How small things shape little people

When I was five years old I was given a magnifying jar. I put bugs and leaves inside it and an entirely new world of detail, pattern, and beauty emerged. It was the beginning of a lifelong love (and career) founded in natural observation.

Attitudes, moments, and small items are profoundly impactful for a little person. And sometimes little people grow up to be badass scientists. At 5.30am one-day last month I got up and navigated multiple pre-dawn public transport options to get my sleepy self to the Dowse Art Gallery. In a room of their peers, just as the sun was coming up three amazing scientists shared their personal ‘how I got here’ stories.

Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor of Chemistry, Director of Callaghan Innovation, Chair of the Board at VicLink; Sonja Bermudez, Paleontology Technician at GNS and Forensic Scientist; Baljinder Devgun, Executive Member of the Association for Women in Science, Branch President for the United Nations Association of NZ, and CEO of the Global Women & Girls Empowerment Charity - photo credit Photowellington.

Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor of Chemistry, Director of Callaghan Innovation, Chair of the Board at VicLink; Sonja Bermudez, Paleontology Technician at GNS and Forensic Scientist; Baljinder Devgun, Executive Member of the Association for Women in Science, Branch President for the United Nations Association of NZ, and CEO of the Global Women & Girls Empowerment Charity - photo credit Photowellington.

For Baljinder Devgun it was the words of her wise Grandmother and the actions of her ballsy father that the set stage.

“1 woman will impact 100,000 people in her life.” - Grandma Devgun

Her father fell out of a tree and – according to family legend - "had all the sense knocked out of him.” Instead of staying in the small village in India where he was destined to grow old looking after his elderly mum, he hightailed it to the city and studied Physics. Not suprisingly Baljinder's childhood was imbued with science and experimentation - syphoning petrol, making wine and ginger beer, and observing the natural cycles of their garden.

Despite dropping out of school at aged fiftenn she ended up graduating from Waikato University with a BSc in Earth Science and Chemistry, a Masters in Management, and a DipComm in intercultural Communication! Appropriately, she was the first Indian to graduate on a Marae.

 “Soon you will be too qualified to marry off” lamented Bajinder’s Mother.

But the words of her Grandmother remained clear and she repeated them back to us with an added rally.

“My Grandmother said we each influence 100,000 women. That means in this room we have the power to reach and influence 1/8th of the population of NZ.”

Kate’s family put a heavy emphasis on education - she and her siblings are all first generation University graduates. This attitude gave Kate the opportunity to go deep into education, and deep she went. A BSc in Chemistry, a PhD in Molecular Self Assembly and a post doc at Princeton.

By aged 28 she was in Dunedin having landed a dream job as a Senior Lecturer at Otago University. Whereupon she had what I call an 'oh, shit' moment. 

“I’ve spent 10 years trying to get to this point and I hate it.”

Kate had, in her words “taken the path based on the ideas, advice and values of others”. She went back to study and began a Masters, which gave her options to take a path of her own choosing because - 

“Being only partially yourself isn’t the best recipe for life”

For Sonja Bermudez the seed was planted at aged eight with a yellow sticker – given to her by her father when she got her first bike – it read “Girls can do anything”. I have a feeling it was around the same time as this campaign was happening in NZ, and while I couldn't find the sticker I found the campaign poster in the Te Ara archives. 

 

At aged 11 Sonja was given ‘Lost Star’  the story of Amelia Earhart. A woman who had literally gone where no woman had ever gone before. It made me wonder who or what had planted that seed in Ms Earhart.

The tour of the forensics lab at Gracefields when Sonja was sixteen was the clincher -

 “All my science teachers were male, so when I saw what a lab looked like and the science potential I was hooked”
Megan Cook. 'Women’s movement - Health, fertility and education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15-Nov-12

In terms of items that could shape young minds Sonja was pretty taken with Lottie the Fossil Hunter. I'm pretty sure if you're a girl related to Sonja this is what you'll be getting for Christmas.  

To this I would add the book ‘Good night stories for Rebel Girls – 100 tales to dream big’ 

What were your small things? How did they shape the way you saw world?

Thanks to the Hutt City Council for making this event happen as part of the second STEMM festival. An event that showcases, celebrates, and connects the Hutt Valley science and technology businesses and capability (there’s a lot of them). 

 

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