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Stella McQueen

Stella looks after native freshwater fish as a freelance freshwater ecologist. She is also an author and a science communicator.

Stella with beetlesWhat do you do on an average work day?

It is hugely varied. From working out plans of attack for projects, doing field work, data entry and report writing, to liaising with clients and landowners.

Since much of my work is freelancing, there is no such thing as an average day - even the office is rarely the same! Nothing beats looking around yet another beautiful stream and thinking this is my office.

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

I have always been one to follow my interests, and at school I was utterly obsessed with medieval history. So my subjects in seventh form (year 13) were English, History, Art History, Classical Studies and, the odd-one-out, Biology.

My first degree, straight after school was a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History, with many Classics and Philosophy papers. Going to university was so freeing! Suddenly, it was OK to be totally nerdy; it was OK to ask questions in class. There were no cliques or popular groups, and no bullying.

Eight years later, I returned to university to study science. Being an adult student was even more amazing. When you go straight after school, you are trying to balance study with your first year out of home, often in a new town - and all while trying to figure out how to be an adult. It is a chaotic and difficult time. As an adult student, all I needed to focus on was my studies, so I could totally throw myself into it.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

My science degree, definitely. My Bachelor of Arts does not immediately appear related to what I do now, but I actually use it all the time!

I only realised at the end of my BA that the entire point of it was not the topics that we were studying, but the skills that we were learning in the process: research, analysis, critical thinking, constructing an argument and writing. I am using these skills constantly in my ecology work.

Some people said to me that they thought it was a shame that I didn't go straight into sciences. I completely disagree. I wasn't especially interested in science at the time, and many of the useful skills that I gained through the BA were not taught so thoroughly in the science undergrad papers that I did.

There is no shame or 'going backwards' in returning to study for a change in career. Never let thoughts of that put you off from doing what you want to do.

Stella electrofishing

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

The one thing I tell every student or prospective student that I meet, is to look up the main conferences in their field and make sure they go to them.

Most people don't go to conferences until they are postgrad students, but you are off to a huge advantage if you go along earlier. You get exposed to such a huge variety of study areas, jobs, organisations and potential employers - far beyond what you thought was possible. They can be very intense, so not having the pressure of giving a talk at your first one makes it easier to get out there and meet people.

I was a dental assistant when I went to my first Freshwater Sciences conference, and many of the people I met that first time are now good friends. That first time, I could see most of the students were nervous and were just hanging out with other students from their own universities.

Remember that everyone there is in the same boat and that the 'big names' are just people and are super supportive of students. Get out there and introduce yourself. Ask a random stranger what they do. You'll be surprised at how inspiring and levelling it is.

I have funded my own way to most Freshwater Sciences conferences in the last ten years. Certainly not a cheap thing to do as a student! But thanks to this, I now have a huge network of friends and contacts in the industry that I can ring up any time to ask random questions, bounce ideas off or ask around for work. These networks are probably more valuable to me than my qualifications.

Stella in the mountains

What are some of your career highlights so far?

Wow, how to choose?! Getting helicoptered into the middle of nowhere for a few days to do fish surveys in unexplored streams. Being covered in eel slime from the 300 eels I just measured (and I only set six traps!). Slowly stalking my way up a stream at night with a spotlight and suddenly an adult giant kokopu appears in my beam. Every single torrentfish I have ever caught.

Then there's the people side of things. Through my science communication, I am able to rave about fish to an interested audience, but the stories I learn through the comments and feedback are extremely interesting and satisfying. The science communication has been great for expanding my own knowledge, as well as passing it on, and for realising and remembering that the general public are not scientists and don't see the world the same way.

Similarly, talking to landowners - listening to their observations or being able to identify for them what the strange fish was that they saw a few years ago. And training people in field techniques, or planning out how to do a particular piece of work. Working in science is as much about working well with people as it is about your actual field.

Stella checking a stream

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

Having a basic, working understanding of how science works - and exercising it on a daily basis - is critical in this time of rampant pseudoscience and health and marketing scams. Billions of dollars, and untold wasted time and hope, is spent each year on 'treatments' that have been shown not to work.

In the environmental field, we need science and technology to help us understand the impacts our actions have on the environment, and the most effective ways to fix the problems that we have created, before it is too late.

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

At its heart, science, technology, engineering and mathematics is about understanding the world, and solving problems. The more diverse the minds and perspectives of the people working in STEM, the better for everyone.

Stella in front of a vintage tram

Stella works with native freshwater fish. Within that, she is a freelance freshwater ecologist, an author and a science communicator. She travels all over the country doing short term contracts in different places and for different consultancies or organisations. Much of this is surveying and monitoring of fish populations, fish rescue prior to development around streams, and writing the odd guide or training document.

Stella has written two books - The New Zealand Native Freshwater Aquarium (2010, soon to be published as a second edition), and A Photographic Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of New Zealand (2013, New Holland). She also has a Facebook page, New Zealand Native Fish, which has over 6,000 followers, and does regular interviews on RNZ National, gives talks and writes articles.

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

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