2017: My first year down under (Part 1)

Happy New Year to you, my lovely friends! As an official representative of the future (at the time of writing, NZ is 13 hours ahead of UK/Ireland), all I can say, so far, so good… assuming you ignore the state of world politics, OBVS. Anyway, let’s detour around that particular rabbit hole just for a moment. In case you haven’t already guessed it, this is my now traditional End of One Year / Start of The Next Year blog post, where I get all reflective and self-indulgent about life and work stuff, and you let me get away with it because you’re lovely (or because you decide not to read it) 🙂

I guess my motivation for writing posts like these because they force me to sit down and take stock of what’s happened in the past 12 months. As I mentioned back in my 2016 (read that one here), I’m generally pretty crap at celebrating / commiserating – I’m very much of the ‘Ok, well, that’s done. What’s next?’ mind-set. So, yeah, I think it’s healthy for me to flick back through my Google calendar, photo albums, previous blog pots, and emails… even if it’s just to remind myself that I occasionally achieved stuff! In saying that, it’s important not to get into the habit of measuring years via an achievement to failure ratio. Just keeping going is often more than enough. So, go easy on yourselves.

Before I launch into a month-by-month account of my 2017, here is a brief bit of backstory: we arrived in New Zealand in early December 2016. We started looking for somewhere to rent almost immediately, but the options were fairly limited in the neighbourhood we were interested in. We travelled a bit too, and spent Christmas with Richard’s sister and her family down in Christchurch. And now onto 2017…

The first two pages of my six page feature!

JANUARY

Forbes-wise, 2017 started off very strongly, with four stories published this month, and more than 11,000 unique visitors reading my stuff! I looked at a study into how driverless cars will interact with pedestrians, described how Dutch trains are now entirely wind-powered, reported on the under-accounting of methane gas in landfills, and finally, shared a brief history of urbanisation.

I was also really busy working on a freelance project for the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, which is a research institute based here in Wellington. Having written some stories for their 2015 Annual Report (pages 16-19, 22-23, 40-41), I was delighted to be asked back to write stories for their 2016 one too. You’ll find my stories on pages 12 – 37 of this document.

I wrote a couple of articles for Materials Today, a huge, six-page feature on smart cities that I wrote for How It Works Magazine was published, as was my VERY FIRST feature in Wired! I spent a lot of time in Jan working out of the National Library in the centre of Wellington – I needed the change of scene, and it gave me an opportunity to start to explore my new city. Richard started his job this month too, so it was very busy all round!

FEBRUARY

I spent the first week of Feb writing a book proposal (more on that later) and buying furniture. After having stayed with Richard’s (very patient) parents for two months, we finally moved into our own (rental) place in Petone – a suburb of Greater Wellington. It was awesome to have so much space to ourselves, and to be reunited with all of our belongings from London!

I moved onto a new freelance project this month too – this one was for Brain Research NZ (which I mentioned in this post). BRNZ are a research centre focused on the ageing brain, and I was honoured to be asked to write some stories for their Annual Review. I’ve never learned as much in a short space of time as I did from interviewing their scientists. Neuroscience is absolutely fascinating! You can read my stories on pages 11-12, 18-25, 28-29 of this document. You can also read the profile I wrote on Prof Sir Richard Faull, one of BRNZ’s visionary Directors here on my blog.

Forbes writing continued – three stories this month, with close to 8,000 readers. As usual, the topics were very varied – city maps that merge design and science, London’s struggle with air pollution, and digging through a city’s past, thanks to projects like Crossrail.Via the magic of Skype, I did an interview for an Australian (ABC) radio show called Blueprint for Living, where we talked about everything from poo to paving slabs.

MARCH

I finished off the BRNZ project early this month, and started on another very small one. This time, I was developing a supporter’s newsletter for the Malaghan Institute, a biomedical research institute who investigate cancer, asthma & allergies and gut health, amongst other things. The result of my work can be freely viewed on their site.

I published three Forbes stories this month, which were read by more than 7,000 people. I covered a position paper that explored the volcanic risks that Auckland faces, introduced a series of robots that are making waves in an urban world, and (my favourite story of the month), an exploration of technologies that could make cities more accessible to visually-impaired people.

I wrote a couple of Materials Today stories, and Rich and I took a wee holiday – we drove up to Napier for the weekend. Four hours from Wellington, it is an art-deco-lovers dream town by the coast. Loved it.

APRIL

This was the month that the holiday feeling that accompanied moving to NZ finally wore off. While I’d been busy with work so far, I realised that I’d need to find lots more to keep my head above water! In the absence of a fixed project, I ploughed into the backlog of stories that I wanted to write.

