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Trish Fraser

Trish is a senior soil scientist at Plant & Food Research in Lincoln, Canterbury. She helps crop growers become more environmentally sustainable as well as more productive.

Trish FraserWhat do you do on an average work day?

Life as a soil scientist is very varied and no two days at work are the same!

A lot of time needs to be spent reading the literature around your subject area, so that you know what other researchers are up to and what the latest findings are.

You would also spend time writing up what you have done and what you have found out, so that you can communicate your findings to other interested parties such as researchers or clients - and often, in my case, also farmers and growers.

For me, I also have lots of meetings with other team members, where we plan how to get funding or organise what things we need to do in our experiments.

Other days I'm analysing and assessing our results, seeing what is happening in our current work. Those days I find most exciting as you are finding out ‘new stuff’ that usually nobody else has done before.

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

I studied at a high school in Scotland called Dingwall Academy, where I took a wide range of subjects including some sciences and languages, as unlike some of my friends at that age I found it hard to know or decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!

After high school I studied at Aberdeen University in Scotland. I actually went there to study botany, but looking back I think that I probably thought botany would be more like horticulture than it actually was! But I enjoyed it and in the second year someone suggested I could also do soil science, which I ended up also enjoying - and so at the end of four years I completed a BSc Joint Honours in Plant & Soil Sciences.

Next, I applied for and received a scholarship to come to study in New Zealand for a PhD in soil science at Lincoln University. I investigated the fate of nitrogen in the soil under a cow’s urine patch, an issue which has become very environmentally topical of late, especially in relation to water quality. I really did not plan at that stage to end up spending the next 30 years in New Zealand, but here I am - and still loving it!

Trish doing research on soils

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes! It turns out that I got a job as a soil scientist just “across the road” from Lincoln University at Crop & Food Research, now called Plant & Food Research, straight after I finished my PhD! I have now been working here for 26 years!

This does, however, include three lots of maternity leave - as I opted for the road to juggle both work and motherhood, with three daughters along the way.

I have worked on a variety of different soil-related topics over the years, including studying the role of earthworms and what they do in soil, the impacts of different crop residue (remains after harvesting) management practices, different tillage practices (land preparation) in crop farming systems, and how these management practices affect nitrate leaching (draining away into water sources).

Trish at a field day event

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

I think the key thing is to find yourself work that really stimulates you and that you enjoy doing. You are way more likely to succeed at it if you also enjoy it!

What are some of your career highlights so far?

I really enjoy the part of my job where I get to find out new things and then get to convey the findings to others.

I have particularly enjoyed the times where we have seen farmers, growers and government use our research findings to make practical changes to the way they do things - for the ultimate betterment of the environment while still maintaining or improving land productivity.

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

I think that having some understanding of STEM is really critical to our future. Political and other decisions get made around the world every day that actually require us all to have some STEM knowledge, as we do live in a democracy and are all meant to have our say.

However, often it appears that a large proportion of people sadly lack sufficient understanding of the issues involved to be able to make informed decisions. This can lead to incorrect decisions getting made that can be detrimental to us all further down the track.

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

Women often approach things and see things in a different way to men, so I think it is really valuable to have them involved in teams exploring STEM as they bring very different insights to the table that have historically been under-appreciated. 

Things are changing though. When I started work, women were much more of a rarity in soil science, but there are a lot more of them around these days. Similarly, things are changing in the farming community, with more women now turning up to farming field days and the like. Even back just when I started going along to such field days often I was the only female there, but those days happily seem behind us now with more and more young women getting involved at all levels of the agricultural industry.

Trish with bird

Trish, originally from a farm in northern Scotland, is a senior soil scientist who works for Plant & Food Research at Lincoln in Canterbury. Plant & Food Research is a New Zealand-based science company providing research and development that adds value to fruit, vegetable, crop and food products.
Follow Trish on Twitter: @calignosa

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

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