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Heidi Meudt

Dr. Heidi Meudt has worked at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as Botany Research Scientist since 2006.

Heidi Meudt on the botanical field trip to the “Mainzer Sand”, at the “BiodiversWhat do you do on an average work day?
It is my job to do systematics research on New Zealand’s unique native flowering plants, especially native forget-me-nots, hebes, plantains and foxgloves. Systematics is the study of species—the basic units of biological diversity—and their diversification, origins and relationships. I collect, analyse and interpret different kinds of data to answer the following questions: How many species are there? What characteristics can be used to identify them? How are they related to one another and to other species outside New Zealand? What is their geographic distribution? What should their conservation status be?

So, on any given day, I might be:

  • tramping to the top of a mountain to collect plant specimens,
  • looking through a microscope to observe and measure plant characteristics,
  • working in the genetics lab to extract and sequence plant DNA,
  • sitting at my computer (it can’t be avoided!) performing statistical analyses, writing up my results, and submitting manuscripts to be published as scholarly articles in scientific journals, or
  • staying in touch with students, colleagues and the public about our latest research projects via email, Skype, blogs, public talks, phone calls or even sometimes in person.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
I went to high school in a small town in the USA. I took every science course I could, including biology, chemistry, maths and physics, but I also really enjoyed Spanish, music, and sports. My teachers encouraged me to go on two different trips to field stations in Ecuador and Belize with other high school students and teachers to learn first-hand about the biology of rainforests and coral reefs. These experiences had a profound influence on me, because I met bilingual scientists who were doing neat field research projects in some pretty amazing places.

By the time I went to university, I knew I wanted to study both biology and Spanish, and (why not?) also a minor in chemistry. During the summers I got jobs or internships to get experience doing biological field work. For one term during my second year at university, I lived with a host family and attended classes at a university in Santiago, Chile to improve my Spanish skills. Since my favourite university biology courses were about plant biology, I eventually went on to get a PhD in Botany at the University of Texas at Austin, studying the systematics of a group of foxglove plants (Ourisia) that grows in South America as well as Australasia.  

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Absolutely. When I work in the field and at the museum's herbarium, I rely on my basic and advanced training in biology and systematics; when I am in the lab, I use chemistry and maths; and when I am analysing data, I need statistics, computers, and, increasingly, programming skills. I still use and build upon a lot of the hands-on experience I received through university laboratory and field courses, summer internships and trips, and my own PhD research project. I even use my language skills in Spanish and German to communicate with colleagues overseas and read important scientific literature in those languages.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Even though science is becoming increasingly specialised, it is important to have a broad skill set, including not only maths, computer programming and communication skills, but also languages, sports or the arts. To do this, try new things, get involved, travel if you can, and go to workshops, events and public lectures (which are usually free or cheap for students). Reach out to teachers, mentors, coaches, peers and yes, even your parents, who can support you and your personal and professional development.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
Doing botanical field work in some beautiful places: Chile, Peru, Argentina, Australia, Spain, and of course, New Zealand. Winning a competitive fellowship to come to New Zealand for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in 2004. Describing two new species and one new subspecies of plants new to science. Mentoring and co-supervising students. Most recently (2012), being awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellowship to go to Oldenburg, Germany, for 18 months to learn new genetic techniques while researching hebes with German collaborators. That was an amazing experience and a big adventure for me and my family, who came along too!

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?
New Zealand's biodiversity is unique and forms a vital part of our natural environment. However, there is still a lot of basic information that we don't know about our native species. Systematists estimate that thousands of New Zealand species have yet to be discovered or described. It is vital that we understand the biology, taxonomy, evolution and biogeography of our native flora and fauna, especially in light of human-mediated environmental changes. Everyone can play a role in promoting, protecting and increasing our understanding of our native biodiversity, for example by observing nature and uploading photos to websites like NatureWatchNZ, by supporting and participating in conservation projects, by visiting or volunteering at your local museum, botanic garden or reserve, or of course by becoming scientists!

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Every person, whatever their gender, should have the opportunity to work in the area they are passionate about, including science. For much of history, women have been excluded from doing science, or their achievements have not been duly recognised. Even today, there are still a lot of barriers to women becoming scientists and working in STEM, and women are still under-represented in the sciences globally, including in New Zealand. We need women's ideas, passion, creativity, problem-solving skills and talents in science. We’ve got a lot of exciting scientific discoveries yet to make and innovations still to develop, so it is essential that we value and foster our women scientists, their expertise, and their important contributions to STEM.

Dr. Heidi Meudt has worked at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as Botany Research Scientist since 2006.

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

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