Dr Victoria Metcalf is the National Coordinator of the Participatory Science Platform in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
What do you do on an average work day?
I get to hear interesting and exciting ideas that people want to discuss with me on projects that could fit into this new platform or find out what the project managers working in each region have been hearing in terms of ideas directly from their communities. This is such a buzz, especially when we think about additional benefits emerging from this new way of conducting community science - such as networks and connections being formed to bring groups together with similar ideas within and between regions, so they feel part of a bigger team and able to do more. The ideas coming out already are incredible and I am fizzing about where this will head.
Most weeks I travel somewhere to do with the project, sometimes multiple places- and in doing so I meet lots of interesting people and see interesting places. I got to talk with a school class about their ideas recently in New Plymouth, spent a hilarious three hours the other day with the bugman Ruud Kleinpaste and also got all dressed up to attend the official launch for the Otago pilot at the Otago Museum. In the near future I’ll be visiting projects in action – it might be a group looking at stream restoration, a group building a robot, or another investigating how to make homes healthier. Viewing NZ from the air and talking to people fills me with many “I love Aotearoa” moments.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I enjoyed all my subjects at school but focused at high school on the sciences and actually on Latin and English. I kept doing English at uni but quickly discovered a strong love for biochemistry and genetics in my first year and that’s what grabbed me all the way through an Honours Degree and then through my PhD in Biochemistry.
I also really wanted to work on animals, so I achieved that during my PhD- studying tuatara and a whole bunch of fish and other reptiles. And that’s where I first also started working on Antarctic fish, which has been most of my research career focus since, because they are fascinating.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, because what I am doing now requires a strong understanding of science and scientific processes and also great communication skills- something I developed during my studies but wasn’t necessarily pushed. Learning critical thinking skills was a huge part of my studies and that is a major part of what I do now- thinking about best approaches and innovative methods.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Keep your options open by thinking broadly about your interests. Science is a part of everything we do, so I would highly recommend maintaining some science for as long as possible but also doing a range of subjects. Seek out men and women that you admire and ask them for advice, especially in careers that you feel might be of interest and pursue something you enjoy. A good mentor should be responsive and available. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to take time off between school and uni – life experience is valuable.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Being there for the world’s first liver biopsy on a tuatara at Auckland Zoo as part of my PhD. Winning a scholarship to the Antarctic during my PhD and getting to head to the Ross Sea on an ecotourism trip for a month- this was a life-changing moment for me and steered the direction of my research. And the six other trips to the Antarctic and subAntarctic that have followed, including as a cruise director twice.
Winning a suite of awards that allowed me to travel and work around the world and gain a lot of experience and build networks. All the talks and other forms of science communication I have done- because meeting the public and hearing their questions and ideas is such a privilege, as is sharing mine.
Seeing that lightbulb moment in a student when teaching or supervising. Being the subject of a TV doco- Extraordinary Kiwis down in Antarctica and securing my current position, which is perfect for me and really allows me to use my skill-set in a truly exciting time for NZ science.
Why do you believe engaging in Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics (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 is a part of our present and our future. Many of today’s most complex decisions require people to be engaged with science and technology (e.g. climate change). Being informed of anything STEM is empowering and everyone is curious inside. Let’s use those curious minds.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
We need diversity! And we need greater balance to lessen some of the biases that exist. Women have a lot to offer STEM- they are just as capable as men, but may have different approaches. Women in general tend to have a highly collaborative way of working and this is of benefit when dealing with complex problems that may require a group of scientists etc coming together. Women are often great communicators and more than ever, we need those in STEM to be able to communicate well.
Dr. Victoria Metcalf is the National Coordinator of the Participatory Science Platform in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. Because her job title is so long, a school class got to choose a new one for her and ‘Queen of Curiosity’ won in a vote.
Watch a video of Victoria explaining participatory science.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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