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  • If you search for images of scientists on the Science Learning Hub, you’ll find photos of women and men, some young, some old, a range of ethnicities – and yes, some will be in white lab coats. However, others will be in diving gear, on the top of a mountain or at an exotic overseas location! As diverse as scientists can be, they have many things in common – a desire to know more about the natural world and beyond and, for most of them, a desire to make the world a better place.

    ‘What if?’ science

    Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck from the University of Canterbury talks about how research for something that might not ever happen is still good for society.

    The nature of science – and scientists

    This article explores some of the reasons people choose a science-related career. It is also intended to dispel some myths about scientists and their work. You know the ones – that scientists are eccentric, older men working alone in the lab or that science is a dull, step-by-step process. On the contrary, the scientists featured on the Hub are the everyday kinds of people you meet at the supermarket, and they all have stories about what led them to and keeps them in science.

    Discover a bit more about what motivates scientists – and some things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    No day is ever the same. I can be looking at head lice, the internal structure of a marshmallow and a piece of a failed helicopter blade all in the same day!

    Liz Girvan, microscopist

    Are scientists born or are they created?

    Some people know from a very young age that they want to become scientists. Others find their passion for science later in life. For example, Jane Mullaney’s career path took her from busking to microbiology! Nick Roskruge began as a tree pruner and shearer before establishing Tāhuri Whenua – the National Māori Vegetable Growers’ Collective. As a teenager, Kate McGrath wanted to be a pilot, but she also wanted to save the world. As a student, Kate fell in love with chemistry, travelled the world and now works on nanomaterials.

    Scientists tend to be a curious and creative bunch

    Two traits – creativity and curiosity – feature quite a bit when we ask scientists what excites them about science. Most scientists have a strong desire to know or learn about the world around them. For Paul Nurse, the curiosity began as he walked to school, and it eventually led to a Nobel Prize! While observing massive thunderstorms as a commercial pilot, Peyman Zawar-Reza became interested in meteorology and now does atmospheric research. Abby Smith researched bryozoans purely out of curiosity, and 20 years later, this information is crucial to our understanding of ocean acidification.

    There are a number of New Zealand women scientists working at the intersection of people and nature. This series of articles – In Her Nature – tells the stories of 11 women who are researching the way we connect with the world around us.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    In Her Nature

    This represents a group of women who are studying the connections between people and the world around them. They come from the fields of science, social science and the arts – interdisciplinary researchers whose work varies in scope, scale and/or approach, but all contributing new knowledge to help improve conservation practice, policy and communication.

    Individual images courtesy of: Gabby O’Connor, Yolanda van Heezik, Couchsurfers NZ, Amber McEwan, ZEALANDIA, Julie Whitburn, Amanda Kirk, Monica Peters, Joanna Fielding, Victoria University of Wellington and NIWA.

    That curiosity to know more often brings out the creative nature of scientists. It’s a circular thing – both Rod Dunbar and Louis Schipper recognise that, to be creative in science, you first need to know a fair bit about your subject. Rod reckons once you’ve got the knowledge, it’s easy to make imaginative leaps. For Bronwyn Lowe, the magic and creativity of science allows her to push the boundaries and put new concepts together.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Kaipūtaiao Māori – Māori scientists

    In Aotearoa kaiputaiao Māori research a wide range of topics. Knowledge gained from their work is informing decisions about how to respond to complex issues such as climate change.

    Scientists are problem solvers

    While Kate McGrath wanted to save the world, many other scientists are willing to work on smaller, more achievable problems. For example, when dogs began to die on Auckland beaches, Paul McNabb and his colleagues had a mystery to solve. Gordon Sanderson also helps to solve mysteries. Gordon is an ophthalmologist, and he uses ocular forensics to find guilty parties in court cases.

    In New Zealand, primary industries are crucial for our economy. Mark Goodwin has been solving lots of problem related to our hard-working honey bees, and Peter Molan used their honey to help repair hard-to-heal wounds.

    But, you don’t need to be a ‘proper’ scientist to solve problems. Intermediate school student Ayla Hutchinson created the Kindling Cracker to make splitting firewood a lot safer!

