Science communicator and 2021 New Zealander of the Year Siouxsie Wiles is dedicated to informing the general public about the issues that matter.
At this year's NZ International Science Festival held in July, she spoke about conspiracy theories, why she's dyed her hair pink for 21 years and how being a goth teenager led her into microbiology.
Edited highlights from the discussion:
My microbiology origin story is partly related to being a goth as a teenager. You're supposed to kind of like death and destruction, and I was reading Edgar Allan Poe, various things like that. And either I picked it up, or somebody gave me, the Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases. I just found these tales of tuberculosis and plague absolutely fascinating. And I remember thinking “What would it be like to live in those times?” and now we don't have to imagine, although it's not what I thought it was going to be.
I read those books and I thought, wow, this is kind of amazing. I want to understand more about how bacteria and viruses work. And so I ended up going to university to do biology. But the more microbiology courses I took, the more I just got sucked in.
Do you remember the moment where you first heard about bioluminescence?
Bioluminescence is this chemical reaction that glowing creatures use to make light. I've always been that kid who loved glowing stuff. Like I had all the stars on my ceiling, right? I've always loved the idea of fireflies – it's quite mesmerising. During my degree, I got my first glimpse of the science of using light when I got to engineer plants to glow in the dark using the firefly enzyme, and I thought, “Oh my God, that's so cool!”
There was a PhD project that was all about making bacteria glow, acting as pollution sensors. And so that's what I did. And then I guess through the process, I realised you could turn that into a job. If you'd said to me as a kid, “You'll have a job making things glow in the dark” I would have said “Really?”
I'm from the UK but grew up in South Africa, moving back to the UK when I was about 15. And so it actually wasn't until I started coming to New Zealand regularly that I got to see bioluminescence properly. The first year my New Zealand husband brought me over, to the Waitomo caves. I just was blown away. I've been working with bioluminescence now for 20-odd years. And I still don't tire of it. When things are going badly, the thing that makes me most excited is just to go and sit in the lab with a flask of lone bacteria and just swirl them around. There’s something really calming about this.
I hope this isn't an inappropriate question, but I'm just wondering about your hair?
It's basically the closest I can get to glowing in the dark. I actually fluoresce under UV light, because it's bleached. As a gothy teenager, I went through lots of different colours, mostly pinks and Wehrmacht purples. And then actually wanted to go blue. But my hairdresser looked at me and said “Not with your complexion.” And so it's this been colour for 21 years now. And it’s still in such good condition.
How did you end up in New Zealand? You said that your partner's Kiwi.
He’s a mathematician, and he went over to the UK where we met as he just finished his PhD. We both had quite good jobs and thought we were settled in the UK, and then we had a baby. It was just like some gene just got turned on. And he wanted her to grow up in New Zealand, with sand between the toes. He was offered a job at the University of Auckland. And so I ended up applying for a fellowship and coming over with kind of the promise of a job.
Everybody in the UK thought I was crazy – that I was committing career suicide, which on reflection, I pretty much was. I think if we'd realised how hard it was going to be for me to do science here, we wouldn't have come. But it's also come with benefits that we had never anticipated.
How do you think being a woman in science in New Zealand compares to other places in the world?
The same biases exist everywhere. It continues to be really, really, really hard. There’s an amazing study released just before the pandemic. We have this thing here called the Performance-Based Research Fund, in which, every six years or so, every academic in New Zealand gets basically rated. And then if you're an A, your institution gets a certain amount of money, if you're a B, they get less than if you're a C, they get even less. And so we have this incredible data set of people's rankings.
Looking at that data set, some researchers in Canterbury showed that women will, on average, earn $200,000 to $400,000 less than their male counterparts throughout their career, even if they are at the same grade. We get appointed at a lower level, we don't get pay rises the same. After reading that paper I ended up sitting down and going through my career. And everything they talked about has happened to me. I've been denied pay rises when it's really clear I should have got them. The system is just there. Although everybody goes “Oh, no, we're not biased,” the data shows otherwise.
There was a really interesting paper released quite recently that showed that some men are incredible feminists when women are young, and they will really support them then, and boost their careers.
But as soon as women become their equals, then they will do everything they can to stop that. So you get this generation of young women who say “I have never experienced sexism, it's amazing.” And then they reach 40 and go, “Oh, bollocks.” Several of us have had that kind of moment. So it's not easy.
This goes down to all of the things that society instils in us or from a very early age, which is one of the reasons I have kept my hair pink. Bear with me, because this is linked. It's all about who we think is an expert. When you say the word 'surgeon', if a picture of a man immediately jumps into your head, that's a bias that's been put there from a very early age.
I started dyeing my hair because I wanted it that way. Kids see you and say, “You're not what a scientist looks like.” As I progressed through my career, I realised that I wasn't what my colleagues thought scientists looked like, either. And so keeping it was all about being a really visible reminder to everyone around me that they have biases every time they look at me and think I shouldn't be in science or shouldn't be an expert. It's a reminder that that's not true. And if we have that about people's hair colour, we have that people's gender, we have it about their ethnicity as well.
