Speech at the opening of the Kathleen Curtis Atrium

Earlier this month I was invited to speak briefly about the future of science and of women’s participation in it at the opening of the Kathleen Curtis Atrium in the Science Building at the University of Auckland. It was a really lovely event commemorating the scientific contributions of Dr Curtis and, by proxy, of the other women in science that we never hear about. At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I wanted to post the text of the speech here in its (near) entirety as a reminder of the challenges that I set for myself.

My sala bao face (as my mum would say) post-event.

My name is Leilani Walker and I recently graduated from this University with my PhD in evolutionary biology. [This is the first reference on this blog to the fact that I actually finished my thesis well done me] I feel immensely privileged to speak on the future of science and on the part that women have to play in it. This dedication is a concrete, physical reminder that women have always had a place here, even if it is rarely acknowledged. But not only that, like a climbing spike planted in the side of a mountain, it is not only a sign of how far those before us have come, it is also a support to those who go on to face the challenges of the future.

And to look to that future, those challenges will be significant. To mention only a few things: while the environmental impacts of human activities increasingly make themselves known, we are reckoning with the consequences of our colonial history and of new disruptive technologies. The relationship between experts’ advice, politics and society re shifting, facilitated by new media while, at all times, the reality of climate change hangs over us, introducing a time sensitivity to all that we do.

The prospect makes it hard getting out of bed in the morning sometimes.

But what does this mean for us as scientists? What does this mean for us as women? To be honest, in spite of the challenges I just raised, I still find the first question easier to answer than the second. And that’s because I wasn’t especially interested in being a woman for a longtime.

A bit of context, my mother is a political scientist and a Thai-Chinese migrant to this country, bringing with her the more socially conservative views of her own upbringing. Meanwhile, my father is a Māori scientist who used to tell me stories about the animals living in rock pools and ocean and sky and I think it was inevitable that I would want to become a scientist.

But while he had the benefit of raising me on his home turf with his norms of behaviour validated by my peers, in my eyes my mother was a hysterical matriarch who wouldn’t let me play the rain or pet the neighbour’s cat or walk barefoot and who had these strange ideas because yes by the age of eight I had internalised not only sexism but xenophobia against my own mother.

As a consequence, within my head as a child, womanhood and science became diametrical opposites and it wasn’t until the end of high school, thanks to a few fantastic English literature teachers, that I started to see that objective, statistically-determined and, in my mind then, masculine, truth is indeed an important part of the picture. But it is only a part. And it was only then that I began the work of weeding the misogyny from within me and I began to recognise my mother’s experience and world view as valid. Just as valid as my scientist father’s.

I only recently realised how profoundly that experience has influenced me and so it felt important to bring it up before I share with you how I intend to approach the future as a scientist and as a woman.

Science is an immensely powerful tool by which to understand the world but that is only if I ask the right questions because the shape of the question I ask in my science pre-determines the shape of the answer. To make sure I ask the right questions, I must ask them with others whether it is iwi, the public, other scientists and those from the liberal arts.

We (royal we) must not be covetous. The publish or perish paradigm creates a zero-sum game but we cannot let that stop us from collaborating and sharing because there simply is not time for that.

And as a woman in science, I cannot stop listening to the experiences of other women, trans women, women of colour, women with disabilities, women of different sexualities. I have to listen and I must believe the truth of their experiences and not let institutions pit my needs against those of others because there simply is not time for that.

I must understand my own needs. The hands of so many women have paved the way before me but it would be naive to think that the work is done. I will still be asked to organise lab events and take minutes and to be honest it’ll be fifty-fifty whether I capitulate or push back each time because sometimes I just won’t have the energy. To this end, I must recognise my strengths and play to them. I am deeply deeply conflict averse and prone to fatalism but I how to create spaces in which others feel comfortable and take pleasure from doing so.

And above all else, I will seek opportunities to celebrate the achievements of other women as we do today because, while it is our science that will show us the way through the challenges, it will be manaakitanga for ourselves and each other that gets us out of bed each day.

Further proof that I definitely finished my PhD.