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Abby Smith

Abby Smith is a Professor of Marine Science at the University of Otago.

Abby Smith people behind the science

What did you study at school? And after high school?
I grew up in the Lexington, Massachusetts, USA, and I just did what you normally did: science, maths, music, English, history, PE.  My favourite topics were English and Earth Science.  The most useful thing I studied, though, was typing!  I can now touch-type 80 words a minute and believe me that’s useful.

I went to University at a liberal arts college in Waterville Maine, called Colby College.  It was small (1600 students) and you had to study a bit of everything.  I started off majoring in English, switched to Comparative Religions, tried Biology and Geology, then finally got a double degree in Biology and Geology.

When I finished at Colby I realised I did not know anything, so I went back to Uni and did a Masters Degree.  That’s when I really started going in a direction, towards a career in marine geology.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Everything turns out to be useful (maybe not so much the Comparative Religions).  My ability to write is useful every day, my background in marine biology and geology informs my current research, and my experience being an uncertain person who didn’t know what she wanted to do is very helpful in advising students now.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
NUMBER ONE: Aim for what you love.  Follow your passion.  You will always do better if you are doing something you enjoy.  Do not worry about the practical side yet (jobs, money).  Just study what you love, and if you are great at it, something will come along.

NUMBER TWO: Slow down and take it easy.  There is a clear and obvious trade-off between workload and achievement.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew!  Take fewer papers and get better marks.  Even if the degree takes you longer, it’s worth it to have As and not Bs.  Being driven and working all hours is not the same as success.

REMEMBER: It’s hard to plan life.  So many things change and move around.  I was all set to study oceanography in Alaska, and then I fell and hurt my hip and was in a wheel chair for a year, so I ended up studying closer to home.  Then I met a guy, married him, and followed him to New Zealand!  You can’t plan that stuff.   So it’s good to have a plan, but it’s better to have a bunch of possible plans, and a flexible attitude.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
I loved doing my PhD research at Waikato -- discovering New Zealand, and working non-stop on my own project, becoming an expert, becoming a real scientist.  It was a great time.

It took me forever to get a proper job.  The day I finally held a full-time permanent academic appointment was 18 years after I started working.  That was a pretty good day.

At Otago when you are promoted to Professor, they ask you to give a lecture to the University and the Public about your work.  My Inaugural Professorial Lecture (in 2016) was great fun, and a chance to say thank you to all the people who supported me through the years.  You can watch it on-line here if you wish:

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?
I don’t think anybody should choose what they do with their life because it’s of benefit to New Zealand.  A educated and happy population is important to New Zealand.  People who think like a scientist should do science.  People who think like an artist, should do art.  People who think like a doctor should do medicine.  Smart people who want to make good decisions and live a long and happy life should make sure they are widely educated.  People should know a bit about art and music, a bit about literature and history, a bit about maths and science, a bit about economics and trade, a bit about health and biology, a bit about everything -- and speak a second language if possible. 

Having said that, good decisions are usually underpinned by good evidence, and it is often a STEM approach that provides good evidence.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity is strength.  Any discipline that is limited to a single group/culture/gender is limited by their underlying assumptions.  Science (and other disciplines) benefit from including all kinds of people from all kinds of places who speak all kinds of languages and bring all kinds of thinking and culture to their work.  Good people who like this kind of thing should be able to succeed in it, no matter their background, gender, culture, orientation, religion or other irrelevancies.

Abby Smith is a Professor of Marine Science at the University of Otago.

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