New Zealander of the Year

Siouxsie Wiles: Speaking up for science

Dr Siouxsie Wiles is on a mission to make non-scientists care about science – and spread the love for glow-in-the-dark creatures. A finalist for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, Siouxsie is a microbiologist, a science communicator and an ardent fan of any creature that glows in the dark.

For Dr Siouxsie Wiles, having pink hair is a symbol of her enthusiasm for showing that anyone can do science.

“I’ve been told my hair has come close to costing me a job several times because it makes people think I’m not serious about science,” says Siouxsie.

“But I’ve kept it pink because I want to show that people’s ideas about what scientists look like are wrong.”

Siouxsie is a microbiologist, science communicator, blogger, podcaster, artist and curator, and frequently discusses science on radio and TV. Her many awards include the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

Siouxsie has now been named one of three finalists in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards, to be announced on February 22 (see nzawards.org). She says she’s humbled by the nomination, and sees it as a sign of the value that the judging panel places on science.

In her day job, Siouxsie is head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland. She and her team make bacteria glow in the dark, so it’s easier to find out whether new drugs kill them or not.

Last year, she wrote a book – in six weeks, on her summer holiday – about the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs to New Zealand.

In Antibiotic Resistance: The End of Modern Medicine?, Siouxsie suggests that:

Unless we stop using antibiotics unnecessarily and invest rapidly in the search for new anti-microbial agents, we may return to a pre-antibiotic era when a simple stubbed toe could mean amputation or death.

Siouxsie has a passion for demystifying science for the general public. As a publicly-funded scientist, she believes she has a duty to talk about science, especially contentious subjects such as vaccination, research misconduct and the use of animals in science.

“Scientists aren’t heartless beasts who don’t care about animals. I use animals in my own research, and I feel very passionately about preventing any suffering,” says Siouxsie.

Her decision to engage the public on even the gnarlier aspects of science sometimes comes at a cost. There are few incentives to scientists to talk about their work, and Siouxsie has heard of occasional whisperings that her work as a science communicator means she’s not a ‘real’ scientist.

But she has no plans to stop speaking out about science now. 

“Once you’ve been labelled a troublemaker, you may as well continue down that road.”

Siouxsie’s fascination with glow-in-the dark bugs began early. She grew up in the UK and South Africa, where her mother recalls her being entranced by the glowing bugs whirling around an outside tap.

“I’ve just always loved stuff that glows. Whenever I hear about creatures that glow, like fireflies, I think, ‘How cool is that!’ I was really lucky to have been offered a PhD project about making bacteria glow, and I’ve been working in that area ever since,” Siouxsie says.

Her love of everything bioluminescence extends to her private life: she’s just back from her fifth – or possibly sixth – blackwater rafting trip in the Waitomo glow worm caves.

Siouxsie came to New Zealand in 2009, when her daughter was a toddler. She’d been working in London when she met her husband, Kiwi mathematician Steven Galbraith, in a goth nightclub called the Slimelight.

It took a while, but Siouxsie says New Zealand now feels like home.

Siouxsie felt even more committed to New Zealand when Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford announced that they were expecting a baby, and that Clarke was to be a stay-at-home dad. She firmly believes our businesses and institutions need to become more family-friendly.

“I’ve been grinning from ear to ear since I heard Jacinda’s news,” says Siouxsie, who splits parenting duties 50:50 with Steven.

“Since being named a Blake Leader by the Sir Peter Blake Trust in 2016, I have become more vocal about standing up for things that I believe in, including holding our institutions to account. We all need to challenge the idea that having a family and a career can break women.

“It’s not easy, but we can do it.”

The New Zealander of the Year Awards celebrate those people who use their passion for New Zealand to make our country a better place. These awards are an opportunity for New Zealanders to honour extraordinary Kiwis whose selflessness, creativity, and vision make us proud to call New Zealand home. Find out more about the New Zealander of the Year Award winners and those in the running for 2018.