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Sarah Ward

Sarah designs and assesses devices that help people retrain in walking after a brain injury. She is a physiotherapist and a research fellow in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Auckland.

Sarah graduatingWhat do you do on an average work day?

I don't think I have an average work day! That is what makes my job so enjoyable - I love the variation.

What I do at work would depend on what stage my research study is at. This week I'm at my desk analysing and making sense of the movement data from our latest data collection phase. During the term break I was testing our walking device with participants using 3D motion capture technology.

Interspersed in my day is meetings with students and/or advisors, writing papers for conferences or journals, and drinking coffee. There is always time for coffee!

Also throw in anywhere between 1.5 to 2.5 hours of training for triathlon on top of it all!

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

At school I was adamant I would be a doctor (of the medical variety) so I studied all the sciences right through to Year 13 - physics, chemistry and biology. I opted to do statistics rather than calculus, and was utterly hopeless at english so I took (and very much enjoyed) history.

After high school I embarked on my plan to become a doctor, entering first year biomedical science at the University of Auckland. I missed out on a place at medical school, and after evaluating all my options I chose to continue my BSc in Biomedical Science with an plan to apply for graduate entry.

I spent some time pondering why I actually wanted to be a doctor and what it involved, and realised that what I wanted to do was more aligned with physiotherapy. So I followed up my BSc with a Bachelor of Physiotherapy at the University of Otago. During my final year at Otago we undertook a research project as part of our program, and I was really surprised how much I enjoyed the research process.

After graduating (again) I spent a year or so working as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist in private practice, before returning to study in 2012. I completed a PGDipSci in Exercise Rehabilitation, then headed overseas to the University of Melbourne to begin my PhD. I caught the research bug while at Otago, and found that physiotherapy-based research was a really good way to still contribute to the profession while I had an injury preventing me from working to full capacity.

In my current position as a research fellow I've found a really neat way to combine my background as a physiotherapist, with the knowledge and skills I gained in my PhD.

Sarah at work

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

I realise I haven't really followed a traditional pathway, but that varied background is exactly what has enabled me to be effective in my current job.

My skills and knowledge gained as a clinician means I can work easily with patients, while the biomechanics skills gained from my PhD mean I can test and analyse data to make sense of how our devices influence how users move.

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

Don't sell yourself short and be bold! There is no one way, or correct path to follow in finding what you enjoy doing. 

A direct or traditional route of study may take less time, but doesn't give us time to explore what really matters to us and what drives us. Sometimes we need to take the less trodden pathway to really find what we are passionate about. Take that passion, and pursue it. I also think flexibility and transferability of skills is massively important in an increasingly interdisciplinary workplace.

Sarah with Olympic marathon runner Meb Keflezighi.What are some of your career highlights so far?

Definitely one of the biggest highlights was being a visiting research scholar at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (USA) for 4 months in 2015. Of course finishing (and surviving) my PhD was a highlight! Getting my first paper published, and travelling to new places for conferences.

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

STEM is important as it creates new economic opportunities for New Zealand. We are well known as a country of innovators and punch well above our weight in a world scale, and participation and engagement in STEM is critical to innovation.

The nature of the workplace is changing dramatically with technological advancements. One I've been part of personally is the changing landscape of healthcare. For example physiotherapy was previously an entirely holistic practice supported by anecdotal evidence. Now we see a practice that is being moved along by a solid evidence base utilising cutting edge technology - generated from research.

Embracing and engaging with STEM is important to develop as a citizen of the 21st century

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

Diversity is great in any sense - it adds to the richness of a work environment, and provides valuable and different layers of creativity.

I work in mechanical engineering, and at any group/department or faculty meeting it's immediately obvious females are really under-represented in the field. Women have different life experiences, and can provide unique and different perspectives to men.

In my field we can bring female experiences and knowledge to clinical research - raising awareness of womens health care issues, and providing a voice in developing technologies to address these issues.

Personally, I think it is important to show the next generation of girls that it's perfectly ok to want to work in STEM, and that it's cool!

Sarah doing a triathlon

Sarah is a physiotherapist and a research fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Auckland, helping to design and assess devices to help retrain walking after brain injury. She can be found on Twitter @sarahward_nz and on ResearchGate.

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

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