Helen Taylor is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Otago, where she investigates inbreeding and male fertility in birds.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school, I focused on biology, chemistry and...English literature. Mainly because I didn’t enjoy maths. I kind of wish I’d done the maths now as it would have made life as a scientist a bit easier, but the English lit definitely helped with my writing, so it wasn’t a terrible decision. For my bachelors degree, I studied zoology. Then...I panicked and went and worked in public relations for six years, helping big companies get positive media coverage for their products. Again, this wasn’t a total waste of time as it improved my writing even further and gave me some great communication skills. When I returned to science, I got my head back in the game by studying for a masters in Conservation Science. I did all of this in the UK (where I’m from) and then moved to New Zealand to study for a PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, completely. Not so much when I was working in public relations, but much more so now I’m a full time conservation researcher. My original zoology degree laid the foundations and gave me a really broad background in natural sciences. My masters helped me understand the main issues in conservation science, and then I specialised a bit further in my PhD by studying the role genetics can play in conservation. That led directly to my current job, where I investigate the effects of inbreeding depression on male fertility in birds. I spend a lot of time chasing birds around on islands to get sperm samples, and even more time staring down microscopes at bird sperm. All for conservation, of course!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
There are so many options out there career-wise. This is wonderful, but it can also be a little overwhelming. I’d say don’t specialise too quickly – keep your options open as long as you can unless you’re one of those lucky people who is 100% sure they know what they want to do. Give yourself some thinking time too. I think one reason I didn’t go into a scientific career straight out of my bachelors degree was because I did my degree too early and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. If I’d taken a couple of years between school and university to get some real world experience, do some conservation volunteering and figure out what I wanted to do, maybe my path would have been a little more direct. Finally, statistics is a subject that a lot of scientists struggle with – we need to improve that. Carry on with maths as long as you can stick at it. Trust me – you’ll be glad you did!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I’ve been exceptionally lucky in terms of the places I’ve visited and the things I’ve done in the name of conservation. From climbing trees in the Peruvian Amazon to check on macaw nests as a volunteer, to chasing kiwi in the dark on an island in the Marlborough Sounds for my PhD, to putting together a mobile lab that we can take out to remote islands for watching bird sperm swimming around under the microscope, it’s been brilliant. There are some tough times too. Academia is, by nature, a challenging environment, but I regularly remind myself of all the cool stuff I get to do as a reward for all the hard work.
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?
Science and engineering are such big parts of our world that it’s almost impossible not to engage with them, whether you want to or not. From using your phone to walking through the woods – STEM is everywhere. That’s why it’s so important to broaden your understanding of STEM subjects – if you’re going to have to engage with them, why not do it in an informed way? Instead of just believing everything presented by the media, why not be able to form your own opinions based on evidence you can read and understand? If nothing else, engaging with STEM topics should help you make better, more informed choices about how you live your life. Even better, it might just lead you to discover something so interesting to you, that you make it your job.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Careers in STEM are still arguably more challenging for women than men (as are many other careers). This largely stems from the historical bias towards men in STEM, which means most of the career paths, and rules and regulations were set up with men in mind. The more women who work in STEM, the more pressure there will be to devise better solutions to issues such as wage gaps, maternity leave, paternity leave, career breaks and child care. This would benefit everyone, not just women. I have no plans to have children at this stage, but I want to be able to walk into an interview and not have a prospective employer be worried that I’m about the right age for having children and so will be likely to cost them in terms of maternity leave etc... I don’t want my friends who do have children to suffer either. Conversely, I don’t want to feel that I got a job because I’m a woman and they needed more women – I want to get jobs because I’m good at what I do. The more women there are in my field, the less likely these things will remain an issue. So come and join us! We’ve come a really long way, but there’s still lots of work to be done to achieve real equality, and we need your help.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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