Olga works as a Research Officer in the Cancer Immunotherapy Programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
My average workday differs greatly from week to week – you never get bored as a scientist, I promise!
On any given day, I could be carrying out experiments, analysing data, planning more experiments based on my results, attending presentations by visiting speakers on a myriad of different topics, going over the latest scientific publications at journal club, ordering plasticware and reagents, or helping out others in the lab.
Of course, there are also less glamourous tasks like replying to emails and attending meetings but try finding a job without those! Although, in reality, almost half of my time is spent in the lab with the other half in my office, a distribution that really appealed to me when I considering the type of job I wanted because I didn’t want to be confined to a desk all day.
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?
I went into high school with the ambition of becoming a lawyer or businesswomen, a notion which I explored by partaking in and winning the Young Enterprise BP Business Challenge with my “butter gluestick” idea in Year 10 (yes, it was exactly as it sounds). But then a fantastic science teacher changed my career path entirely by showing me how cool science was!
While I was planning to study economics and legal studies, she selected me alongside a handful of other students to partake in a Junior Lab Experience Day held at Victoria University of Wellington, where we conducted scientific experiments in a tertiary environment, such as DNA extraction from strawberries, making slime, and creating a gelatine lens to diffract light. That day was the defining moment for me when I decided I wanted to become a scientist.
From there, I studied biology, chemistry, physics, and statistics in high school and then graduated with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science from Victoria University of Wellington. For my Master of Biomedical Science degree, I chose to specialise in the weird and wonderful world of immunology, and I haven’t looked back since. My project investigated the differences in immune response generation between the skin and lung to novel vaccine adjuvants in the hope of improving vaccination strategies.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
My Bachelor’s degree set me up with a baseline understanding of fundamental biology and introduced me to immunology but my Master’s degree truly opened my eyes to and immersed me in the world of research. Don’t get me wrong though, both learning curves were steep.
Getting through my Master’s degree was one of the biggest challenges in my life so far but the skills and knowledge I gained were unprecedented. I learnt about how research is carried out and gained practical skills, like how to properly implement statistics in analysis or create posters using design software in the coursework aspect, while my project taught me numerous lab techniques and critical thinking and writing abilities – all of which remain very relevant in my everyday life.
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?
Find and occupy your niche. Be proactive. Explore all the options and opportunities that come your way. Stay open-minded to ideas that you may not necessarily jump at right away, the ones that don’t obviously seem like your thing at first glance. By doing so, you’re giving yourself the best chance possible to find the thing that makes you tick – the thing that will be worth getting out of bed in the morning for.
But, of course, remain reasonable with your expectations. If you’re lucky, you might stumble across something right away but if you don’t, keep trying. Life is too short for you to be unhappy, which is highly applicable to work life as well.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
As a young scientist myself, my career is just beginning but the main highlights so far have included being selected to share my research at domestic and international immunology conferences throughout my Master’s degree.
It was both terrifying and exciting to discuss my work with experts in my field, but I gained valuable feedback and skills that have already helped with the growth of my scientific career.
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?
I believe that STEM is the future and using STEM, we will be able to achieve everything we want in the future – the two are deeply intertwined.
Although New Zealand is isolated both geographically and economically, we have a unique opportunity with our diverse culture and population to come up with ideas that will be gamechangers, unhindered by influences from our immediate surroundings – the term “Kiwi ingenuity” was coined for a reason!
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
This question has an obvious answer – because why not?
Diversity, not only in gender, is important in any aspect of life because it brings multiple perspectives to the same questions which then allow us to find the answer sooner and keep moving forward.
I think it’s also particularly important to have more women working in STEM because back in the day, it was characteristically considered to be a man’s field and this notion may still linger. Mercifully, society is changing and while the stigma is slowly being broken, there is still a long way to go in terms of equality.
Olga works as a Research Officer in the Cancer Immunotherapy Programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. She is working in collaboration with her Master’s supervisor and others, after handing in her thesis looking at immune responses to vaccine adjuvants. Connect with Olga on LinkedIn
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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