Gay scientists, too, aren’t really part of the picture of people in the science profession. I think that you've done really important work just making yourself visible.
What’s really important to me is that we are our authentic selves. I really firmly believe when we bring our whole selves to our work, our workplace benefits too. I have so many people who are disturbed by my dress sense, and my shoes and none of those things have anything to do with my ability to do science: they are just an expression of me. And if that upsets you, it's actually telling you something about how you've been raised.
You were, I think, the right person at the right time in this COVID-19 crisis that has emerged over the past year and a half. Do you remember when you first became aware of what was happening? And that you needed to contribute your voice to the conversation?
While COVID has been the way that most people have come to know me, this is a role that I played in New Zealand for a long time now. For the last ten years, I've been really keen on learning how to communicate science in different ways, with different audiences. And so whenever there's been a microbiology-related crisis, I've got a reputation as being somebody who a journalist can call. I'll answer my phone, I will try to explain stuff to them in sentences they will understand.
Does anybody remember the Fonterra botulism scare? I spent weeks and weeks just talking to journalists behind the scene and I did the same with Zika and Ebola viruses, so this is a role that I've played before.
The first time I heard of COVID, I was actually in the UK.
It started about the beginning of January. I follow outbreaks and this alert popped up and I thought, “Oh, that's really interesting.” But I was on holiday, so I didn't do any thinking at all about it until I arrived home in mid-January. And within a day my phone was ringing.
I remember thinking it's my job to help the journalist understand this and how to report it. I remember saying in my first interview on breakfast TV, “Well, we don't know very much. The data we’re getting suggests that it's not human to human transmission.” Just two weeks later it was like, “Holy moly, this is escalating.”
By the end of January, it was like, “Oh, Geez.”
In February last year, I was planning on sorting out writing some papers, as I had lots of research that needed to get written up. I completely reorganised my schedule so that I was in at work twice a week, but three days a week was working from home.
And within two weeks, those three days were just spent trying to keep up with COVID and talk to journalists. And I just reached the stage where I just I decided that the papers can wait. This is really, really important. I'm going I keep doing my teaching and keep looking after my students, but the other stuff is going to have to wait.
I was driven by kind of two things. One is that people don't act in their best interest when they panic. And the other is that communities that work together, come through disasters the best. And so I just saw my role as wanting everyone to understand what is happening, and to basically not panic and to work for each other. And so I'm just going to do whatever I can to help that. And it just took over.
So what would you say was the most important message to the public?
I wanted everybody to understand what information the government was working from. It was really clear to those of us knowledgeable about infectious diseases, that we were going to have to do something drastic happen. Things were changing so fast (and continue to change), so I wanted everyone to understand what this meant. And so if the government acted how I wanted them to act, just what this would mean.
So that when the prime minister said we're moving into a level four lockdown in two days’ time, everyone was like, “Sure, yep. Awesome.” They understood why it was going to happen. I saw that as my job to help with that.
You have said that one of your most important collaborative exercises has been with Toby Morris, visualizing the central messages you're communicating about the pandemic. How did that come to be?
More or less by accident. From the middle of January, I was doing TV and radio. One of the things that I dislike about that, is that you're either being interpreted by journalists, or you only have a snippet broadcast. People will hear a small quote, so you can't convey everything that you're thinking or point to what you're reading.
That’s why I was writing for The Spinoff. Toby Manhire, who's the editor, sent me a message one day, “If there's anything you want to write pop it here.”
And so I started writing, and I love that because I could put down everything that I was thinking and I could link to the stuff that I was reading so that everybody else could see how my thinking was changing, and why I was making the suggestions that I was making.
And I saw this tweet that talked about the concept of flattening the curve. If you have this disease come all at once it can overwhelm your ability to look after everybody. But if you slow down cases, you can keep it at a manageable level. I wanted to write about this concept, but the graphic that I saw was just awful because it was done by a scientist.
So I sent a message to Toby Manhire saying, “Did he think Toby Morris would be interested in doing something?” The reason I picked Toby was that I have long admired his work. He has done amazing things presenting really hard topics like inequality in this beautiful illustrated way, and he really makes you care.
And I thought he would be awesome to show in graphic form how our actions can change the course of the pandemic. I wanted people to feel like their actions could help. And so within an hour, Toby and I, who had never met before, were on the phone. I sent him the tweet, and I suggested, “It would be awesome if it was a gif, and could it do this and could it have that?”
And then, within a few hours, he said, “Like this?” And I said, “Yeah, like that!” We released it a few days later, and it just went doolally.
That was the start of what has been the most amazing collaboration of my working life. We’ve done about 40 together now. Someone from the World Health Organisation comms team got in touch and said, “These look really interesting.” And so Toby and his team now do stuff with the WHO.
