Unique Scientist: Georgia Carson

Time to meet the bibliophile Georgia Carson (She/her)! Georgia is a cell and molecular biologist and Māori, the indigenous population of New Zealand, working towards her PhD at Victoria University of Wellington!

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a cell and molecular biologist. This means I use genetic tools to discover information about cells, the building blocks that make up all of life. Specifically in my project I’m looking for evidence of the transfer of mitochondria between bone marrow cells. It’s fairly fundamental cell biology, but could have implications for bone marrow transplants and treatment of bone marrow cancers.

What made you want to become a scientist?
To be perfectly honest, science is only one of many things I’m interested in. If I had to define myself in one way, it would be as someone constantly curious rather than only as a scientist; science just happened to be the best outlet I’ve found for that curiosity and drive to solve puzzles that I’ve had since childhood. I decided to major in biotechnology initially because of a great teacher I had in my last year of high school who taught us about insulin in a biotech module. That being said, I also did a major in politics, and I’ve kind of bounced around a number of different areas!

“Science is only one of many things I’m interested in. […] science just happened to be the best outlet I’ve found for that curiosity and drive to solve puzzles that I’ve had since childhood.”

Georgia Carson

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I’m a #UniqueScientist in a number of ways. Firstly, I identify as female, and in STEM as a whole, we remain in the minority. In my area, biology, this is a less extreme issue than in other areas such as physics or computer science, but it is still the case at the more senior levels, even though at the undergrad level women tend to outnumber men. I don’t think we need to work more on getting girls interested in science, we need to work on removing the barriers to them staying in science.

I’m also an ethnic minority in that I’m Māori, the indigenous population of New Zealand. I’m very proud of this, and it’s one of my goals to properly learn my language. Māori are underrepresented in STEM too, although there are various schemes to improve this. Because I pass as white, I’ve heard a fair amount of racism in my time from people who don’t realise I’m Māori.

Finally, I’m fairly different from other scientists by my struggles with mental health and neurodiversity. Academia does seem to promote mental health issues, but I’ve had anxiety as long as I can remember. Also, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, and I’m currently going through an assessment for autism spectrum disorder. Doing a PhD with these factors makes things pretty difficult, but I manage with therapy, medication, exercise, and being open to talk with other people to try to reduce the stigma.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I’m not a hugely social person, so my idea of a good evening can be pretty boring; Netflix and a cup of tea usually! I find it much easier to communicate with others online, so I spend a lot of time, especially on Twitter, reading about cool new science as well as the heaps of other things I’m interested in. I read all types of books, pop science as well as novels, and like watching films, especially sci-fi, and listening to music and podcasts, cooking, and playing my guitar (badly!). This year I joined Toastmasters in an effort to force myself to get better at public speaking and socialising, which has been very outside my comfort zone, but good for me.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
One very significant thing that I would change is how scientists are assessed so narrowly. For promotion, or even to just be seen as ‘successful’ you have to publish consistently in high impact papers, which seems as short-sighted as judging a country purely on GDP. There are so many other aspects of a person uncaptured that way. The attitude of ‘publish or perish’ has so many negative effects, for instance on women that become mothers, or on people that have strengths in areas other than primarily research output like teaching. It also incentivises quantity rather than quality of research and so indirectly contributes to the reproducibility crisis and scientific fraud that can occur. I’m not saying that scientists shouldn’t be encouraged to share their results, especially if it’s taxpayer funded, just that it shouldn’t be the only way you’re judged.

“I don’t think we need to work more on getting girls interested in science, we need to work on removing the barriers to them staying in science.”

Georgia Carson

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now? I think the person that has inspired me the most is my current supervisor, Dr. Melanie McConnell. I met her when she taught my genetics course during my Honours year. I was really struggling and stressed, and was convinced that my graduate life was over. She saw something in me that I’m not sure I see, even now. I’ve done a Masters and PhD under her supervision and she’s been relentlessly positive about my abilities, which I think is something that I desperately need, considering my tendency to self-sabotage. She consistently finds the bright side of my data, and manages to make me see things in a new light, as well as giving useful advice. Furthermore, she also contains multitudes so I feel like I can talk to her about things outside of science that we’re both interested in!
I’m also very lucky to have a very supportive family, although none of them are particularly science-y. My parents and step-parents have always pushed me to do whatever I want in my life, and never acted like there was something I couldn’t achieve.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
Being proud of my achievements is another thing I need to work on! I guess the most recent thing that I could say I was proud of was the completion of the last set of experiments that will make up my thesis. I always have low expectations so I can’t be disappointed, but the PCRs went off without a hitch, and I processed and sent off the samples by the deadline. It’s probably the case for other PhDs too, you really only feel like you’re getting the hang of it all by the time you’re due to finish!

Outside of science, I committed myself to two social events in the last week and went to them both, even though at the time I was feeling a little overwhelmed. This might not be true for everyone, but I find it good for me to sometimes force myself to do things like that, because sometimes it’s too easy to stay within the bubble. Life involves lots of things like that, so I’m consciously trying to adapt.

#WomenInSTEM, #IndigenousInStem, #MentalHealthInSTEM #StigmasInSTEM

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