I am surrounded by an amazing group of women, and we support each other through the hard times, and celebrate each other’s successes in the good times. But I think the most important advice I have is for young women to take care of themselves and to do what’s right for them.

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What are some of your career highlights so far?

I was really fortunate to receive one of three Sir Charles Hercus Fellowships from the Health Research Council of New Zealand which enabled me to move to New Zealand from the UK. 

I have also won awards for both my research and my science communication activities. A recent highlight was being named a finalist for the New Zealander of the Year for 2018. It’s humbling to think that someone I don’t know decided to nominate me for such an honour, and that the judging panel thought I deserved to be a finalist.

But my biggest career highlight is working with the incredible people in my lab and watching my Masters and PhD students grow into amazing scientists.

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

New Zealand is quite unusual in having very high rates of infectious diseases for a developed country. With the rise in antibiotic-resistance, this means we face a very challenging future.

We need science to help develop new treatments and vaccines to protect us from these diseases, but we also need to work together with researchers from other disciplines, as well as communities and the government to address the underlying causes of why our rates are so high. This means asking hard questions about what we value as a country – economic success at any cost, or the health of our people and our land.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

It’s important to have not just more women, but more people from under-represented groups and with different life experiences, because when we have a diverse group of people working together on a problem, there are differences in ideas and opinions and the work is all the better for it. 

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Siouxsie is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland where she heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab. She and her team make nasty bacteria glow in the dark to understand how they make us sick and to find new medicines. Siouxsie also loves painting with bacteria, playing with Lego, cycling, and hanging out with her family. Siouxsie tweets as @SiouxsieW

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

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