Sophie Fern is a biologist and storyteller based in Dunedin.
What do you do on an average work day?
There is no such thing as an average work day! This is great but also requires a lot of flexibility, juggling of priorities and being terribly organised about deadlines.
I often work as a Teaching Fellow at Otago University, which still pays most of my bills. If I’m working, I’ll be up early to get some writing and/or researching done before heading into town. I really enjoy the teaching and get so much from interacting with the students but I am hoping to spend a few years doing some more research.
My research interest is in the gap between what we tell the public about endangered species and what they understand. Some of the responses I’ve had tell me that we’re not doing a terribly good job of communicating our natural world outside of the bubble that area already interested. So, I also started producing and presenting a natural history radio show, imaginatively called The Natural History Radio Show, on Otago Access Radio. It is an excuse to chat about natural history with interesting people and get more information out there.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I grew up in Belgium and went to a British curriculum international school in Brussels. I got three A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths and an AS level in French. I then went to Bangor University in Wales and did a BSc Hons in Marine Biology followed by an MA in Biology from Boston University in the USA, where I was based at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. I then did a PGDip in Natural History Filmmaking in New Zealand.
I have had rheumatoid arthritis since I was 15, and there was some concern from one of the universities that I applied to that the degree may be too physical for me. And there have been times when joint pain and disability have stopped me from doing things. I don’t SCUBA dive as the symptoms of decompression sickness (also known as the bends) are joint pain, so I worry that I wouldn’t notice them. I can’t walk as far or carry as much as my colleagues and am not brilliant at getting on and off boats. Those same colleagues have, however, been endlessly supportive and my GP laughs when I ask her to sign the medical forms for a new adventure.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes. As an undergraduate I fell in love with working in the field and my postgraduate experiences in research and popular science writing come in useful every day.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Think about what you really enjoy and see how you can build a life which lets you do more of it. I have always wanted to have adventures that include islands and wildlife and write about them. And I like talking. Once in a while I’m able to do all of these at once.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I have had some pretty cool adventures. I joined the team researching the Chatham Island black robins and spent Christmas night that year sleeping out on the highest point of the island, watching the tītī and skua circling us as the sky got slowly darker.
Or doing the washing up in the boat galley in Port Ross in the Auckland Islands watching an entire harbour full of Southern Right Whales, just hanging out.
There was also the night I was sieving bioluminescent plankton on the deck of a huge sailing boat over the Chatham Rise with some students, where the lights in the net mirrored the Southern Cross in the sky above us.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) is important to New Zealand?
I’m in favour of engaging in any field of scholarship that speaks to you and don’t want to put STEM subjects or issues on a pedestal. We need smart and engaged people in all fields. I also love the collaborations that cross disciplines.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Just as we need people working in a diversity of fields, we need a diversity of people within STEM. As a biologist, I always think of diversity in the form of ecosystems. All of the components of an ecosystem, the animals, plants, fungi, soil, water, air (I could go on!) are the things that make it function. Monocultures just don’t exist. But, really, encouraging diversity is a matter of fairness. If STEM is the area in which you want to work, then this should be possible!
Sophie Fern describes herself as a biologist and storyteller and secretly believes that she is in charge of wonder and excitement about the natural world. You can follow her on Twitter: @sophiefern
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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