Rose is studying the chemical makeup and potential health benefits of different honeys. She was selected in the inaugural round of Kiwi interns sent to NASA Ames in California.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
I hate to say ‘it depends’, but… it depends!
If I picked a random day this year, I might be in the lab at the University of Waikato, weighing out honey or sugar standards, or running honey through analytical instruments, or making toffee, or coaxing instrumentation to work.
Or I might be in the office writing up results and finding and reading journal articles to keep up with what’s new in the field. Or I might be trying to catch up on email and admin and applications for jobs and grants and studentships, so I’ve got something to do next year.
When I was at NASA, the average day was in the lab, making bits of equipment out of pipette tips and parafilm – I like to say I got my certificate in parafilm prototyping at NASA – making up standards, testing things, and because I was under tremendous time pressure, usually running analyses on one computer and processing data on another at the same time.
If I’m working on my secondary project, I’m probably sitting on the back porch, mixing up green rocket propellants out of things that should never be mixed together, and setting bits on fire to make sure they work (they do, beautifully), or out in the paddock doing static tests in pressurized motor casings and trying not to scare the cows or my colleague too much. And everything’s always fuelled by lots of coffee.
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 was homeschooled in five different countries – I can say that because I studied for my A Levels (equivalent to NCEA 3) on a road trip around France and Germany, but it was mostly New Zealand, Australia, and England.
My mum is a professional secondary teacher, with a MPhil in English Literature, so there were always all sorts of books everywhere, and the first thing we always did after moving house was get library cards, and I was encouraged to read anything I could reach, about anything I thought was interesting, at any time.
We had these fantastic self-contained math and science curricula from America (I can calculate sales tax in my head, which has literally never been helpful), and my STEM education in high school was basically ‘here is a pile of books, here is Khan Academy, the library is over there, go learn’.
Having to be self-motivated and find and vet information for myself was quite helpful when I got to university and had to go do a lot of background reading! I didn’t really think very much about science at all in high school, I only did GCSEs (equivalent to NCEA 1) in chemistry and physics, and A Levels in history and literature and language.
In 2014 my mum heard this fantastic podcast by Jim Al-Khalili and Jackie Akhavan and it’s about explosives, and I thought ‘right, I love fireworks and blowing things up, I guess I’m going to have to be a chemist or a physicist’.
So, in 2015 I got off a 23-hour flight one morning, and I was up at the university that afternoon to start a bridging course, because GCSEs are really not enough to get into a science degree! I was going to do physics and chemistry as a double major, but I found out quite early on that I’m terribly bad at calculus, so my degree is chemistry only.
Rose with her mother
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
I guess so. High school study, absolutely not. I’m told I write decent poetry, about science among other things, though, does that count?
I’ve always had an approach of just going with the flow, applying to do things I think sound fun and I definitely am not qualified for, and being boundlessly surprised when it turns out I am.
I was tremendously fortunate at uni to have lecturers who encouraged me to go off and do my own thing, and answered questions, and taught me how to answer my own questions, and built real research into their teaching.
I’ve bounced around a lot. Did bits of someone’s project on gold complexes, bits of someone else’s project on toxic metals in ceramics, my own thing looking at the literature on rocket propellants, and finally a short-term summer project that’s turned into a very long-term project – my thesis research, in fact!
It’s all been a bit unorthodox and any sane careers advisor would turn puce, so like: "bad example, do not follow". But it’s worked okay for me so far.
Rose in the lab at NASA Ames
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?
If there’s something you really want to do, start doing it, and find out whether it’s impossible or not as you go.
If you think physics/nanotechnology/rocketry/chemistry is just the best, well, you’re right, and there’s an awful lot you can do about it before you leave school.
If you think somebody’s science is just achingly cool, write and tell them so and ask how you can get to work on similar things. Email the scarily awesome scientists. I’ve had replies from various rocket scientists and honey chemists around the world - people I’ve admired for years. Everyone I’ve written to (in high school as well as at university) has eventually written back, and usually given really solid advice on how to get started in their field.
Science is hard and frustrating and boring roughly 80% of the time. People do not like to say this because they think it will put you off.
Chemistry may not be for you if you shudder at the thought of spending literal days sitting next to a machine collecting your sample one drop at a time, or doing lots of very tiny dishes, or working with solvents that are dangerous in a wear-lots-of-annoying-gloves kind of way rather than a might-kill-you kind of way.
Or if the idea of hiking miles and miles to place sensors or collect samples gives you a pain, you should possibly reconsider being an ecologist.
If you hate math and want to be a scientist or engineer, you can either learn to love it, or learn to live with it, or go and be a lawyer instead. Having more lawyers and journalists and policy-makers with any kind of grounding in STEM would be fantastic - so if that’s you, you’re a rock star, keep at it.
On the other hand, if you are patient and stubborn and willing to keep working on the same problem for ages even when it doesn’t like you’re getting anywhere, and you can change your theories to fit the evidence… the 20% of the time that’s not hard and boring, the time when things suddenly start to work, or you find out everyone’s been wrong except you, or you discover something that is going to make the world a whole lot better, that makes it all absolutely worthwhile.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
Getting to spend ten weeks working at NASA is definitely right up there, and a lot of the coolest stuff I’ve done has been directly because of that, or directly leading to it.
I haven’t actually had much of a career yet; most of what I’m doing right now is foundational stuff, getting to meet people, learning the trade. I’m excited to see what happens in the next few years.
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?
It’s important to the world. I’m honestly flummoxed by people who don’t believe they need to know even roughly how their bodies work, or how their everyday choices affect the environment, or how to build a really brilliant tire swing for their kid.
This is actually a really interesting question, because I don’t think I’ve ever met – in person – anyone who didn’t think it was important to educate yourself at least a little in STEM subjects, just so you don’t get misled by whatever the prevailing opinion is.
I mean, sure, a lot of people are anti-vaccination activists and people who believe baking soda cures cancer - but that’s exactly why we need to get better at having either a scientifically-literate society, or a lot more professional science communicators, whose whole job is to read and understand the science and make it accessible and obvious, and teach people how to tell good and reliable sources from bad and unreliable ones.
Not everyone – I’d say not most people – needs to be a scientist or a mathematician or an engineer. But New Zealand in particular has such a weird and unique environment, and so many endemic species of plants and animals, a lot of what makes our country’s personality is stuff we’d never know about without the Kiwi STEM majors. Mānuka honey, for instance.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
Because women do it better? Nah, seriously, there’s always something new to discover or build, and the more we find out about the universe, the more questions we have.
For generations we’ve had so many women gently or forcefully edged out of STEM, by being told in school that they’re no good at it, by being demoralized at being the only girl in an engineering class, by being excluded from universities in general and STEM in particular, by the expectation that they’ll stop work to raise children… so many brilliant women never got to achieve their full potential. So many breakthroughs (we’ll never know exactly how many) either got delayed or buried because the women who would have made them weren’t there.
We’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and I think in my generation we’re finally beginning to get there.
Rose is working towards her MSc(Research) in chemistry at the University of Waikato, studying the carbohydrate compositions and potential health benefits of some Australian and New Zealand honeys, and was the only woman selected in the first round of New Zealand interns sent to NASA Ames Research Center.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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