Zhuoshi is a diabetes dietitian at Waitemata District Health Board. She helps people understand how their blood sugar levels are affected by lifestyle, what they eat and when they eat.
What do you do on an average work day?
I work as a diabetes dietitian at North Shore and Waitakere hospitals. Most of the time, my work is about listening to patients and providing them with diabetes nutritional advice.
In individual consultations, I assess their dietary intake, review blood glucose levels and provide advice on how to adjust what they eat, when they eat and their lifestyle to improve their blood glucose levels.
I also coach post-graduate students learning about diabetes. I complete several nutrition and diabetes projects each year including research, exploring ways to improve our service and my own knowledge.
In addition, I give group talks for people with diabetes and health care professionals. For example, I lead a ‘one-day carbohydrate counting course’ to teach people how to adjust their insulin based on how much carbohydrate food they eat.
I have never felt isolated at work. We have a super-bonded team comprising diabetes specialist doctors, nurses, dietitians, podiatrists, a health psychologist and diabetes midwives. We work closely to look for the best treatment option for each individual.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
Since I was a small kid I heard adults saying maths is for boys and arts are for girls. To start with, I simply wanted to prove them wrong and show girls can be good at maths. And it turned out I fell in love with maths and my interest grew, extending to physics, chemistry and any subject with numbers and calculations.
I completed my schooling in China. In primary and secondary school, we were taught a wide range of subjects, but at high school there's quite a difference to New Zealand; we can opt to specialise in either science or arts. I chose science and studied physics, chemistry and biology - in addition to studying Chinese, English and mathematics, which were compulsory to all students.
School in China was very competitive. In high school we had over 800 students in one year with 50-60 students in each class. All students and their parents were under pressure to squeeze into the top universities to improve their chances of one day getting a well-paid job.
My parents thought a good job for a girl would be work with fixed hours such as in a bank, therefore they suggested I study Economics. However after two years at a Chinese university studying economics, I felt a craving for science.
Inspired by my grandmother who was a medical professional and also growing up in a family of Chinese traditional-medicine doctors emphasising healthy balanced eating, I decided to become a dietitian: to translate the science of food into lay language and educate people how to eat well and how to choose foods to treat medical conditions such as diabetes.
It was almost impossible to change subjects or universities in China, so I decided to study overseas and began my nutrition and dietetic education and career in New Zealand.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, absolutely. Although I'm not executing complex maths, physics or chemistry in my daily work, the way of thinking, analysing and interpreting results - which I learnt through studying science - has been instrumental in my success.
Even my two years of undergraduate economics in China wasn't a waste of my time. It provided me with an understanding of the big picture of global economic changes, and the knowledge to research and develop resources and products that improve the services we provide for our patients.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Follow your heart and just try it, then you will know if it is a career right for you. Don’t be afraid; you may get it wrong for the first time but you won't know until you give it a shot.
Even if it doesn’t work out and you want to change your career completely, the time and effort put into the previous study won’t be wasted. What you have learnt will become part of you, and it will influence and enrich whatever career you next decide on.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
After completing my Masters research, which is about developing a healthy rice-mix for Asian people with type 2 diabetes, I wanted to see if people in the real world would actually like eating it. I worked with Foodbowl and ATEED to produce the rice-mix and launched it at the Auckland Food Show.
During this process I learnt about production, marketing and distribution of a brand new food product. I was thrilled to see how much people enjoyed it. More importantly, it proves that research doesn’t have to stop as a published journal article but can become a real thing, positively impacting people’s lives.
Completing my PhD research was another highlight. In clinics I have seen that lots of people with diabetes do not understand which foods affect their blood glucose, and many have misunderstandings and confusion about what they should or should not eat for diabetes. So I developed an electronic diabetes educational resource based on exactly what people want to know. Again my economics training helped in this research.
There were many times, such as filming myself, when I had to step out of my comfort zone - but the feedback about the resource I developed was phenomenal. I had many requests from clinicians wanting to use it for patient education. In 2016 I presented my study at the 17th International Congress of Dietetics in Spain. And in 2017, my poster on this won “People’s Choice Poster” in the Waitemata District Health Excellence Awards and I was also awarded the “Emerging Researcher” prize.
Last but not least, seeing patients, witnessing their changes, and celebrating their achievements inspire me every day. Dietetics is a very rewarding career because we can support so many people to make changes in their lives, which improve not only their own wellbeing and economic prospects but also those of society as a whole.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Our world is moving towards more technology. STEM provides the best tool for us to dream big and turn our ideas to reality. It allows you to create new products and generate new research areas. Remember you're not just learning STEM; establishing a way of thinking is just as valuable as the subjects themselves.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women have different life experiences to men. Having diversity can enrich our work and creativity. STEM is in every part of our life, if we have more women working in STEM we can improve our products and services to better cater for women’s needs. STEM is also not men’s speciality - it is a really fun subject with lots of potential and I believe women enjoy it as much as men do.
Zhuoshi Zhang is a diabetes dietitian at Waitemata District Health Board. She recently submitted her PhD thesis on development and testing a population-based electronic diabetes nutritional education tool for the multi-ethnic New Zealand population.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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