Jean Fletcher is a PhD student at the University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication.
What do you do on an average work day?
At the moment I am conducting research to see if and how stories can be used to change the way people understand, think about and make decisions regarding climate change. Being a PhD student means I get to pick questions I think are really interesting and important but that no one knows the answers to yet, and then I get to do experiments to try and answer these questions.
Because I am still in the early stages of my research project, I spend most days reading research journal articles to find out what other researchers have done and what they have discovered. I use this information to help me think about my own research. The next step for me is to collect data. I will do this by designing online surveys as well as interviewing people. Once this data is collected and analysed I will write up what I’ve found and submit it to research journals so that other scientists can use this knowledge when designing their own experiments.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I grew up in Canada and studied a lot of different things in high school, including Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths (Statistics, Calculus, and Geometry), Music, History, and English literature.
After high school I did an undergraduate degree in Genetics. My Honours project looked at plant resistance to diseases. At this time I realized I loved telling people about all the cool science research that was going on, so I moved to Australia and did a Master’s Degree in science communication. Then in 2015, I moved to Dunedin, New Zealand to continue studying science communication.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
My studies were directly related to what I do now because they taught me how to do scientific research and then helped me refine my research skills. I have also found that some of the classes (like Psychology) – which I took for fun but never thought I would use – have recently become very important to understanding my current research.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
My first piece of advice would be not to limit yourself and to be open to change. Throughout both high school and university I studied a wide variety of classes because I have a lot of different interests. I have also changed my mind many times. When I first started high school I wanted to be an anthropologist, and then in grade 11 I fell in love with organic chemistry, so I thought I would be a chemist. However, in my first year of university I realized that I liked genetics much more. Now I study science communication which uses knowledge from many different fields including, science, education, psychology, marketing, risk management, documentary film etc. For this reason, I am glad that I had such a broad background. Not limiting yourself is important because you never know what new jobs will be invented. I remember in the four years I studied genetics, lectures kept talking about new jobs that had not really existed when I started.
My second piece of advice would be do something that interests you. There will always be days when work is difficult or not fun, but if you are really interested in what it you are doing then you will probably have less bad days, and many days will actually be enjoyable.
My last piece of advice - don’t think that you are not smart enough to study something you are really interested in. A lot of PhD students don’t think they are smart enough to do what they do (but of course they are). Interest and hard work can get you through a lot. Also – and this is really hard– don’t get too discouraged by other people. Once I had a university professor make me feel like I was really bad at doing science experiments but she was wrong and I am actually very good at it.
Basically don’t limit yourself, do something that interests you, and don’t let yourself or others discourage you from doing something you really want to.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I think what I have enjoyed the most so far is having the chance to live, travel and make friends from around the world. So far, I’ve lived and studied in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve gone to conferences in Colorado, Brisbane, and Wellington and hopefully I will go to Istanbul in 2016.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
The STEM fields are fields that I believe can help New Zealand. I believe they will make important contributions to finding solutions to some of the country’s tough problems (such as climate change and healthcare). I think engaging or educating yourself in STEM will allow you to participate in some of these really important discussions and decisions that New Zealand will make in the future.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Why shouldn’t more women be working in STEM? It’s fun and challenging (in a good way). I totally recommend it.
Jean Fletcher is a PhD Candidate (student) at the University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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