Lilly Taylor - PhD student and Science leader - sits down with Felix to talk life as a researcher, the importance of science communication, and her journey to Antarctica next year.
Lilly (Taranaki Tuturu and Ngai Tahu) is currently pursuing her PhD in Chemistry, and has recently been selected to partake in the prestigious Homeward Bound programme. Homeward Bound is aimed at building a network of 1000 women in STEAM with crucial and critical leadership skills, ready to change our world - and culminates in an Antarctic retreat.
Lilly is one of those rare people who pursue what they love with fiery passion. After dropping out of school at 15, Lilly returned to university at 21 to pursue a degree and career in science.
Felix Pryor was lucky enough to sit down with Lilly, and chat through her journey into science, Homeward Bound and its crucial importance to contemporary science leadership, science communication, and how to inspire more women and other unrepresented peoples to enter into STEAM subjects.
F: Firstly, tell me about yourself, and what it is about chemistry that drew you in?
L: I’m Lilly and I’m a Chemistry PhD student from Wellington. I’ve always loved science, art and conservation, and chemistry combines all three. Especially organic chemistry; everything you do is inspired by something nature does. Nature is the ultimate artist and architect so I just got drawn into that world.
What are you researching for your PhD?
I design ways to make natural compounds that are valuable to us.
You talk about art and conservation as being two other interests. How do they intersect?
Growing up in New Zealand I had this beautiful natural backdrop around me and I’ve seen lots of those areas deteriorate over my lifetime. I think we were aware of conservation growing up, but there is certainly lots more discussion around it now and we are actively encouraged to be more environmentally sustainable. Communicating the science behind climate change and pollution is a huge part and art has lots to contribute. Art can show these complex concepts, in an engaging way that makes it accessible. Often people are not as intimidated by art as they may be by science.
What are you most passionate about in the field of science today?
The thing that makes me most passionate is the limitless discovery and every new thing that we do discover - that new research, those new ideas - they come together to solve real problems that we are facing.
So it is about the discoveries in chemistry for you?
I love all STEAM fields - chemistry is the one I chose to do because it fits my mind best but particle physics, mathematical theorem, ecology, earth sciences … there is something to make you go “wow!” in every field .
Science thrives on discovery - are there any changes you are anticipating, either in more general fields or in your specific field?
In chemistry we have so much foundational knowledge but the way we are starting to use it is changing. In synthesis, we can make almost anything now. The real focus is making a molecule well. We have a while to go before we can compare to the elegance of biological machinery but advancements in technology have given us tools to understand the chemistry of nature in ways we haven’t been able to which is exciting.
More generally, science is becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary. We are also seeing a change in the trend of who can be a scientist and what a scientist looks like. We are getting this influx of totally out-of-the-box ideas and contributions across all fields. We are expanding what is possible.
What does that interdisciplinary state look like in New Zealand?
As researchers, we are reaching out and working with academics and industry across multiple institutes and disciplines. With the increase in STEAM-based start-ups like Humble Bee, and the encouragement from crown research institutes, I think we’ll see many more collaborations.
We have these really bright, really successful researchers in NZ engaging the public and collaborating with non-scientists and social-scientists to maximize the effect our research has on New Zealand. This also helps our young future scientists stay in STEAM as they have more visible role models.
New Zealand has a unique bicultural history. Do you think there is a need for science research work in tandem with Māori ideas?
Māori were the original scientists of New Zealand and there is a divide between Matarangi Māori, which describes our wisdom and way of investigating and understanding the world, and western science. Indigenous knowledge doesn’t weaken science; it aids it. A great example of that in New Zealand is the work Dr Phil Lyver does. His incorporation of Mataruanga Maori into modern ecology has a contributed to new conservation strategies for preserving our native wildlife.
That’s crucial knowledge.
Maori took the role of kaitiakitanga. We don’t see the land as something we own but rather something we are here to be guardians for. The knowledge around how we best care for Papatūānuku (Earth) may be preserved in stories and art, but it is still science.
Diversity of thought is something that is understood to help contribute to good, strong leadership. A big thing for science right now is understanding and analyzing the role of women. What changes do you think need to happen in order for more women to thrive in STEAM industries?
When I look and talk to primary school children, they are naturally inquisitive and interested about STEAM. The breakdown happens towards high-school. I think part of that is girls not wanting to be the only girl in a class and following their friends, maybe having interschool networks for girls in each STEAM subject could help that. A huge issue is also retainment. Many women that do choose science then gradually pull out of STEAM across their career. We have to ask “why is this not an environment women want to stay in?”
Homeward Bound seems like an incredible opportunity to change the face of science leadership. Can you tell me about it?
Homeward Bound is an initiative from Fabian Dattner. The idea of the programme is to bring together a network of 1000 women in science over the next ten years, who have the potential to be leaders around global policy, and also are already showing their commitment to this. It is global, and our cohort is the most diverse yet. We have 95 women from 33 countries, from 25 different science fields.
What happens on the programme?
It is a 12-month programme, of which the first 11 months are spent doing intensive training. The areas we’ll focus on are visibility and science communication, leadership development, strategic capability and science collaboration. The programme ends with a 3 week expedition to Antarctica, formulating a strategy collectively for us as individuals to go back to our communities and engage them with STEAM and our environment.
You’re heading to Antarctica!
We go on a really nice boat to Antarctica! Antarctica was chosen for several reasons. It is captivating to the general public. It’s like Atlantis: it seems like a magical, untouchable place but it’s not and that leads into the second reason. Despite being one of the most rugged, rough environments, it’s also inherently fragile and is dramatically effected by humans. The second cohort that went found plastic there. That shouldn’t be possible. I just hope things like this can help show people the magnitude of the impact we have and inspire change.
Our natural pollution extends to a place Antarctica. It’s incredible, and sobering.
Heartbreaking. And very sobering.
What are you looking forward to most about going to Antarctica?
The people I’m going with. They are all incredible female scientists who have all been through their own challenges and have their own stories. Sharing this together is everything. Even though it’s the end of our 12-month programme, it’s the start of a much longer journey for us all.
What do you want to take away from Homeward Bound?
I want have the skills to help New Zealand be a place where everybody has the ability to ask questions and seek those answers, and make informed choices for themselves. The magic of this programme is that it really looks at the weaving of our personal and social concerns, and how they connect to each other and how we can solve many seemingly little, disconnected things, which has this massive overall impact.
Homeward Bound is about leadership. Do you have any leadership tips for young, aspirational STEAM students?
There is always going to be somebody that will give you time if you ask for it. Sometimes you will get lucky and that person will fall in your life. Other times you’ll have to actively find a good mentor. Then look for opportunities where you can be a role model. Don’t be afraid to take chances and put your hand up, even if you’re not sure you have all the experience being asked for. If it’s something you’re passionate about, you will do great!
To wrap up, what are your future aspirations as a leader in STEAM?
In chemistry, I aspire to design strategies for accessing complex structures in a way that requires the minimum amount of resources. The efficiency in which nature produces these intricate molecular scaffolds is something we aim for, but can only achieve if we create a research environment driven by invention and creativity.
In terms of STEAM as a field, I want to make it accessible to everyone.