Image by Arvid Eriksson.
One of the most respected figures in New Zealand’s successful battle against Covid-19, Dr Siouxsie Wiles is recognised for her pink hair, quirky dress sense and unusual name. But what you get is far more than what you see with this dedicated scientist, writes Leanne Comer.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles doesn’t look like an expert, at least not to some people. With her mane of bright pink hair and unconventional dress sense, she doesn’t fit the narrow stereotype of the scientist.
So, is her image merely a genuine expression of her personality, or is she deliberately challenging that stereotype?
Take the pink hair, for example. She started dying her hair as a teenager, experimenting with a range of colours. It’s been pink for the last twenty years because she likes it that way. But that’s not the only reason for the crimson locks.
“I’ve kept it like this because this is me but it’s also become really clear that presenting as me and showing people that it’s OK to be who you are was really important to bust some of those stereotypes about who should be doing science,” Wiles explains.
It’s clear that some people find her image, as well as her ideas, confronting. Like many women with a high public profile, Wiles has been on the receiving end of some vitriolic commentary from time to time. Five years ago, she gave a TEDx talk on the subject of Lego. The presentation, in which she was critical of the gender stereotypes reinforced by Lego figures, provoked a nasty response from some quarters. She’s had a similar experience when commenting publicly on Covid-19.
“I’ve received comments about my weight, my hair, about just speaking, about what I say, everything!” she says.
The remarks are hurtful, and she admits that they can get her down. Nonetheless, she remains resolute.
“The thing that they’re trying to do is silence me. A win for them would be if I say, ‘I’m outta here. This is too hard.’ And then they’ve won. I just have to remember that they’re trying to silence me and they win if I stop.”
Wiles knows that she’s not alone in this experience and is well aware that gender definitely plays a part.
“There’s plenty of research that shows that when men are in these positions, they don’t face the same vitriol as women do,” she explains.
Wiles doesn’t remember when she first became interested in science. Born in the UK, she moved to South Africa with her parents at the age of four. She has fond memories of those years.
“I grew up in the sunshine. We had a swimming pool and we used to swim almost every day. I loved Lego. I was a very bookish child, so I loved reading, things like that,” she says.
At school she showed an aptitude for science and ended up in boy-heavy classes, studying science subjects.
On her return to the UK at the age of fifteen, Wiles wanted to study languages but found that she was too far behind students who had been studying French and German since a young age. She dabbled in history and geography but soon fell under the spell of the sciences again. An inspiring teacher and The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases piqued her interest in biology and she went on to study science at the University of Edinburgh and to complete a PhD in microbiology at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford.
The suggestion that The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases sounds like unusual reading material for a teenage girl provokes a laugh.
“Well, I was into Edgar Allan Poe and I was into Agatha Christie. It didn’t seem unusual!”
Despite her love of, and aptitude for, science, the subject has presented some challenges for Wiles. Raised as a vegetarian, she struggled with the issue of animal experimentation when she was in high school. When asked to dissect a rat in biology class, she refused to do it on ethical grounds. Instead, she opted to complete a project about cyanide production in plants.
“So, it’s ironic then that of all the people I went to school with, I ended up being the one who does research involving animals. It was never something that I was comfortable with,” she asserts.
Wiles wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable about the use of animals in science. In 2005, when she won the prestigious UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research prize, there was intense public opposition to animal experimentation. Although initially hesitant to speak out, she decided that she had a responsibility to educate the public about how animal experimentation could be done ethically and humanely.
“I wanted people to understand that they’re not being shown the whole picture when they’re seeing these terrible pictures of things that might have happened fifty years ago. It’s just not how things are done anymore,” she explains.
The desire to educate and inform the general public about science became something of a mission for Wiles, and has continued to motivate her since relocating to Auckland with her New Zealand-born husband, Dr Steven Galbraith, and their daughter in 2009.
The move was a challenging experience, says Wiles. She left behind her family and a “great job at a really good university” in the UK and struggled to settle in and establish herself in New Zealand.
“It certainly took many years. The move was really hard for lots of reasons. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to do science here! But it has been rewarding in so many unexpected ways,” she says.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected rewards was being nominated for the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year in 2018. Was that a strange experience for someone who had been living in New Zealand for less than ten years?
“Actually, I thought it was hoax!” she says.
When it became clear that she had indeed been nominated, and even more so when she became a finalist, Wiles admits that she felt uncomfortable. She was pleased and relieved when equal pay advocate Christine Bartlett was eventually chosen as the winner.
Despite her discomfort, being considered for the New Zealander of the Year was an “amazing and humbling” experience. Wiles says that she was surprised and heartened that so many people identified and accepted her as a New Zealander, from the people who nominated her to the judges of the competition.
“It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling,” she admits.
So, is New Zealand “home”?
“I’ve always struggled with the idea of home because of moving when I was little and moving when I was a teenager and then never really living anywhere for long,” Wiles explains. “I spent a few years in Edinburgh, then I went to Oxford and then I moved to London. And then I moved to New Zealand and had that same kind of thing. Where is home? Do I really belong here? Where do I fit?”
Despite the challenges, Wiles has prospered both professionally and personally since her arrival in New Zealand. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and heads the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, where she and her team make bacteria glow in the dark in order to better understand infectious diseases and find new antibiotics. In 2019, she was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of her work in microbiology and science communication. She is a New Zealand citizen, is beginning to learn Te Reo Maori, loves the life that she has built with her family in Auckland and can’t imagine returning to the UK.
“I always thought that when my daughter was at university we might go back for a few years, but not anymore,” she says.
It seems that she has, at last, found home.
Wiles also believes that she is fortunate to be living in New Zealand as the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world. She has been impressed by the way in which the New Zealand government has responded to the pandemic, especially in comparison to other countries that failed to act swiftly and have faced devastating consequences.
When asked if she is optimistic about the possibility of finding a vaccine for Covid-19 in the near future, she acknowledges that is vital that we do. But it is equally important, she asserts, that any vaccine is widely accessible and equitably distributed. The pandemic has shed light on cracks in our society that need to be addressed and at the same time has revealed that we can act quickly when motivated to do so.
“We can make changes really fast. And so why would we not do that? Because pandemics like this will happen again and we want to be prepared. But it’s funny, when I start saying things like that, people say, ‘You’re a scientist, you’re not supposed to talk about stuff like that.’ Actually, as a human being, I would hope that we do the right thing and fix the stuff that’s made us vulnerable. So, I hope that’s what we do.”
Leanne Comer is a freelance writer. Born and raised in Australia, she has lived in Auckland, New Zealand since 1992. When she’s not writing, Leanne enjoys reading, walking and travelling.