Career

How Professor Juliet Gerrard became Jacinda Ardern's new chief science advisor

'It's exciting and slightly terrifying all at once.'

By: Lynley Ward

"I've always loved working out how things work and solving puzzles. The whole time I went through school, I was good at science and got excited about it.

Maybe the person who really persuaded me into thinking it was the career for me was my old chemistry teacher Mr Parrot. He had a particular way of presenting scientific ideas.

I vividly remember the first chemistry class we had with him at Wintringham School in Grimsby. He heated up some lead nitrate and all this brown gas came out. He hadn't given us any information at all and asked how would you work out what was happening.

That sparked something – the scientific method. I realised science means you get to be creative. You have an idea and a hunch, but then you get to test that hunch and design an experiment to see if you're right or wrong.

I decided chemistry was my favourite subject. I liked all my science subjects, but that was the one that got me most excited. I was lucky enough to get into the University of Oxford to study chemistry. It was an amazing opportunity to learn from some of the best people in the world and set me on a great path to do a PhD.

I was really interested in proteins and the more biological end of chemistry. I stayed at Oxford, but at the end of my PhD 25 years ago, I moved to New Zealand.

Using a little number-eight wire ingenuity during one of her biochemistry classes at the University of Canterbury

I love travelling. Between my undergraduate and PhD degree, I did a round-the-world trip on my own. I put a backpack on and went to India, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and back through the Pacific Islands and the US. I really loved New Zealand. I liked how relaxed it was and the can-do attitude.

I always thought I'd come to Australia and New Zealand, and as life turned out, an opportunity popped up in the South Island!

Now New Zealand is my home. For a long time, I had two passports – a New Zealand and a British one, but I only renewed the New Zealand one. I'm a Kiwi!

The first job I took was at Crop and Food Research in Lincoln. I had a great boss, Nigel Larsen. I was having my children at that time and he was very supportive.

The research we were doing was all about improving food. The work I had done for my PhD had been quite theoretical and using proteins to design drugs, but now we were looking at how we might focus on the way proteins could improve food.

I learnt a lot about food, New Zealand, and how to get funding and build a group.

I spent five years there, but I really missed interacting with the students and teaching, so I applied for academic jobs. I was lucky enough to get one at the University of Canterbury, where I stayed until 2014, then I moved north to Auckland.

It was a long way from my mind when they rang and told me I'd been shortlisted for the chief science advisor position. They sought nominations and nobody had told me my name had been put forward, so it was quite a surprise. I thought very hard for a short period of time and just decided to go for the interview. Now here I am. It's exciting and slightly terrifying all at once.

The major thing I want to focus on is making the role accessible. I'm looking at how to use social media to celebrate all the great science that's going on. I want to focus on that rather than the fact I'm a woman, but if me having this job means that more young women are inspired to do science, then fantastic.

I'm also keen to look more at how people are breaking down barriers for women in science and that will be one of the things I'll be asking people about when I travel around the country."

Quick fire