Community service has always been an important part of the work of academics, but the lure of prestigious publication in top journals can often turn an academic’s face away from the communities they serve.
But the best give fine service to their communities. Anne Salmond comes to mind as an outstanding academic who has changed the ways that Māori and Pakeha live together in Aotearoa. There are the earthquakes experts who helped us understand the Christchurch quakes, the public health people in the pandemics and so on.
One of the most outstanding science communicators in New Zealand is Siouxsie Wiles. She has been doing this communication work in concert with her academic roles for a number of years. She runs the exciting bioluminescence lab at the University of Auckland. She uses glowing things to illuminate how bacteria work.
Her work aims to find post-antibiotic solutions, because we have built up enormous resistance to antibiotics through overuse and the crafty strategies of bacteria to evade their reach. Her work is of enormous importance to the future of the human race.
Yet her reach as a science communicator goes far beyond her own area of influence. She has the rare ability to explain complex science in ways that are clear and engaging. For this reason, she is highly sought after in the media.
At the outbreak of Covid-19 last year, there were plenty of experts involved in discussing the pandemic, what it meant and what was needed. It was often confusing. From the start, Siouxsie took on a leading role as educator, aiming to clarify the key messages from science. Want to know why Covid-19 can spread so fast? Siouxsie and her cartoon colleague Toby showed you in graphic terms. Why do we need mask and gloves and social distancing and hand-washing? The famous swiss cheese model showed that, while any one aspect of protection might be flawed (have holes in it), put all the forms together and you create community protection. She has been magnificent!
She has been criticised for all sorts of things, including having pink hair (yes, even on the Daily Blog). A lot of the attacks on her are quite gendered, as if a woman should not dare to be a soothsayer of such great esteem. Oh yes, she has of course had death threats.
All of this work she is doing means she is not back in her lab leading her important research. You don’t get promotion and brownie points for this kind of public work – more likely resentment from colleagues for getting too much of the limelight.
But we, the people, have much to thank Siouxsie for. Other countries have received confusing and contradictory messages about Covid-19 from the start. While Jacinda promoted the ‘team of five million’ as a concept, Siouxsie educated us and extended our knowledge and understanding, and made us safer.
And she received recognition from us this week when she was awarded the title of ‘New Zealander of the Year’. And I think that is just fantastic. Smart, thoughtful, engaging and with exceptional communication skills, Siouxsie Wiles represents the best of Aotearoa.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.