Mele (Tongan/Scottish) is a senior lecturer in the Psychology Department and the Associate Dean (Pacific) for the Sciences division at the University of Otago.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
The amazing thing about my job is that no day is really the same. I try to start each day by not looking at my email until 11am. Usually, I fail spectacularly in this and take a quick sneak peak. I like to start the day by working on whatever writing I need to complete. It’s important as an academic to regularly produce and publish, so having a writing routine is essential for ensuring that writing gets done. Depending on whether I have teaching commitments, I might then prepare or work on anything to do with my teaching. I try to keep my afternoons free for meetings – of which I have many! The people I meet with are wide-ranging. I might meet with students or colleagues to discuss a research project, or with a student who is struggling with university life. I could be working with community members on a joint project, or meeting with the Pacific leadership team to discuss university strategy.
What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?
At high school I focused mainly on the Arts – I studied history, french, statistics, english and art history in my final year of school. I actually wanted to be an historian because I was fascinated with people and place. After highschool I went to university to study history, but ended up getting a degree in Linguistics and Psychology. In the middle of my first year at Uni I went to Edinburgh University for a year, so I could spend more time with my Scottish family. Edinburgh is very well known for linguistics, and so I took the subject and fell in love with it. When I came back I switched my degree to psychology and linguistics. After Uni, I decided to complete another degree in speech pathology and therapy, which allowed me to combine my interest in these subjects with practical ways of helping people.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
Although what I studied at school didn’t directly relate, it allowed me to get into university where I discovered a whole world of learning. After I finished my degrees, I worked for 5 years as a speech and language therapist, however, I always wanted to better understand the science behind how children develop and so this led to me going back to university to get my PhD in developmental psychology. It was a big step to go back to university. I had two small children, but a very supportive husband and friends. Despite the challenge and the risk, I loved every minute of it. My PhD sought to understand how children understand their social world, and how their language interactions foster this understanding. As an academic you never stop learning, which is the wonderful thing about this job.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?
Take that leap of faith and be brave. Talking to people helps crystalise what might interest you, and so don’t be shy about talking to people about their careers. This can really help you understand what might suit you. Also, never be too scared to pursue what might seem like an impossible goal.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
Obtaining a position at the Psychology department at the University of Otago. I also really value the work I do as the Associate Dean (Pacific) in the Sciences division. In this position, I work to support Pacific student and staff aspirations in the Sciences.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?
For me, understanding the science behind human behaviour is fundamental to understanding how we can effectively function in society. But generally, understanding the world from a scientific point of view is so important for being able to engage in an informed way about the world we live it. It is essential for making good decisions, and for being able to evaluate the extraordinary information we are faced with.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
In my view, living in a truly diverse society is crucial for building a tolerant society. Diversity is good for STEM because it brings a wide range of perspectives that offer creative solutions to many of the fundamental problems in science. Having more women in STEM is not only good for STEM, but it normalises STEM as a valid and desirable career pathway for young women coming through.
Mele is a senior lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Otago. She is also the Associate Dean (Pacific) for the Sciences division. Mele is of Tongan and Scottish heritage.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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