Everything that Toby and I've done ended up being adopted by the WHO, and so they've been seen by millions and millions of people. That's kind of amazing.
My final question to you is about the Luciferase issue. What that has been like?
If you haven't heard of this conspiracy theory, its name is Luciferase. And it's to do with Bill Gates microchipping the world and making us all glow in the dark. The first I heard about it was people started saying that I was a Satanist, and was also the New Zealand arm of this kooky conspiracy theory. And I was like “What?”
Luciferase is the name of the enzymes that bioluminescent creatures use to make light. And it's named after Lucifer, which is the Latin word for Venus. It means Light Bringer, so you can see why bioluminescent creatures have got enzymes with this name. The enzyme is called luciferase and the thing that they convert into light is called a luciferin.
In 2011, I was working with an Australian to make animations about bioluminescent creatures and the uses of light and science. And it was driving me crazy that when I was applying for little grants, the money would go to the university. And of course, the only person who needed paying was the animator. It would take four months for the university to pay, and it was driving me insane. These people are self-employed. This is ridiculous! So I started this company as a way to pay without having to go through university processes.
It was called Lucy Ferrin Ltd, which is a play on the word luciferin. And we thought it was so funny, I still think it's funny. Anyway, people finally found it. And concluded that because it's Lucy Ferrin, that means I'm a Satanist.
The conspiracy comes from somebody mining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's grants, and finding a record of a gene therapy grant from a few years ago.
Bioluminescence is an amazing tool in science that allows you to see things. The reason we use it in my research is because bacteria glow in the dark only when they're alive. And we can put them inside animals, and we can track them using really sensitive cameras. It means we can do the experiments much more humanely and using fewer animals, both really cool reasons for using it.
And so these people have found these papers about this technique, where cells will be tagged with these luciferase enzymes to see where they go. Or be engineered to go to a particular place.
So they found this and assumed the project was to make people glow in the dark, although this is impossible. So they call me a Satanist and accuse me of engineering people. My response? “You've all got phones in your pockets, so Bill Gates does not need to tag you. You're already being tagged by somebody else.”
Oh wait, I forgot the most important “evidence”... our work making the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB) was funded by the Gates Foundation. That ended in about 2013 or so but hey BILL GATES FUNDED LUCIFERASE WORK = clearly I’m evil apparently. pic.twitter.com/TqrWiKMgXB— Dr Siouxsie Wiles (@SiouxsieW) June 8, 2020
What is it about COVID that lends itself to the conspiracy theory?
You know, it is a scary time. And we are facing something we've never faced before. Although there are communities that have been disrupted by war and stuff like that, the vast majority of people don't have that in their lives. But suddenly, they're experiencing something out of their control.
And so there has to be a conspiracy behind it because, you know, “This can't just be the way it is.” The reason we're in this pickle is because it's being so badly managed by countries that are putting us all at risk. And so I guess people will grasp at conspiracies. And the other really clear thing is the role of social media sites that use algorithms to either show you what they want you to see, or what they think you want to see.
And there are people who are actively making up fake stuff, because they're making money out of it. The anti-vax industry is massive, absolutely massive. And so we've got this coming together of people in a vulnerable position, and of people making up shit to frighten them so that they can make money. And then we've got this way of sharing information that we just did not have before.
And so it's just like this awful kind of melting pot that's killing people. There are links between anti-vaccination and white supremacy. There are people who don't want liberal democracies, who don't want socialism in the form of healthcare or anything. And they are doing everything they can to disrupt that, and people are dying as a result. And that's just like, madness.
About the speakers
Over the past year, Dr Wiles has become a household name thanks to her public science communication efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. An Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, Dr Wiles has studied medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford and Edinburgh Napier University. She is the director of the Auckland University Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab.
Dr Wiles spent almost a decade at Imperial College London, before relocating to New Zealand. She has won awards for both her commitment to the ethical use of animals in research and for her science communication. In 2017 she published her first book, Antibiotic resistance: the end of modern medicine? and in 2019 was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to microbiology and science communication.
During COVID-19 Dr Wiles joined forces with Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris to make the science of the pandemic clear and understandable. Their graphics have been translated into multiple languages and have been adopted by various governments and organisations.
Assoc. Prof. Jesse Bering is an experimental psychologist and a leading scholar in the cognitive science of religion. He is also an essayist and science writer specializing in evolution and human behaviour. His first book, The Belief Instinct, was included in the American Library Association’s Top 25 Books of the Year and voted one of the 11 Best Psychology Books of 2011 by The Atlantic.
This was followed by a collection of his Webby-award nominated essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?, and Perv, a taboo-breaking work that received widespread critical acclaim and was named as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
His most recent book is A Very Human Ending. Bering’s writings have been translated into many different languages and reviewed in many outlets. He has also been featured in numerous documentaries and radio programmes. Bering is presently Director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago.
Click here to visit Jesse Bering's website
This audio was recorded by the NZ International Science Festival