Spreading the word (2013)
This year Maurice Wilkins Centre investigator Dr Siouxsie Wiles not only won the Callaghan Medal for science communication, awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand, but also the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize and the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communicators Award in 2012.
Siouxsie is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland who uses bioluminescence as a way to study the pathogens that cause infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and hospital superbugs. In her free time she frequently provides scientific comment for the media, is a prolific blogger, was a face of the public engagement campaign for the National Science Challenges, regularly gives public science talks and appears in a fortnightly science slot on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon.
She has also written and produced innovative animations, where she highlights how bioluminescence – the ability of living organisms to produce light – is being used in science and technology in contemporary ways. She uses the animations to captivate people’s attention when giving public lectures and has also made these animations publicly available on YouTube. “They haven’t quite gone
viral, but they’ve had over 6000 views each, and I know that people are using them in their undergraduate teaching around the world.”
As well as helping fund some of Siouxsie’s infectious disease research and the animations, MWC also supported her collaboration with artist Rebecca Klee, and their installation for Art in the Dark in 2013 in Auckland. The installation, called “Living Light”, involved 12 plastic squid produced by a 3D printer, each filled with billions of Vibrio fisheri, a bioluminescent bacteria usually found in the sea. It attracted long queues on both nights. “It made the invisible visible and brought science and nature into the artistic realm.”
The Prime Minister’s Science Communication award was worth $100,000, with $50,000 allocated to science communication. Siouxsie’s plans include writing a children’s book on bioluminescence, producing an animation about the anglerfish, made famous by the movie Finding Nemo, and creating a website, GlowHub, where she will showcase her films and also a series of short documentaries on the work of cutting-edge Kiwi scientists.
“People often think scientists are aloof and science is irrelevant or boring. I strongly believe scientists have a responsibility to dispel these myths, which only serve to perpetuate the idea of us all living in ivory towers, disconnected from the real world. As a publicly funded researcher I also think the public have a right to know how I’m spending their tax dollars!”
However, science still takes priority over science communication, she says, and nothing beats the thrill of a successful experiment. “But I’m very privileged to be able to investigate these cool things, and also to find ways of talking about them in innovative ways."
Image: 3D printed squid filled with billions of Vibrio fisheri, a bioluminescent bacteria usually found in the sea, were part of the installation 'Living Light' at Art in the Dark.
Image courtesy of Dr Siouxsie Wiles