Rachael Wiltshire is currently in her fourth year at the University of Auckland, studying for a BA/BSc in History, Earth Sciences and Physiology.
What do you do on an average work day?
It depends on the day, to be honest! My timetable is very flexible this year, so usually my day will involve some combination of study, tutoring and admin work for the various organisations I’m involved with.
When I'm not studying I do quite a lot of volunteer work. Currently, I’m a trustee of the Eureka! Alumni Trust (Eureka! is a competition that identifies and fosters young science communicators) and I also do a lot of tutoring, with a particular focus on making tutoring available to those who can’t afford the exorbitant rates that sometimes get charged.
One of my most recent projects has been to start a blog for girls and young women on the autism spectrum - I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and there is definitely a lack of spaces where girls and women can meet, so I decided to create one.
Over the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 summers I did summer research scholarships, at GNS and the Centre for Brain Research, respectively. At GNS I was designing a system that samples atmospheric CO2 and at the Centre for Brain Research I was looking at the expression of sphingosine-1-phosphate receptors in the endothelial cells of the blood-brain barrier.
When I was doing my summer research scholarships, my day would involve a combination of reading the literature, planning experiments, lab work and writing. At GNS, I got to make several trips out to Baring Head to test my sampling system.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I took eight subjects in Year 13: Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, French, Geography, German, History and Statistics. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to study, so I just took everything! At uni, I am majoring in History and Earth Sciences but I have continued to study a range of subjects.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Obviously because I’m interested in tutoring and education I continue to use most of what I learnt in school, because I’m now teaching it myself. But my study also informs the other things I do: those mole calculations you learn in Year 12 Chemistry keep popping up everywhere, and the research, analysis and writing skills you learn at school and uni are useful whatever you end up doing. Also, I’m often able to relate what I’m studying back to my own life. For example, I’m from Wellington but I’ve been in Auckland for the past three years for university. I kept wondering why no one in Auckland talked about southerlies - until my Geography lecturer explained that Wellington gets its southerlies and northerlies because the Cook Strait funnels the wind that way; for most of the country, the prevailing wind is from the west.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Firstly, don’t panic!
At the end of high school, it can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to figure out exactly what you want to do, and like you only have one shot at making the right choice. It’s actually very easy to change your mind, and a lot of people do - when I first enrolled at university, my declared majors were Biology, Psychology and French.
Even once you’ve finished your first degree, there are ways of going back and switching paths if that’s what you want to do. The most useful piece of advice someone gave me recently was: ‘Rachael, you could take five years to figure out what you want to do and you’d still only be 26.’ You’ve got time to figure it out, so take time to explore your options and see what sparks your interest.
On that note, it’s a good idea to get involved in activities outside the classroom - these help you get a better feel for what a particular career might involve. For example, learning ‘science’ can often feel like having to memorise an endless series of facts so it’s no wonder that people sometimes find that boring. The thing is, what you learn at school is more the product of science, rather than science per se; science is actually a really creative and engaging problem-solving process, and at the end of it you get the facts you learn at school. Obviously, you need to know those facts, you can’t ask new questions if you don’t know what we already know, but it’s a good idea to get involved in activities that let you experience the scientific process in action.
At high school, there are things like the science fairs and many different science camps, and at university, summer research scholarships are a great opportunity to do some research as an undergraduate.
Finally, remember that a career in science doesn’t have to mean a career as a research scientist. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be a research scientist and whilst there is still a part of me that wants to research, I’ve also been exploring my other career options because I’d like to have a career that combines all my interests, not just my interest in science. For example, I’ve been considering teaching and policy work: if I pursue either of those careers I won’t be a scientist, but I will still be having a career in science.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
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?
Science and technology influences all of our lives, and it’s really important to understand the science if you want to be able to have intelligent conversations about certain issues. Whilst science and technology does an immense amount of good for our society, there is also the potential for it to be harmful, and so as a society we need to be able to have a conversation about what science we want to be doing.
One issue particularly close to my heart is research into the autism spectrum. For me, autism is a difference to be celebrated, but for others it is a debilitating condition, and so there is a lot of research into its causes and "cures". But there are also a lot of people for whom autism is a debilitating condition, and there is a lot of research going on into what causes autism and how to cure it. Now, I’m certainly not saying that such research should not be allowed, but it does raise some difficult questions about what the effect of a cure being available would be. How can we avoid a situation in which people feel compelled to take a ‘cure’ that they don’t want to take?
Another issue is whole genome testing; again, whilst this could do an immense amount of good, a whole genome screen might reveal that you have an increased risk of developing diseases for which we have no cure- is that necessarily something you would want to know? Science and technology opens up a lot of gnarly questions like this, and you need to understand the issues if you want to be involved in the conversations.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Girls should be able to do anything they want to do, and that includes working in STEM. The problem is that if women aren’t working in STEM, then girls don’t necessarily see it as a viable career option.
I went to an all girls school and at school I couldn’t imagine that being female would present any barriers to my doing whatever I want to do: after all, it is the 21st century. However, I’ve since realised that, unfortunately, there are still barriers to women entering STEM careers. For example, when I was 17 I was at an interview for a scholarship, and I mentioned that I wanted to have a research career.
‘And as a young woman, have you thought about whether you want to have children and how that will affect your career? Research is a difficult career- how would you juggle that with children?’ I was asked.
I wonder whether they would have asked one of my male peers the same question.
Now, it probably is true that juggling a science career with children is difficult. I’m sure juggling any career with children is difficult. That does mean we should be discouraging young women from choosing science careers.
Science certainly is traditionally regarded as a career that requires ones full dedication: I remember being quite put-off by Edward O. Wilson’s statement in Letters to a Young Scientist that ‘Real scientists do not take vacations. They take field trips or temporary research fellowships in other institutions.’ ‘But I want to be able to pursue my other interests!’ I thought. ‘Maybe science isn’t for me…’ If we can get more women working in STEM, then any perceived barriers to girls entering STEM will start to disappear, and if there are any real barriers, such as the fact that women may want to combine children and career, we will come up with new ways of having ‘a career in science’ so that people are able to have such careers, whilst also pursuing their other goals.
Rachael Wiltshire is currently in her fourth year of a BA/BSc, majoring in History and Earth Sciences with some French, German, Biology and Chemistry thrown in for fun.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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