Acclaimed chemist Margaret Brimble, winner of the MasterCard Innovation and Science category at the Women of Influence Awards 2014, discusses what it means to be a female scientist in NZ.
When you were at university, chemistry was an unusual field for a woman to go into. Why did it appeal?
My grandmother believed women should be educated, and was a great influence and support. I studied languages at school and liked maths and chemistry, but not biology. In the third form I was supposed to dissect a rat but couldn’t do it, and ran out of the class.
So being a doctor wasn’t for me. I really enjoyed practical work in the laboratory and found it inspiring. I’d always wanted to be a teacher and now I combine the best of all worlds: teaching undergrads the basics of organic chemistry, conducting hardcore research work with PhD students on the development of new drugs, and fostering commercial collaborations.
At tertiary level, women make up around two thirds of Bachelor of Science enrolments. Are there more women studying chemistry now?
Studying for my Masters, I was one of only two women amongst 30 men. Today, the gender split for chemistry undergrads is 50/50, with a slight drop off at post grad level.
What are the biggest challenges faced by budding female scientists?
In my particular field of synthetic organic chemistry, it’s very difficult to continue your research while having children. We’re making novel organic compounds and don’t know their effects on humans, so as soon as you become pregnant you have to stay out of the lab. There aren’t the same constraints in biology or physics.
Also, employment from contract to contract, with no consistent job security, can be an issue. And you must have a very thick skin! Being a research scientist means there are inevitably a lot of setbacks with experiments not working, so you need to be prepared to fail.
Women are still under-represented in leadership roles within New Zealand’s scientific research and academic sectors. Do you think this is gradually changing?
Supporting early career scientists, both male and female, is crucial. I chair the Rutherford Foundation, and we help those starting out to build networks and take advantage of opportunities. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many young talented female scientists who will go on to make significant contributions in their specialist areas.
As ever-increasing numbers of women commit to science as a career, I’m optimistic we’ll see more representation of practicing female scientists on the boards of funding agencies and awards panels, and heading up university and Crown Research Institute departments.
How does New Zealand continue moving forward to become a globally recognised nation for science and innovation?
Some of our scientists are performing at an incredibly high level, and gaining international reputations. In New Zealand, I think we need to promote long-term research and excellent science, rather than focusing on short-term gain.
One strategy is to combine scientific resources from several institutions, and focus on solving scientific problems of global importance. This will enable New Zealand to be recognised internationally for achieving something of merit, rather than having all our scientists working on smaller, lower impact projects that may go unnoticed overseas.
New Zealand’s scientists also have to engage with the business world if we are to see economic benefit from our science. I’m currently setting up a spin out company in the cancer vaccine field with several colleagues, and Auckland UniServices Ltd. have been invaluable in helping us with the commercial side of things, from the business development plan to protection of intellectual property and carrying out due diligence.
For you, what is the purpose of science?
Rett Syndrome is a debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder that exclusively affects females. I was involved in a major project with Neuren Pharmaceuticals Ltd. and developed a drug called NNZ-2566, which could be a breakthrough for Rett Syndrome sufferers and for people with brain injuries. Clinical trials have been conducted internationally, and the first results will be announced in November. I hope it works. This is the reason to do science.
Margaret is a medicinal chemist who has received the highest level of international recognition. She was the first New Zealander to receive the L’Oreal-Unesco Award for Women in Science and the second to receive a Rutherford Medal from the Royal Society NZ which she was awarded two years ago.
She has many varied roles including chair of the RSNZ Rutherford Foundation, a principal investigator for the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, principal investigator in the Centre for Brain Research, and associate investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute.
She studied chemistry at the University of Auckland and was then awarded a NZ Commonwealth scholarship to undertake a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Southampton.
Margaret is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Royal Society of Chemistry and President-Elect of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) Organic and Biomolecular Division and chair of the Synthesis Subcommittee.
Her other accolades include the Hector Medal for outstanding contributions to the advancement of the field of chemical sciences, and the MacDiarmid medal for outstanding scientific research for potential human benefit.
Professor Brimble was conferred as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004 and a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2012 for her services to science.