Monica investigates how disease-causing microbes move, 'smell' and communicate. She is Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Victoria University of Wellington.
What do you do on an average work day?
A mixture of science and admin! On a typical day, I meet with students and staff, spend timing writing grants or papers, or preparing talks.
I don't get into the lab myself anymore. Sometimes it feels more like running a small business than science, but I live vicariously through the exciting research of my group. They are amazing!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I'm American, so I did most of my studies in the USA. I went to high-school on an army base at Fort Meade, Maryland. I was a bit of a handful at the time! I ended up largely dropping out of classes, and enrolling in a work-training program. To cut a long-story short, eventually I worked my way into a very good job in the IT industry.
After a few years, I started taking night classes at a local University just out of interest. Even though it was hard (I was very unprepared for university) I completely fell in love with my first science class. I resigned from my job when I was 25 and enrolled full-time at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. I majored in Chemistry (mostly Physical and Analytical), then went straight on after that to a PhD in Biomolecular Chemistry at Emory University in Georgia.
I moved to New Zealand after finishing my PhD, where I had a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Massey University Auckland campus. In 2012, I moved to Otago to start my own research group, in a position funded by my grants. That's not something I would necessarily recommend to others - it was stressful! But I managed to stay funded, and built a great group of about 10 students and staff.
Nowadays I'm a Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Victoria University of Wellington.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Not directly. My own research is much more microbiological nowadays, but my chemistry background is still exceedingly useful!
Although my group and I study how microbes move, 'smell' and communicate, I think my background helps with the more biophysical and analytical aspects of our research.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Firstly, a science or research career is way more fun than people admit! Sometimes it feels like people are competing to act the most busy, tired and cranky. I have bad days occasionally, but I love my job!
Secondly, it is completely fine and normal to feel like an imposter sometimes. Just accept it as an irrational thought and move on.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Publishing the first paper from my group was a big highlight! All the work had been done by my first student Jordan Minnell, who was doing a Masters, and my technician James McKellar. I am still ridiculously proud of them both. The paper has been popular too; I still get asked about it when I go to meetings.
Another highlight was giving a public lecture in Omapere as part of a symposium on Kauri Dieback Disease back in 2015. The audience was a mix of researchers and members of the public. Seeing how passionate everyone was about saving our kauri trees was incredibly inspiring. Afterwards, I received a bunch of lovely emails from members of the public interested in my research. It took me two years to get our kauri dieback research funded, but those emails kept me going.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Diseases, pollution, antibiotic resistance, global warming, loss of biodiversity... we need STEM to save the world!
That being said, while engaging in STEM is important, I think it is equally important that scientists engage with their communities. Before we can expect New Zealanders to educate themselves around STEM issues, we need to make sure everyone has a chance to earn a living wage, have warm and dry housing, enough food and decent healthcare.
If someone is struggling to get by, they aren't going to have a lot of time or energy left over for engaging in STEM. Looking back to when I was younger, this was definitely the case for me - it wasn't until I had achieved a certain level of security in my life that I had the luxury of caring about STEM.
We should keep in mind that there are some big issues in New Zealand, and lots of different ways we can - and should! - engage to make our communities stronger.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I'd like to think we don't even need to ask this question! Let's just accept it as fact that diversity is good for STEM, and focus on how we can foster diversity of all types - and not just gender.
Monica is Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington. She is also President of the New Zealand Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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