ESR is lucky to have some of New Zealand’s most incredible scientists and researchers working to help improve the safety of, and contribute to, the economic, environmental and social wellbeing of all New Zealanders. Here we celebrate our wāhine by sharing their unique stories about careers in science.


Women in science

When Maria Gutierrez-Gines was studying at school and university, she had plans to become a teacher. But the offer of a PhD scholarship followed by a lack of teaching options saw her change directions and head into a career in science. Now, Maria is lead scientist and manager of Biowaste in ESR’s Water and Waste team, and she doesn’t regret the change in direction at all.

“When I finished my PhD, I decided that I wanted to be scientist,” she explains. “I gave up my idea of teaching, and I just persevered down the science path, and it was a quite hard path, with lots of obstacles but also lots of rewards. When I completed my studies, it was quite a stressful time for me because I was unemployed for over a year, until I finally obtained a postdoc grant to come to New Zealand.”

Once in New Zealand, Maria worked as post-doctoral fellow studying the use of biosolids to restore degraded soils and establish native vegetation.

“The most fun experiment that I did was a rhizobox experiment in which we created a patch of biosolids surrounded by low fertility soil and sowed tiny manuka seedlings far from it,” Maria says. “We saw how the manuka roots grew towards the path of biosolids – the wee manuka were feeling the nutrients and were going for them!”

After completing her postdoc with Lincoln University, Maria arrived at ESR, initially working as a biowaste scientist and then taking on her current role of lead scientist and manager of biowaste.

“Being a young woman who arrived to a leadership role quite young, the biggest challenge is to be recognised and respected,” she reflects. “But I just try to do my best.” And Maria is quick to see the humour in her situation as a young woman in a senior role.

“I remember a conference I attended a couple of years ago where people though I was a student, and that was quite flattering – I still look young; that is good! It was also quite fun to see their faces when they realised, after my presentation, that I was the manager of the Centre for Integrated Biowaste Research. In the end, people start respecting me once they know me and they get the experience of working with me.”

“A big part of my job is to think and design new projects in collaboration with many other scientists, iwi, students and councils. And that is pure imagination and really exciting!”

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Stephanie (Steph) Opperman grew up on the wild West Coast of Scotland. She was set on studying marine biology until a career advisor at school suggested she leave her options open and consider a broader biology-based degree.

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Wendy Popplewell

“Science drew me in with its process of hypothesise, experiment, summarise, adapt, repeat,” explains forensic toxicologist Dr Wendy Popplewell.

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