If you search for images of scientists on the Science Learning Hub, you’ll find photos of women and men, some young, some old, a range of ethnicities – and yes, some will be in white lab coats. However, others will be in diving gear, on the top of a mountain or at an exotic overseas location! As diverse as scientists can be, they have many things in common – a desire to know more about the natural world and beyond and, for most of them, a desire to make the world a better place.

The nature of science – and scientists

This article explores some of the reasons people choose a science-related career. It is also intended to dispel some myths about scientists and their work. You know the ones – that scientists are eccentric, older men working alone in the lab or that science is a dull, step-by-step process. On the contrary, the scientists featured on the Hub are the everyday kinds of people you meet at the supermarket, and they all have stories about what led them to and keeps them in science.

Discover a bit more about what motivates scientists – and some things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

No day is ever the same. I can be looking at head lice, the internal structure of a marshmallow and a piece of a failed helicopter blade all in the same day!

Liz Girvan, microscopist

Are scientists born or are they created?

Some people know from a very young age that they want to become scientists. Others find their passion for science later in life. For example, Jane Mullaney’s career path took her from busking to microbiology! Nick Roskruge began as a tree pruner and shearer before establishing Tāhuri Whenua – the National Māori Vegetable Growers’ Collective. As a teenager, Kate McGrath wanted to be a pilot, but she also wanted to save the world. As a student, Kate fell in love with chemistry, travelled the world and now works on nanomaterials.

Scientists tend to be a curious and creative bunch

Two traits – creativity and curiosity – feature quite a bit when we ask scientists what excites them about science. Most scientists have a strong desire to know or learn about the world around them. For Paul Nurse, the curiosity began as he walked to school, and it eventually led to a Nobel Prize! While observing massive thunderstorms as a commercial pilot, Peyman Zawar-Reza became interested in meteorology and now does atmospheric research. Abby Smith researched bryozoans purely out of curiosity, and 20 years later, this information is crucial to our understanding of ocean acidification.

That curiosity to know more often brings out the creative nature of scientists. It’s a circular thing – both Rod Dunbar and Louis Schipper recognise that, to be creative in science, you first need to know a fair bit about your subject. Rod reckons once you’ve got the knowledge, it’s easy to make imaginative leaps. For Bronwyn Lowe, the magic and creativity of science allows her to push the boundaries and put new concepts together.

Scientists are problem solvers

While Kate McGrath wanted to save the world, many other scientists are willing to work on smaller, more achievable problems. For example, when dogs began to die on Auckland beaches, Paul McNabb and his colleagues had a mystery to solve. Gordon Sanderson also helps to solve mysteries. Gordon is an ophthalmologist, and he uses ocular forensics to find guilty parties in court cases.

In New Zealand, primary industries are crucial for our economy. Mark Goodwin has been solving lots of problem related to our hard-working honey bees, and Peter Molan used their honey to help repair hard-to-heal wounds.

But, you don’t need to be a ‘proper’ scientist to solve problems. Intermediate school student Ayla Hutchinson created the Kindling Cracker to make splitting firewood a lot safer!

Scientists and mātauranga Maori

Many scientists combine their conventional science knowledge with mātauranga Maori knowledge. Sean Ogilvie, Kimberley Maxwell and Hemi Cumming share their perspectives of working in conventional science settings, while Te Kaka Keegan and Hector Busby took their field work to (literally) great lengths! Ocean Mercier, alongside her own research, highlights a range of other mahi with the Project Mātauranga video series.

Scientists work in industry

There are numerous science careers in industry, too. Steve Matthews collaborates with engineers in Tokoroa. John Meyer, a design expert at Robinson Seismic, helps to protect buildings from earthquake damage. Bruce Peterson may call himself a ‘backyard engineer’, but he’s changing the top-dressing business. Innovators Richard Williams and Martin Markotsis have found ways to turn wastes into environmentally friendly products.

Students becoming scientists

All students need an understanding of science to solve everyday problems and to help make informed decisions about issues that involve science. In reality, only some students actually become professional scientists.

If you are interested in being a scientist or working in a science-related career, scientists have some practical advice to offer. Most recommend taking science and maths subjects in high school, but they also emphasise the importance of being able to communicate. Greg Bodeker is a strong advocate for good writing and oral language skills, while Catherine Koleda values English and the humanities as part of a rounded education. Whatever subjects you study, Eli van Houten thinks that keenness and enthusiasm are essential attributes.

It’s more than just school work, though. Clubs, hobbies and getting involved in community citizen science projects can offer practical experiences and opportunities to work with knowledgeable people. Kelvin Barnsdale and Warren McNabb had early hobbies that turned into careers. And don’t forget social media – scientists recommend reading one article a day from sites like Quantamagazine or Science Daily.

A science career isn’t all about research. Science communicator Rachel Douglas explains why she has the best job in the world, whereas marine videographer Steve Hathaway would argue his job is better.

The final word, however, goes to Craig Rodger – watch as he explains why he loves his job.

Related content

Leah Adlam works as an environmental scientist. In this set of short videos, Leah explains how a film got her interested in science and what it’s like to study science.

Activity idea

The activity Scientist introduction encourages students to take a closer look at a scientist’s background and work. Ask students to choose a scientist of interest to them from this article. Students can find out more about the scientists and their work by typing their names in the Hub’s search function. Use the questions in the activity as a beginning framework to ‘introduce’ the scientists to the class.

Useful links

Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.

Use these Pond collections for more profiles of people working in science.

Victor Kang shares his journey from high school to science, and a few life lessons in between, in this Royal Society article.


    Published 9 March 2018