Marine biologist Olga is co-leading research looking at how microplastics are affecting Aotearoa New Zealand’s wildlife in different environments.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
Some days it feels like I spend all my time replying to emails and writing reports but I do get to do a lot of the fun stuff too!
This includes designing experiments, designing equipment to carry out the experiments and then getting out into the field to set up the experiments or collect samples. This is the part I love the most, especially if it is by the sea.
I am also involved in the analysis of the data and working out what it all means, and then sharing this through writing papers and doing presentations.
In addition to my own experiments, I co-supervise MSc and PhD students, which is great fun too. I think back to when I was doing my PhD and hope that I can manage to be as good as my supervisor, who really helped me get through the tough times and achieve my goals.
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?
From a very early age I knew exactly what I wanted to do – be a marine biologist. There was nothing that was going to get in my way of achieving that.
This made it easy for me to decide what to do at school as I needed certain subjects to get onto the course I wanted to do. In my final two years at high school I studied Biology, Chemistry, Geography and General Studies (everyone had to do that last one).
I then went on to the University of St Andrews in the UK to do an undergraduate degree in Marine and Environmental Biology. After completing that with a 2.1 (Hons) I was in the fortunate position to be offered two PhDs. One had fieldwork on the west coast of Scotland and the other had fieldwork in Barbados. Although I love Scotland and its beautiful seas, I couldn’t resist the chance to start working on tropical coral reefs and so I went to the UK's Newcastle University and did a project examining the microbial ecology [the interaction of microbes in the environment] of tropical coral diseases using molecular techniques.
I then spent the next 15 years studying the interactions between human-induced environmental impacts - such as ocean acidification and nitrification - on marine ecosystems and biota [wildlife], and their associated microbial communities.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
Pretty much! Although my research has broadened now due to my role as co-lead of a 5-year research project looking at the impacts of microplastics [plastic pieces less than 5mm big] on Aotearoa New Zealand’s ecosystems and biota in different environments.
My research focus within this project is in the marine environment and understanding how human activities - microplastics pollution in this case - impact it, with an aim to both prevent it from continuing and find solutions to damage that has already been done.
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?
Do something that gets a fire burning in your belly. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be listening to the advice from those that have been there before. Knowledge is power as they say, but a passion for something is very important.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
One of my greatest career highlights was discovering a new marine species that lives symbiotically with reef-building corals. As I was the first person to both discover it on the Great Barrier Reef and also fully describe it, I was able to name it. I named it after my mum, Margaret. It’s called Zanclea margaritae. I was also able to show how it interacts with the coral tissues, and without its own exoskeleton it attaches itself to the host coral’s using special cells. I am especially pleased with this as many people doubted me and the importance of understanding it. But I trusted in myself and persevered, and it paid off.
Another was being awarded the MBIE Endeavour Research Programme funding. It's an area of work I feel very passionate about and have tried many times to get funding for. We have a great team working on the project and I’m loving being able to work with them, and explore lots of different questions around the impacts of plastics on the environment.
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 think it’s really important that everyone gets to engage with STEM as it allows us to better understand the world around us. This is particularly important because it allows us to understand the impacts we can have on it through our actions, and therefore how we can prevent that damage.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
I have found that women often have a different way of viewing the world and approaching problems. However, I think it is important that we have a more balanced representation of all groups in STEM, whether it be gender, culture or background. By all working together we can build on each other’s strengths and make a greater impact.
Olga is a marine biologist at ESR with a passion for understanding the impacts of human activity on ecosystems and organisms - and hopefully finding solutions to undo the harm that has been done.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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