We Believe in Science is a regular Ensemble series partly inspired by Hillary Clinton's 2016 quote - but equally the incredible work of scientists and experts during this global pandemic. We'll celebrate those championing facts, evidence, research and learned knowledge because now more than ever, in the age of Covid, Trumpism and wellness influencers, we know that these values are essential.
Last year, Dr Siouxsie Wiles was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to microbiology and science communication. This year, the highly regarded scientist has risen to the challenge of keeping us informed as we unite against Covid-19. Having a public-facing role during such fraught times, she has faced the online bullies and the bullshit, all while running an infectious diseases research laboratory at the University of Auckland.
“When I was a teenager, I was given a copy of a book called The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases. That was my introduction to microbiology, and I was absolutely hooked.
I studied sciences at school and then went to university to do an undergraduate biology degree. I got a summer scholarship before my final year and spent the summer holiday working in the lab of one of my lecturers’, genetically engineering plants. That introduced me to scientific research. My lecturers then encouraged me to do a PhD.
Now, my team and I make nasty bacteria glow in the dark and then use them to understand what makes them infectious and to find new medicine.
I’ve faced several challenges in my career. A big one has been senior people not thinking I’m serious about research or as capable as my colleagues either because of my appearance or because of my success as a communicator.
The other big challenge was moving from the UK to New Zealand. I’d built up a very successful career and had lots of research funding but left it all behind to move to Auckland for family reasons. Starting over in a place where I didn’t have the scientific networks or support was really difficult. I’ve found it very difficult to get my research funded too so I’ve turned to crowdfunding which has worked really well for me.
The main reward has to be seeing the impact my science communication is having during this pandemic. For 10 years I have worked hard to learn how to communicate to different audiences in different ways. To see that pay off through my collaboration with The Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris has been very rewarding.
Communication is important to me for two main reasons. First, because my research is funded by the public, I believe that means the public has a right to know what I do with their money. Second, it is clear to me that research doesn’t end with the publication of the results in an academic journal. We’re seeing now how important it is that more people than just researchers understand the results of scientific studies.
Right now, I’m feeling pretty stressed out. I’m being inundated with emails and messages on social media from people who don’t agree with New Zealand pursuing an elimination strategy for Covid-19. Despite all I’ve written about why I support the strategy, they want me to keep justifying why we shouldn’t just let the virus in and ‘learn to live with it’. It feels like they don’t fully appreciate what that would mean. My parents live in the UK and have been isolating since February. They are lucky that they are retired and can do that. But there is no end in sight for them. Meanwhile those who can’t stay isolated are getting sick and some of them are dying. I can’t understand why people think we should go down that same path.
I’m grateful that we have a government that saw that saving lives also made sense from an economic point of view. There was no playbook for Covid-19 so to see the government hungry for the latest research and then responding and adjusting their response as needed feels like exactly how we should be behaving in an emergency. I’m also very impressed that they chose to frame our response to the pandemic in a positive way – that we work together as a team to protect each other. This is much better than framing it as a war, which frames it in a negative way and risks casting people who have the virus as the enemy.
Mostly I try not to think about being in the spotlight and just get on with what I need to do. But that can be hard when I’m getting awful messages on social media telling me I’m just doing this for the attention and that I should just shut up. I love cycling so I try get out for a bike ride when I’m feeling particularly frustrated. I also have a wonderfully supportive family and lots of friends I can share my frustrations with.
The research all shows that you get better outcomes when decisions are made by diverse people with different lived experiences. I’ll never forget learning how the first HPV vaccine mainly prevented cervical cancer in white women from North America and Europe. There are lots of versions of the virus responsible for cervical cancer, and different versions are dominant in different parts of the world and different demographics of people. That first vaccine didn’t account for that. That just shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And it’ll only stop happening when science isn’t dominated by white men and when diversity doesn’t just focus on getting more white women through the door.
I’m not sure what’s next for me. Hopefully I’ll manage to stay employed and running my research lab and keeping it funded. I have one particular project which is a bit of a labour of love. It’s about how bacteria become more infectious. I’ve been trying to get it funded for about eight years now. I hope I can secure some decent funding for it so we can actually make some progress answering what hopefully everyone is realising is an important question.
My other passion is Lego and my favourite public talk I have ever given was at TEDx Auckland in 2015 about gender stereotyping and Lego. My daughter and I made all the graphs for it out of Lego.”
WATCH: Siouxsie & the Virus as part of Loading Docs: