Salai (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Porou) is a Stakeholder Relationship Manager for Māori Agribusiness at AgResearch with a background in soil and environmental science.
What do you do on an average work day?
My days are really varied. I can be in Wellington speaking with policy makers and ministers in the morning, and out on a farm in the middle of nowhere with no reception in the afternoon!
Some days are spent with researchers and stakeholders developing research concepts to solve complex multi-faceted problems, and others are spent with landowners and business managers discussing development strategy alongside social and cultural challenges.
I also do more and more public speaking and interviews, but to contract this there are days of sitting at my desk reading, reviewing and editing research proposals, contracting projects and playing with costing models to make ends meet for everyone!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
In my final year at high school I studied Māori, French, English, Classics, Biology. I dropped Art History simply because I couldn’t fit it in! I also dropped Maths, for a whole different reason!
My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Science (Botany major, Psychology minor), so I really regretted dropping maths when I had to pick it up again at tertiary level. It was a struggle but I made it through a BSc, a Dip Grad (Ecology) and PhD (Environmental Science), while learning and taking various stats papers and training courses along the way!
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Not directly, although I still work in the environmental space (on-farm) but from a business perspective these days.
I use the research skills I learned to understand and translate business challenges and goals into Research and Development questions, and to connect Māori Agribusinesses to the research capability and networks that will help them to overcome their challenges and meet their goals. We sometimes even help them to set new goals.
What would you like to share with young woman who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Follow your passions because it’s on the tough days (and there will be tough days!), your passion is the thing that will get you through.
Don’t be deterred just because it’s hard or you’re not a 'straight A' student. In my experience, it’s those people who are prepared to work hard that truly excel.
Frankly, unless you want to be an academic, school marks don’t count in the big wide world, but your attitude and aptitude will - regardless of your chosen path!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Career highlights include trips to Spain where I had a short stint working as a technician at Barcelona University. While at the University I worked with researchers to develop a resin that captures nitrate as soil-water passes through or over it.
In it’s time (about 15 yrs ago) it was a really new, ground breaking technology for field scientists who monitor water quality and needed to understand nitrate movements through soils. It also had great potential as an environmental management tool. I left before we had a chance to see if it made it through to being commercialised.
Other career highlights have included working in my own rohe (Te Taitokerau), being able to visit marae I haven’t been to in years, hearing local dialects again, and being able to offer some of my own skills back to whanaunga along their journeys towards their cultural, social, environmental and economic aspirations.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
I personally would like to see Aotearoa-NZ build an economy and society in which ‘sustainable intensification’ and adding value - rather than volume - to our primary exports becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
I’m a firm believer that STEM subjects and related career fields is an important piece of the puzzle to develop innovative and commercially feasible solutions for our primary industries to enable them to produce outstanding high value products with minimal impact.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Not only do we have a right to be there, we NEED women in these industries!
We bring a whole different view and approach to the process of problem solving and problem definition! This often throws up some insightful results and new ways of doing things in what have traditionally often been regimented, binary disciplines.
Salai Letica (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Porou) is a Stakeholder Relationship Manager for Māori Agribusiness at AgResearch with a background in soil and environmental science.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.View all stories