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Renee Goreham

Dr Renee Goreham is a post-doctoral fellow in nanobiotechnology at the MacDiarmid Institute. She explores using nature’s own nanoparticles for biomedical applications.

Renee GorehamWhat do you do on an average work day?

An average day at works starts off with me getting woken by my 1-year-old and 4-year-old because when you have young kids, you no longer need an alarm. We all get up to have breakfast together and get ready for work and day-care.

When I get to work, I usually get started on daily laboratory experiments, such as growing some bacteria or live cells. I am a nanomaterials scientist but I have strong interests in the nanoparticles that living cells release (both bacteria and mammalian). A nanoparticle is so tiny it is about a billion times smaller than a metre.

Living cells release their own nanoparticles, which are membrane bound packages that communicate to other cells. They are very interesting as they could tell us many things about the cell of origin, such as the type of cell and if it is diseased or not. Also, I like to think of them as nature’s own drug mule, where we could use these natural packaging systems for a new drug delivery system.

Currently, I am regularly growing living cells and collecting these nanoparticles for my research. So apart from synthesising nanoparticles in the chemistry laboratory, I “synthesise” nanoparticles from living cells.

I don’t spend as much time in the laboratory these days and usually head to my office to check emails and my schedule. A lot of my time involves writing… Writing grants, papers, book chapters and general ideas that I keep for myself (not all ideas are worth sharing). Before I leave, I check my schedule for the next day and organise myself.

When I get home (after picking up my kids from day-care), I cook dinner, bath the kids and read a book for the kids before bed. If I have some energy, I will write emails or do some more writing. As a parent, it is all about efficiency. I love being a scientist and a parent, both are so rewarding.

What did you study at school? And after high school?

I grew up in country Australia, moving around a lot and went to a high school in Port Augusta. I would say that my science teacher definitely influenced my career direction. I moved to Adelaide (four hours away) and started my undergraduate study in 2004. I graduated with a bachelor of science with honours in 2008 at Flinders University.

I started my PhD in 2009 at the University of South Australia, where I made density gradients of nanoparticles to observe how small surface changes (at a nanoscale) influenced mammalian cell growth. I wrote my thesis whilst on maternity leave in 2013, graduating in March 2014. I had a post-doctoral position at Flinders University until I started a position with Prof Thomas Nann at the end of 2014 and I went on maternity leave in 2015.

I started my new position with Thomas Nann, who is now the Director of the MacDiarmid Institute. My current position is a five year contract at Victoria University of Wellington.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

I majored in chemistry throughout my undergraduate degree, where I was more interested in the forensic applications. It was not until I started my research career that I began to love everything small…nanoscale small. To put things into perspective, the width of a DNA strand is 2 nanometers and in my PhD, I made gold nanoparticles that ranged from 15-99 nanometers.

My research interests looks at applying nanotechnology to biomedical applications and that has always been a trend within my research projects. Bridging the gap between chemistry and biology, for applications in health is really exciting to me.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Don’t decide your career choices on stereotypical opinions. Be your own person and do what makes you happy. If you want to be a scientist that does not want a family…do it. If you are scientist that wants a family… do it. Don’t conform to others' interpretations of what a woman should do and of what is a ‘scientist’ (or whatever career path you choose).

Since completing my PhD I have been told that I should have chosen a more family friendly career path (as opposed to academia). I love what I do and I love my kids. Unless we break through the stereotypical norms, acceptance of a family-lifestyle within academia will not be accepted.

Renee at work

What are some of your career highlights so far?

Every day I am excited to go to work…cliché I know! The fact that I can control the formation of molecules at an atomic level still blows my mind. My number one career highlight would be submitting my PhD thesis. Euphoria is the only emotion that would best match that day.

My second major career highlight was my move overseas. Yes, it was slightly scary moving my young family but New Zealand has been fantastic and I am working with an incredible group of people. There are many small events that have occurred throughout my career, including paper submissions, winning a grant for funding and getting exciting science results.

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

I feel that there is sometimes a gap between scientists and the general public. An 'us and them' mentality. If we as scientists engaged with the general public in a way that made them understand what we do, we could break down the existing walls and generate a communal stage to develop new ideas. This in turn would regain the public's faith in science.

I have always loved to engage with schools about science. I enjoy it even more now as my kids grow older. I have started “sciencing” in my children’s day-care and love to see the awe on the children’s faces. They have no idea that the reaction they just witnessed involved the crosslinking of polymers through a ion exchange but one day they will remember.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

It is not a new concept that the numbers of women in STEM is still less than that of men. Although it has improved over the years, there is still an unconscious bias that restricts women to have successful scientific careers, in particular academia.

One thing that is often mentioned is the effect that having a family has on a woman's career. Although it may be a struggle, women with families should be seen as an advantage. Mothers have an assortment of skills. We become efficient, negotiating machines that could only be seen as an asset.

Let’s get rid of the old stereotypical views. STEM is becoming such a diverse community… you only need to read these profiles to see that.

Dr Renee Goreham is a post-doctoral fellow researching in the area of Nanobiotechnology at Victoria University of Wellington within the MacDiarmid Institute. Her research interests include the use of nature’s own nanoparticles, named extracellular vesicles, for biomedical applications.
You can follow her on Twitter: @AuNPs_Rock

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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