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Standing out for science

Wednesday, 5 July 2017  
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VetScript Editor's pick - July 2017

When she’s not in the lab searching for new antibiotics, Dr Siouxsie Wiles can be found making the science case for the danger of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), or neck-deep in some other public discussion. Dwight Witney meets the pink-haired science communicator.

Siouxsie Wiles studied medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, then completed a PhD in microbiology at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology at the University of Oxford. She spent several years working at Imperial College London, which is where she won the NC3Rs prize. In 2009 Siouxsie was awarded a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and relocated to the University of Auckland. In 2013 she won the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize and the Royal Society of New Zealand Callaghan Medal.

When it comes to AMR, the University of Auckland’s Siouxsie Wiles isn’t going down without a fight – on two fronts.

The first is via her work at the university’s Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, searching for new treatment solutions, with a parallel focus on human pathogens.

“Most antibiotics come from microbes living in the soil, beginning with the discovery of penicillin from the fungus Penicillium,” she says. “New Zealand has a treasure trove of unique fungi that have never been searched for new antibiotics. We are working with scientists from Landcare Research to find new options.”

The other front she’s fighting is as an award-winning science communicator hell-bent on spreading the message of the severity of AMR, and of the importance of science to society. Her recently published book Antibiotic Resistance: The End of Modern Medicine? is the latest in a long series of multimedia undertakings designed to educate people into action (see review on page 16 of July’s VetScript).

It was Canadian philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. Siouxsie admits her distinctive look has garnered attention, but it has also resulted in some unintended consequences.

Her name (originally Susanna, but a friend started calling her Siouxsie after the lead singer of rock group Siouxsie and the Banshees and the name stuck) and pink hair (she wanted to turn blue, but her hairdresser insisted on pink) were in place as statements of personal style long before she started venturing seriously into science communication.

“Science is full of very conservative people, and twice my distinctive style has almost jeopardised my career. I was offered positions based on email/phone communication by people who didn’t know what I looked like, who then admitted afterwards that I wouldn’t have got the positions because of my appearance. In light of this backlash, maintaining my distinctive style has been a conscious decision to send a strong message that science isn’t just full of old white men.”

As well as ruffling establishment feathers, her penchant for communication has a more compelling motivation. In 2005 she was awarded the inaugural UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) prize. The NC3Rs convinced her that as a scientist using animals in her research, and one working hard to use them more humanely and in fewer numbers, she had an obligation to be open so that people could see the lengths she went to not to use animals.

She started talking to school kids about animal research, which improved her communication skills and confidence. Moving to New Zealand, she carried on her crusade through the Liggins Institute’s LENScience programme. From there, the messaging momentum only grew.

“I got into science communication more seriously once I fully appreciated the responsibility I have as a publicly funded researcher.

“If I’m going to use public funds, then the public has a right to know what I do with their money.

“I was further motivated after reading Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh’s book Trick or Treatment about the success of so-called alternative medicine. They say one of the reasons those scams succeed is that medical researchers won’t stand up and be counted. It was that call to action that got me blogging about science and pseudo-science for the Science Media Centre, and many opportunities have arisen since.”

Siouxsie believes that communication will help to safeguard reasoned argument in the current political climate, in which science is being attacked by lobby groups with vested interests. She sees a need for more scientists, doctors and veterinarians to become involved in public discussion on issues that matter.

“If we don’t speak to the media when they need us, they’ll fill the vacuum with someone who will speak. Often that will be someone from a lobby group, or who may have some pretty crackpot ideas that just end up muddying the waters.

“It’s important to acknowledge that being involved in public discussion isn’t easy. As well as encouragement, people need to have opportunities to develop their communication skills. Practice certainly helps, and the Science Media Centre does a great job of training scientists to deal with the media. Blogging and social media are also great tools for learning how to better communicate.