This week our curator on RealScientists is the fantastic Dr Sarah Morgan (@DrSMMorgan). Sarah works as a Post-Doc researcher at the Liggins Institute of the University of Aukland (New Zealand). Sarah also has the highly prestigious second job of helping out as a moderator and general behind-the-scenes magical helper here at RealScientists!
Sarah’s work primarily focuses on Non-communicable Disease-risk intervention studies aimed at adolescents, mediated via compulsory education, which she explains more eloquently than I can in her answers to our little introduce-yourself interview questions below.
It’s worth noting before you read the Q&A below, that Sarah actually designed and wrote the questions we use, so in essence the next section is just Sarah talking to herself.
How did you end up in science?
Science has been my homegirl for as long as I can remember. In primary school I spent a lot of time in the library, in secondary school I spent a lot of time in the labs – helping out the tech with odd jobs like cleaning safety glasses, reading old text books, etcetera.
Who me, a nerd? *cough*
I don’t have a cute little story about how when I was 2 my Mum caught me watching the pet rabbit for 12 hours straight to see how they bred or anything (the only time we had a rabbit was when the cat bought home a half dead one and we saved it…for a day), and as a small child was more into mixing up magic potions than seeing how things worked.
My career aspirations started out as wanting to be a vet (animals are cool), to brain surgeon (but wouldn’t you get bored only working on human brains?) to research science, when I was about 15 and found out that such a thing existed. From about 16 when I learned about the different university degrees I decided I wanted a PhD, so that was that.
When I started at university I was enrolled under a double degree; a Bachelor of Commerce like my Dad (and my uncles, and my grandfather, and my sisters fiance…) majoring in Management, and a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Genetics with a minor in Psychology. (Classic overachiever). By the end of the first semester I was dead bored with the Management course and people therein, and dropped the BCom completely. All Science, All The Time: from then on out. (Though honestly, I still consider psyc to be a bit further down the scale…).
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
My Bachelors degree majored in Genetics and minored in Psychology, followed by an Honours degree also in Genetics, and then a PhD…also in Genetics. While my honours was in a microbiology lab, working on legume root nodules, I chose my PhD project by supervisor preference and scholarship availability and ended up in an Evolution & Development lab working on…nutrition and lifespan.
I loved my grad student years, but it was entirely due to extra-curricular activities. I was on the exec of Otago University Students Association as science rep, my first year (student politics: a…learning experience), did a massive amount of undergraduate lab teaching throughout, and about midway I started developing my scicomm skills working with high school students via various paths, writing for a lay audience through blogging, and poster design for mine and others work.
I spent the middle chunk of 2012 in a black tunnel of despair (thesis writing) and graduated that December. I’d rented out my house and sold all of my stuff, and drove out of the city 2 days before Christmas without looking back.
I’d been applying for postdocs the latter half of 2012 and spent most of January filling in applications without sending them in, but it took me until mid-February when one night, unable to sleep, I had the utterly baffling thought: what if I didn’t have to do one?
It was the most freeing, amazing thought I had had in my entire adult life. I went and found Mum (I was bludging off the parents at this point, jobless and depressed & seeking reassurance) and hesitantly asked “What if…I didn’t do a postdoc? Would that…be ok?”. Postdoc meant doing all of the things I couldn’t really care less about (bench work, writing like a robot), and none of the things that had made me happy during my PhD (communication, working with “youth”, design, narrative-style writing).
Thus began the second chapter of my adult life. Jobless but happier than I had been in years. I spent 2012 volunteering for the Whakatane SPCA, reconnecting with family, and researching & applying for ‘alternate careers’. I eventually picked up some casual contract scicomm work, and reconnected with a PI for whom I now work.
Tell us about your work?
I started in my current research group in January of this year as a Science Writer & Designer. In May I took up a postdoc position and switched from professional staff to academic staff with all of the negative connotations therein (I’m only half joking, the academic system is *broken*). After swearing off academia last year, this struck me as rightfully ironic.
I work in a translation-intervention group that specialises in translation of Healthy Start to Life (DOHaD = Developmental Origins of Health and Disease) research to fit the New Zealand compulsory education curriculum (ages 11-18). We use a mixed-methods approach to study the change in knowledge and behaviour as a result of learning about topics such as healthy nutrition and diabetes within science class. If you learn about *why* eating a balanced diet is better for you, you’re more likely to avoid doughnuts and coke for breakfast. The public health model of *just telling people what to do* is quite famously failing.
We write and design teaching modules, run Professional Learning & Development (PLD) courses for the teachers using the modules, and do surveys and interviews of the students before, after and 12 months-after completing the module in science class.
We have projects in New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Tonga, and our model has been replicated around the world. We’re part of collaborative projects involving the USA, Japan, Norway and Australia. We run a face-to-face programme in addition to our research projects, where schools bring groups of students into our specialised classrooms at the uni to experience hands-on modern scientific techniques, meet Real Scientists (see what I did there?!) and normalise the university environment. A lot of the students we work with are from low socio-economic communities and making university a place where they feel a sense of belonging is vital for encouraging them into tertiary study.
A side-arm of our work has recently grown, whereby we work with scientists who want to connect with education. The traditional route of scientists speaking at assembly/to a class has been shown to be detrimental for a positive perception of science by the students. My PI’s favourite saying lately is that “Outreach is Outdated” as it implies a one-way transaction with scientists in the authoritative position over educators (she comes from a distinguished teaching background, not academia). I’ll delve into that chunky bias this week. Scientists AND educators are experts in their respective fields.
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?
I think of any research, ours is perhaps the most ignorable by the lay public. We are concerned with making sure the lay public cares more about research and science in general, rather than our research itself. I think a more relevant question should be – why should scientists care about our work? The answer of course being that it is not up to scientists how society will use science, but society itself. And if society does not understand or value science, it will not be used (and we’ll see things like anti-vaccination campaigns succeed, etcetera). This is another chunky bias that results in great discussions; our work is typically scorned/not valued by ‘hard scientists’.
My goal is to see a science literate society, one that can judge for itself the merits or otherwise of public health initiatives, advertising claims, politics, food and medicine choices, lifestyle behaviours etc etc.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I’m a founding member of the Auckland STEM Alliance, a group working to strengthen the connection/integration between STEM businesses, and education and lay communities in the greater Auckland region. We’ve got some epic stuff planned for 2015 (including an official launch) and I’m really excited to be a part of something that spans the science sector, from academic institutions to the profit-driven commercial side.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I remain on amiable terms with the Whakatane SPCA and while I can no longer volunteer for them on-site (what with moving from Ohope to Auckland) I still volunteer my design skills, and a couple of weeks back made them a poster series for some upcoming events.
This year I also became an admin for a rotational curation twitter account, which is quite frankly amazeballs. Under the RealScientists banner I’ve instigated a data collection protocol (recent curators have me to hate for that), and started RealScience Students (@RSStudents) which I’m sure will come up this week.
Also considered a hobby is talking too much, which if you have gotten this far – I commend your perseverance.
How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)
Sun, a deck, a tall glass of cold something, a book, a house cleaned the day before, behind me (not at all OCD), a view over the ocean, my dog in the shade, and perhaps a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert to look forward to in the evening.