What do you do on an average work day?
My work falls into three distinct types:
- I travel extensively, leading a large, international research project on behaviour change. This keeps me overseas for 4-5 months every year where I work with experts from various countries whose governments pay me to do so.
- The rest of the time, I work from home, largely analysing my data and writing reports and scientific articles etc.
- I also am strongly engaged with the Green Party (having been a candidate in the last two national elections) and I am spearheading the fight against the Wellington airport runway extension by co-chairing a group called ‘the Guardians of the Bays’. This volunteer work adds a significant (unpaid) workload to my daily routine.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I always knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, which was quite difficult seeing I grew up in Austria, a landlocked country! So, I moved to Australia when I was 20 and studied marine biology at James Cook University on the Great Barrier Reef. I got my PhD on human-induced environmental impacts on coral reefs, something that is currently very pertinent with the catastrophic global coral bleaching event due to climate change that we are witnessing.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Unfortunately, no. Because I was a coral reef expert and when I moved to NZ there was a distinct lack of tropical coral reefs, so I couldn’t get a job as a marine biologist here.
However, I believe what I currently do - namely run a large, global research project on better understanding and influencing human behaviour and our energy use – is one of the most important topics that we need to ‘crack’ if we want to avoid runaway climate change. Ultimately, this work may impact more positively on coral reefs than studying their horrifying demise at our hands.
It is hard for us environmental scientists not to lose faith in humanity sometimes, seeing we are witnessing so much wilful and wanton destruction that could be avoided. Doing work on how to change our behaviours makes me feel more optimistic than I would be if I would only study our impact on the planet. There is a term called ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ and that is what we scientists are experiencing when we are the Cassandras who, for decades have been calling for the world to listen and stop destroying our own habitat, yet being ignored or directly attacked by the fossil fuel lobby. It can be very, very hard to stay positive under these circumstances, and I regularly start crying when I hear my fellow coral scientists talk about the reef, that I was so lucky to study in my degree, dying and possibly becoming extinct in my lifetime.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I cannot stress how important it is to follow your heart, but to also look around you and the bigger issues that the world is facing now, and in your (and your kids’) future. I strongly believe that having more women (science) leaders is one of the key responses to making up for some of the big issues that our current socio-political-economic model has caused over the last century.
We need as many smart, educated women as we can, especially in the more male-dominated science fields and engineering. We are running out of time and we need all hands on deck to solve the most pressing global issues, namely runaway climate change and massive inequalities between people and countries.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
This international research project for the International Energy Agency’s Demand Side Programme called “Task 24 – Behaviour Change in DSM”, undoubtedly. It is my dream job, it aims to answer what I regard as the most important question right now (“How can we change peoples’ behaviours and practices to reduce our impact on the environment and each other?”) and I basically created it myself.
Finishing my PhD in one of the wildest, most remote areas in the world, in Papua New Guinea, where I did field work diving coral reefs with local divers over a 2km, shark-infested drop-off in the middle of a massive gold mine tailings outfall, was also a career highlight.
I also just got selected for Homeward Bound - a leadership expedition for 78 women scientists from around the world to Antarctica. We will learn everything there is to know about strategy, leadership and some polar sciene and the importance of Antarctica on our global climate so that we can become the women science leaders the world so urgently needs.
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?
We are at the bottom of the world, a tiny country often punching above its weight, but very much at the whims of our bigger neighbours and the elements. Our greatest resource is not dairy, or even our beautiful countryside for tourism, but our people.
Getting them to be one of the most educated work forces in the world is imperative to our survival and future wellbeing. New Zealanders are innovative, resourceful and hard-working and knowledge in STEM will help us bring our combined resources to create a more prosperous, fair and sustainable nation.
I truly believe that New Zealand can, and will be, one of the most inspiring examples of how to do things right as a world citizen. But we have a long way to go yet.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
This is what our whole Homeward Bound project focuses on – how come we have more women University graduates, with better grades than men - yet when it comes to leadership positions or pay, we are still hugely discriminated against?
The more smart, educated women we have, the harder it will be to keep us out of becoming the leaders the world so urgently needs. But we need to address sexism on many fronts better, that also includes the sexism that we impose on each other – for example, by expecting women to be able to do everything perfect, be better than men at their work to get the same respect, or to have to trade off motherhood with academia, which is still very much the case. I made a conscious choice not to be a mother, for several reasons, but especially because I realised that I cannot be and do everything and my main focus is, and has always been, saving the environment. However, I do not believe that it is fair that men can be fathers and still become academic leaders, yet for a lot of women there remains a trade-off.
We need to find better ways of helping each other making the best choices for each of us, and that means true equality and division of labour (including unpaid labour, like child-rearing) between the sexes.
Dr Sea Rotmann is the CEO of SEA - Sustainable Energy Advice Ltd. Dr Rotmann works from home on the beach in Wellington's beautiful South Coast.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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