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Lou Gallagher

Lou Gallagher is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, Wellington School of Medicine and a Senior Advisor at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

work photo lake TaupoWhat do you do on an average work day?
I spend most of my time on the computer and in meetings. I am organising a new 3 year programme to study bee pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites such as mites) in New Zealand and how they relate to bee health.  This means I get to work with virologists, beekeepers, government people, IT experts, entymologists and a mite expert. I'm also teaching a course on occupational epidemiology at the Otago Medical School, which is online. Currently, it's a lot of time online, balanced by riding my bike around Wellington.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied all the science and maths I could as an undergraduate. At University I got a degree in nutrition and organic chemistry. When I got to graduate school I was able to dive into biostatistics and epidemiology, which really worked for me. It was then that I found my niche.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, it is all relevant. It's funny because the more distance I have from courses I took at University, even the ones that aren't my professional area, the more I can draw on them. I studies chemistry as organic chemistry, nutritional biochemistry, then as toxicology and environmental fate chemistry.  Chemistry is still at the heart of everything I do. I use my background in epidemiology and risk assessment more than anything else, but without the strong skills in math and chemistry, it would be nearly impossible to understand most of the work I do.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I'd say in science you need to study the core subjects first, but if you can't relate them to your real world, find an area of science that really interests you and start from there. The more we can relate our studies to the real world, the more the knowledge sinks in and is available after school!

Also, don't worry if your career path has some turns you don't expect. Just keep yourself pointed in the direction you want to go. All diversions can be used to your advantage because they add to your experience. Resourcefulness is key. Some of my best opportunities come about because of the personal connections I made with people, but there were other things I applied for or designed and proposed - and they worked!  A career in science isn't always easy to maintain, but staying flexible and being willing to work on what comes up is a good strength.

Being passionate about science means you are likely to have plenty of disappointments but it also means you are more likely to succeed. Understanding how to work with people is the other side of perseverance. Both are important. We tend to head in the direction we keep aiming for, even if the time scale might be longer than we think.

From other epidemiologists I have heard these pieces of advice, and they still ring true:

  • In science there are very few sprints - most goals are marathons.
  • Science is fashion. There will always be "flavour of the day" topics and techniques for analysis. Keep up with fashion as best you can, but commit only to the topic because by the time you write your books/papers/speeches the fashion will have changed.
  • Women have institutional obstacles in science that men don't have: men are viewed as more capable (even by other women), so you will have to speak up at meetings and make sure you are heard - being too polite is a mistake if it means that you don't get your point across. Negotiate for a higher salary at every opportunity because it is expected, and even then you are likely to be paid less than your male colleagues. If you accept this it will never change.
  • If you choose to have a family and a science career you will have to be efficient with your time. Competition is real. In science we are competing for grant money, lab space, recognition, travel funding, salary and more. In my experience, maintaining connections with other women and working with people I trust is more rewarding than fighting the competition. Be yourself. Science without the "I" doesn't happen. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, who you can help and what you can give.

What are some of your career highlights so far?

  • Getting admitted into the epidemiology PhD program at the University of Washington, because I had to work really hard to be qualified, and finally earning my PhD at the University of Otago many years (and countries and children) later.
  • Organising a soil remediation project in Whakatane using white rot fungi that excreted enzymes to degrade the toxic soil pollutant dioxin. The learning curve was high. The timing pressure was intense because we were creating a two tonne living fungal system from test tubes, keeping it alive and making it functional to work on the soil.
  • Designing a surveillance program between major US blood collectors and the USFDA and finding the money to run it, focussed on early detection of blood pathogens in blood donors. There hadn't been a cooperative project between industry and government for a long time and relationships had been very strained. This project had positive ramifications way outside my sphere of influence and that felt really good.
  • Teaching epidemiology at the University of Otago officially as a senior lecturer. It was hard to get a "real job" at the University, and all my previous teaching roles had less official.
  • Getting funding, approval and institutional support to run the Bee Pathogen Programme at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

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?
To me, the difference between having "hard sciences" or not in New Zealand is the difference between feudalism and modern society. We want better technology to make us more efficient, to improve our healthcare and longevity, our quality of life, to protect our environment and to maintain our economic wellbeing. These endeavors all require creative thought in the world of maths, engineering, science and technology. To engage constructively with our local city and regional councils to make sure they are investing in worthwhile projects that will impact on our lives and our surroundings, we need to have the background and common sense that good education and trained minds provide.

The hardest thing about operating as a scientist in New Zealand is that we are too small to fund a lot of specialist science activity, but in order to be useful in science we have to specialize. Time out of New Zealand working in other countries provides valuable opportunities in science - and when we return to this beautiful set of islands in the South Pacific we can share our experience with other scientists. This has been both a challenge and a tremendous source of opportunity for me, working at things I would never have dreamed of!

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Because people naturally see things differently. It's important to have as many points of view represented as possible to get the most robust outcome. Having a healthy gender balance ensures that there will be greater diversity of thought and direction. Our research is greatly enhanced when we are able to discuss it, share our thoughts, and maybe change our thinking when we are presented with something better. The more we can replace competition with productive, functional models, the better. It's always easier when women are equally represented, but in STEM this is rare!

Lou Gallagher is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, Wellington School of Medicine and a Senior Advisor at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

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