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Susan Ellis

Susan Ellis is a Principal Scientist (Geophysicist) at GNS Science in Wellington's Hutt Valley. 

Out in the field in Papua New Guines

What do you do on an average work day?
Average??? What’s that! Every day is different.

My speciality is studying the Earth by using computer codes to model diverse things like earthquakes, mountains, rifts and volcanoes. It’s a bit like “playing god” and is more fun than computer gaming! I can spend the whole day seriously immersed in mathematical coding and testing of problems, or writing scientific papers or proposals; other days I interact and brainstorm with teams of other scientists, in my institute or at overseas conferences.

Best of all, for part of each year, I leave my desktop computer behind and go out to look at the “real earth” in the field. Fieldwork has taken me to Antarctica; all over New Zealand installing scientific instruments to measure earth deformation; high up into the Southern Alps looking at rocks; and in Papua New Guinea travelling around by boat and getting dropped off on remote mountain ranges by helicopter.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I studied mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology; I also studied music, in fact at one stage I considered becoming a full-time musician. But in the end, I did a first degree in mathematics and physics. Afterwards I specialized in geophysics because an opportunity came up to work as a field assistant studying Mt Erebus volcano in Antarctica, which was an amazing experience. I then moved to Canada to complete a PhD in geological oceanography.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Physics and mathematics, yes. I also studied music and biology at school. Music is about communicating with others and that has actually been very important in my scientific career….  Lots of scientists are also musicians. And I have retained my fascination with the natural world, in fact in my spare time I volunteer to work on a project restoring kiwi to the forests near Wellington.

I would say that a good grounding in maths and physics was essential to the career path I have taken. But also lots of extra-curricular activities I “studied” when I was a teenager; for example, I love tramping and roughing it in the bush, which is an ideal attribute for enjoying fieldwork in remote places.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Follow your passions, but make sure that you have a good grounding in all the basics first! Languages, maths, science, technology and creative arts.  You never know where your path will take you. Above all, have persistence, believe in yourself, and broadcast your enthusiasm; then opportunities will come your way.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
Well, obviously fieldwork; seeing the beautiful ice-fields and mountains of Antarctica for the first time; socialising in local villages and tramping through the bush of Papua New Guinea; waking up at 6am to a beautiful day out on a small boat by a remote tropical island; flying across ice and scree-strewn mountains by helicopter, thinking: ‘wow, I’m getting paid to do this!’

There are other less dramatic (but equally important) highlights. The meeting of minds at scientific meetings; working with bright young students on research topics, bouncing ideas back and forth. A lot of laughter, a lot of arguments, a lot of sharing with other curious minds.

Finally, I love that “aha” moment when some problem I’ve been thinking about crystallises and I figure out something new.

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?
Science and technology are vital to New Zealand.  Without scientists, we would never have unlocked our agricultural and economic potential. We live in a very dynamic earth environment; New Zealand is above sea level because it is a boundary between tectonic plates, with earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain ranges and rift valleys. It’s important that all of us - scientists or laypeople- understand our environment because of issues like global warming, pollution, and the increasing population living in areas prone to natural hazards like tsunami and earthquakes.  Without science we are flying blind.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Everyone should have the opportunity to follow their passion. When I was young, there were very few women working in science and technology, yet they were subjects that fascinated me. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t people like me pursuing these topics; it was only later I realised that back then (1970s) there was a glass ceiling firmly in place. It’s pleasing to see a more equal representation of humanity doing science now, with differing perspectives, and acting as role models for the budding scientists to come.

Susan Ellis is a Principal Scientist (Geophysicist) at GNS Science

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