Dr Heather Hendrickson is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biosciences at Massey University, Auckland Campus and Chair of the Outreach Committee of the Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.
What do you do on an average work day?
I am a research scientist studying microbial evolution. I also teach at Massey University and I am active in Science Communication.
A typical day at work might include the following:
9:00am: One on one meetings with my post graduate students to talk to them about his or her research progress over the past week.
10:00am: A committee meeting of some sort. These can range from reviewing our science programmes as a university to organising outreach projects or discussing logo designs.
11:00am: A call from a journalist who is interested in some aspect of science that I know about or have volunteered to find out about.
12:00pm: Lunch, often with colleagues but sometimes in front of my desk.
1:00pm: Attending a research seminar on a topic such as Physics, Biology or Computer Science.
2:00pm: Working at the computer on either a manuscript or my own research studying bacterial genomes.
4:00pm: Helping a postgraduate student to use our fluorescent microscope to do his or her research.
6:00pm: Teaching a lecture about genetics or microbiology.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I was a very lazy high school student who would only do homework in classes that I enjoyed. I can't say that I recommend this tactic. My favourite topics were English and Biology.
After high school I went to a very small University before transferring to a much larger one. At University I got much more interested in Evolution and Genetics and I eventually chose Biology as my major. I joined a Microbiology laboratory during the summer before my final year. I loved doing bench work and that experience completely changed my direction in life.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, I still do biology and I teach biology papers. The undergraduate research that I became involved in was perfect for me because it united my interest in evolution with real experiments in the laboratory. You can actually watch evolution happening in the laboratory and then you can use DNA sequencing to find out exactly what mutations were favoured by natural selection. That combination of experiment and analysis is amazing. I went on to learn how to use computer programming to look at the effect of evolution in completely sequenced DNA as a PhD student.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
If you think that some aspect of biology or genetics is interesting, then you really must try out some laboratory research if you can. Doing research bears very little resemblance to the things that you will do in most undergraduate classes (memorising facts and using them in different situations).
Creativity, persistence and problem solving are key in laboratory work. It can be really fun! An undergraduate degree that involves real research and quantitative skills will show employers in many different sorts of industries that you have learned how to take something seriously and apply yourself. That is really valuable to most employers!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I was a Long Term Fellow of the Human Frontier of Science Organisation (HFSO) while I did my post-doctoral work in the Biochemistry Department at Oxford University. At the end of the fellowship I was able to go to the HFSO meeting and meet all of the other fellows. That was awesome because we had all moved from one country to another to do interdisciplinary research and the things that people were working on and talking about were really interesting. Lots of thinking outside the box!
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 am a microbiologist who studies how bacteria evolve. This sort of work is very important because it is only by understanding how the process of evolution is taking place in bacteria that we can understand some of the most pressing issues today - as an example, the rising frequencies of antibiotic resistant bacteria are very much a product of microbial evolution. I try to understand how bacteria have evolved up to now with the hope that we can predict how they will evolve in the future. This issue effects us here in New Zealand and all around the world.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity matters. I think about my subject in a way that is not precisely like any of my colleagues. You will think about the subjects that you are passionate about in a way that is also unique to you, your training and your experiences. In order to completely understand the world around us we need all of these ways of thinking to come together and we can only have that by involving everyone in the work!
If you are interested in more perspectives, here's a video we made at Massey to celebrate women in science as part of the United Nations International Day of Women in Girls in Science:
Dr Heather Hendrickson is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biosciences at Massey University, Auckland Campus and the Chair, Outreach Committee of the Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.
You can follow her on twitter at @DrHHNZ as well as checking out her blog This Microbial Life.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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