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Susan Rapley

Susan blogs about topics exploring disability, autism, psychology & neurobiology, based on both her PhD (neuroscience) knowledge and life experience.

Susan RapleyWhat do you do on an average work day?

Currently I’m not officially employed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a work day!

My top priorities on any given day are working on manuscript and PhD amendments (the final part of the PhD process).

I’m also keeping an eye out for jobs to apply for, opportunities related to science communication, and researching or writing for two personal science communication projects I’m trying to get off the ground.

However, I’ve also been taking a post-PhD recovery period, trying to be kind and not push myself too much. My PhD experience was a relatively difficult time – I developed coeliac disease at the start and found out at the end that I’m autistic and was experiencing extreme cognitive burnout.

The opportunity for a career break while wrapping up my thesis has been a blessing in disguise, but I’m itching to get into the next phase now.

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

At high school I took a mix of science, maths and history/English. I carried this through in my undergraduate degree with a mix of genetics, biochemistry and psychology alongside history and literature papers.

It took three years and a couple of failed papers before I settled on psychology as my major. In my honours year I focused on behaviour, child development and neuroscience.

I finally rounded out my studies with a Master’s and PhD falling in the broad field of psychoneuroendocrinology – the study of the effects of endocrine peptides [protein 'building blocks' as a class of hormones] on brain processes and behaviour.

Susan with her favourite booksWas your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes and no!

Everything has directly contributed to a wide range of transferrable skills which I’m now trying to apply to science communication. But PhD training mostly teaches you to communicate your work with other scientists, not non-scentists. Now I’m finding myself delving deep into my memory banks of earlier study and experience to communicate a wider variety of topics to a more varied audience.

Research skills are useful for any new endeavour though – if you can figure out what information you need and where to find it, anything becomes possible!

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

Follow what you’re interested in at the moment. Nothing you do early in your working life will be the last thing you do! Whatever you choose to do will give you skills and lessons about yourself that you can carry through and build on whenever you move to the next stage.

I gained many skills that have helped me work towards my PhD from a job as a receptionist, in addition to the specific educational requirements that you have to fulfil as a PhD student. I also learned a great deal about teaching, working in teams and communicating effectively from my training in how to teach exercise and ballroom dance classes. This really helped me as a teaching assistant during grad school.

You might change your mind, choose to start or leave a course of study or job at any time. But if you’re not doing something you’re interested in, you won’t gain as much for either yourself or your skill set.

Susan at the beach

What are some of your career highlights so far?

I started telling people at about three or four years old I was going to be a doctor, so finally finishing my PhD was pretty amazing!

I also had several opportunities to travel within New Zealand and overseas with my research, which might never have happened without conferences and work to present at them.

I loved teaching during grad school, too. It’s an interesting period where you are becoming an expert in something, but also remember how the same material sounded like gobbledy-gook the first time you heard it. Getting to help others through that stage to understanding - and eventually seeing them become independent and thrive in their own work - is a wonderful thing.

Susan with her partner

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

We now live in a society hugely shaped by - and dependent on - science, tech, engineering, mathematics and medicine. In the past 20-odd-years, we’ve gone from a time where computers were limited to classrooms and libraries, to a time where you can purchase a computer for $50 and it fits in your pocket.

Within New Zealand, we currently face unique conservation challenges like the spread of kauri dieback and continuing preservation of our native birds. Recently, we’ve seen the occurrence of Mycoplasma bovis [a disease that affects cows, therefore our dairy and beef industries] which will have a huge impact on parts of our economy.

Our aging population is very soon going to have a much greater dependence on the medical system and assistive technologies. All these things can seem big, far away and like they don’t affect us individually, but in fact influence things like the cost of daily living, what services and products we as individuals have access to, and the environment surrounding us.

We engage with STEM on a daily basis, whether we notice it or not. Staying informed about related issues helps us make better choices, when we can, about how we can make a difference on an individual basis.

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

Roughly speaking, women are 50% of the population. And yet the data indicates that women rarely make up 50% of the STEM workforce – with the exception of some areas that are traditionally dominated by women.

This means that all of us are missing out on progress that could be brought about by new ideas from half of humanity. If science progresses both by asking new questions and finding new ways to solve them, then we’re missing out on a whole lot of them by not having more women in STEM fields.

Susan recently completed a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Canterbury and is currently working on independent science communication projects while job hunting. She writes disability and autism through a scientific lens at Neurosquared & tweets at @neurosquared. She does the same about neuroscience, psychology and all sorts of related topics at Science Around You. Follow Susan on Twitter at: @sciaroundyou.

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

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