Kim is an engineering professor whose work involves using biological or recycled plastics to create sustainable materials and help reduce plastic in our environment.
What do you do on an average work day?
My days are very varied, but generally split in some way between teaching, research and administration.
I can be doing anything from lecturing a group of 200 first year students, to meeting research students to discuss how their work is going and what they should do next, to leading a research meeting with internationally recognised research collaborators from all over New Zealand, or being interviewed for radio or TV.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I was most focussed on science and maths (I loved maths), although I was also keen on design.
After high school I went on to study Materials at Imperial College in London. I did this as it combined sciences and maths in an applied way, so it appealed to my desire to work out why “stuff” behaved like it did.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes very much so – I liked it so much I stuck with it. I am still loving getting to the bottom of material behaviour and applying that to making materials behave better and to find alternatives to lessen environmental impact.
My research involves investigating how to improve the performance and sustainability of structural and semi-structural materials. Structural materials can bear high loads whereas semi-structural materials can't cope with as much load.
The structural things that we can make from natural fibre composites [fibres mixed with other materials such as plastics] include surfboards, fishing rods, wind turbine blades and bridges. The semi-structural things include baths, shower cubicles and car panels. I also use recycled material, such as plastic, to produce a composite with natural fibres that itself can be recycled.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I would like to think that there is always room for people to follow their passions and recommend considering science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects as good options.
Engineering provides such a wide variety of opportunities for creative and technically interested people with many fascinating challenges. It also gives an opportunity to make a real positive difference in peoples’ lives.
Engineering is based on design, which involves considering different possible solutions to problems. Having a greater diversity of engineers will lead to greater diversity in the design process, and most likely lead to better solutions for all of society.
From what I've seen, women tend to worry more about making mistakes than men, so I’d like to raise awareness that often we are all just learning on the job and need to allow ourselves the freedom of trying new things or methods to allow progress.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
One that is very fresh in my mind is receiving a Royal Society medal for my research work. Being recognised in this way was so satisfying because it is supportive in terms of the quality of my work and also that sustainability is highly valued, which is reassuring given that it is often it is overlooked in everyday lives and the importance of environmental issues.
In 2008 I was also recognised with a Fellowship from Engineering New Zealand. It has also been very rewarding to see positive outcomes in terms of improvement in materials alongside the related development of students and early career researchers at the university that I have mentored.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Technological development underpinned by STEM is what largely dictates our quality of life.
If we compare how different our lives are to those of people 200 years ago, most of the benefits are thanks to STEM. So working in STEM will help us to make further progress in the benefits to society, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
Studying obviously provides the pathway to STEM-related progress, but actually the whole of society makes decisions on priority areas. That means it is important, given the stakes involved, that everyone is STEM literate and can understand the issues related to STEM.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
A greater diversity of people working in STEM - including women - will lead to a greater diversity of suggested solutions for underpinning society in the future, leading to better overall solutions for all of society.
Kim is a professor at Waikato University in the School of Engineering. Her main research focus is improving performance and sustainability of structural and semi-structural materials. Her work involves the use of bioderived or recycled plastics aiming to reduce the burden of plastics on the environment.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.View all profiles