    Rebekah’s research on fungi

    Rebekah Fuller describes the research she undertook into the traditional knowledge of New Zealand fungi for her master’s degree.

    Scientists and mātauranga Maori

    Many scientists combine their conventional science knowledge with mātauranga Maori knowledge. Sean Ogilvie, Kimberley Maxwell and Hemi Cumming share their perspectives of working in conventional science settings, while Te Kaka Keegan and Hector Busby took their field work to (literally) great lengths! Ocean Mercier, alongside her own research, highlights a range of other mahi with the Project Mātauranga video series.

    Scientist, researcher, tangata whenua

    Dr Shaun Ogilvie is a Māori business development consultant. He shares with us – from his Māori perspective as kaitiaki – his thoughts on being a scientist and how both science and Māori knowledge are important for the process of kaitiakitanga (protecting and caring for our environment).

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    These Connected articles are just a few that provide rich examples of mātauranga and pūtaiao: Learning from the tangata whenua (Dr James Ataria – environmental scientist), Black is back (Rangi Te Kanawa – textile conservator), Listening to the land (Dr Pauline Harris – astrophysicist) and Counting kākahi (Hannah Rainforth – water scientist).

    Scientists work in industry

    There are numerous science careers in industry, too. Steve Matthews collaborates with engineers in Tokoroa. John Meyer, a design expert at Robinson Seismic, helps to protect buildings from earthquake damage. Bruce Peterson may call himself a ‘backyard engineer’, but he’s changing the top-dressing business. Innovators Richard Williams and Martin Markotsis have found ways to turn wastes into environmentally friendly products.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Aotearoa in space – our experts

    Aotearoa's space sector has a diversity of career opportunities. The Hub was fortunate to film a handful of experts. Their voices add incredible depth to our resources.

    Students becoming scientists

    All students need an understanding of science to solve everyday problems and to help make informed decisions about issues that involve science. In reality, only some students actually become professional scientists.

    If you are interested in being a scientist or working in a science-related career, scientists have some practical advice to offer. Most recommend taking science and maths subjects in high school, but they also emphasise the importance of being able to communicate. Greg Bodeker is a strong advocate for good writing and oral language skills, while Catherine Koleda values English and the humanities as part of a rounded education. Whatever subjects you study, Eli van Houten thinks that keenness and enthusiasm are essential attributes.

    It’s more than just school work, though. Clubs, hobbies and getting involved in community citizen science projects can offer practical experiences and opportunities to work with knowledgeable people. Kelvin Barnsdale and Warren McNabb had early hobbies that turned into careers. And don’t forget social media – scientists recommend reading one article a day from sites like Quantamagazine or Science Daily.

    A science career isn’t all about research. Science communicator Rachel Douglas explains why she has the best job in the world, whereas marine videographer Steve Hathaway would argue his job is better.

    The final word, however, goes to Craig Rodger – watch as he explains why he loves his job.

    Work highlights

    Professor Craig Rodger, head of the Space Physics group at the University of Otago, identifies the two main highlights that keep him enthused and passionate about his work.

    Related content

    The article Working in the space sector highlights the diversity of jobs and opportunities available in this fast-growing field.

    In the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, meet New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature.

    Leah Adlam works as an environmental scientist. In this set of short videos, Leah explains how a film got her interested in science and what it’s like to study science.

    Activity ideas

    The activity Scientist introduction encourages students to take a closer look at a scientist’s background and work. Ask students to choose a scientist of interest to them from this article. Students can find out more about the scientists and their work by typing their names in the Hub’s search function. Use the questions in the activity as a beginning framework to ‘introduce’ the scientists to the class.

    Do some blue-sky thinking about how and where tamariki and rangatahi might see themselves in the space industry. Can I work in the space industry? uses videos, statements and personal dispositions to explore their space in this growing industry.

    Like graphic novels? To be a scientist is a ready-to-use cross-curricular teaching resource. It uses the Connected graphic biography Betty Batham: Biologist. Betty was a ground-breaking female scientist ahead of her time.

    Useful links

      Published 9 March 2018, Updated 28 October 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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