Forbes benefitted from this – my four April stories reached almost 14,000 readers! I wrote about cities running out of freshwater (this was my favourite story, but the least popular!), reinventing coal mines as hydropower stations, the idea of building circular airport runways, and mapping urban trees. I also wrote a couple of Materials Today stores, and a post on tunnel boring machines for the very-excellent Women are Boring blog. And I made a start on writing my talk for an event in Sydney that I’d been invited to.

Very excitingly, April also marked the start of prep to publish the paperback edition of Science and the City. This gave me opportunity to make some edits to the final hardback content – I fixed a few typos (there are ALWAYS typos, no matter how good your editors are) and tidied up a few paragraphs that were clunky / confusing. I really enjoyed the process, but found it difficult to stop myself from just completely re-writing the whole thing!

[As an aside, I have a special email folder for people who send me their opinions of my book. Some are genuinely helpful – they spotted a mistake or an incorrect unit, etc… they get a ‘star’. The others – the vast majority – are from men (yep, they have all been men) telling me I am stupid / unqualified / an embarrassment, and that I should never have been allowed to write a book. Those emails get deleted, because life is too fucking short. I’d lie if I said they didn’t hurt, though.]

Me and my crew 😉

MAY
Oooh, May. You were insanely busy, but oh so much fun. I started off the month working on a project with Dr Rebecca Priestley from Victoria University of Wellington. A long-time Twitter friend, Rebecca had recently been awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, and wanted to use her prize pack to set up a fund for NZ science journalism. And for that, she needed a website. It was a very challenging project in the end, and I had to call in help from my nephew Keith (who also built this very website!) but you can see the result of our work here: https://www.sciencejournalismfund.nz/about/

I also signed the contract for Sticky – my next book, due to be submitted in April 2019 (so probably published in Sept 2019). There’s a whole other blog post dedicated to Sticky, so head over there to have a look. Richard and I went away for his birthday too – this time, down to Golden Bay, at the top of the South Island. It was a really lovely trip to a very special part of the country.

As soon as our holiday was over, I threw myself into finishing my talk. I’d been approached by the Committee for Sydney – a not-for-profit think tank who want to make Sydney a more sustainable city – to ask if I’d speak at their even at the Powerhouse Museum. So, I packed my bags and headed off to Australia on May 15th. It was a brilliant trip, which I blogged about in detail here. Highlights include: appearing on live breakfast TV, chatting to a fascinating audience about changes needed in urban design, co-hosting two science Q&A sessions with the legendary Dr Karl, recording a podcast, doing a very fun live radio interview on ABC with James Valentine, and hanging out with one of my best friends for a couple of very relaxed days in Newcastle.

No rest for the wicked though – I arrived back to start on two freelance projects – one small, one big. The small one involved doing some sci-comm with the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge (hosted at NIWA) for May and June. Working with Robin, who I’d met back in my NPL days, I edited lots of content on their research projects, updated their website and analysed a HUGE dataset on public perceptions of the state of NZ’s waters.
The big project was with NZ government agency, Callaghan Innovation, and it involved working 2-3 days a week on the C-Prize. This was a challenge competition, which asked for ideas on wearable technologies that would help New Zealanders live healthier, play smarter or work safer. My role (initially) was to write news stories and blog posts for their site – you can read them all here. My contract with the C-Prize was continuously extended, so you’ll hear more about this as we go through the year.

I also started making progress on research for Sticky, and visited an amazing company called Kaynemaile who make plastic chainmail for architecture! With all of this going on, I made a decision – I could no longer commit to writing 4-5 stories for Forbes each month (as I was contracted to do). But I didn’t want to give it up entirely, so I spoke to the science editor, and he agreed to redraft my contract to reduce my commitment. My May story was one of my favourites of the year – it reported on research from a group I’d featured in SATC. They looked at the impact of one driverless car in traffic jam… and the results were surprising. Read the story for yourself here. And finally, I did another Aussie radio interview for SATC, this time on a show called The Drawing Room.

JUNE

In contrast, June was pretty quiet – I carried on my work with NIWA and Callaghan, wrote some Materials Today stories, published a Forbes story on why the Tube is so hot in summer, and interviewed a few people for Sticky. June also saw the start of the Lions tour of NZ, so I was in my element – rugby on TV every weekend, but the tickets were impossible to get a hold of!

Oh and, right at the end of the month, we moved house, again. The house we’d moved into in Feb was WAY too big for us – we’d taken it out of necessity – but more importantly, we’d realised that it was completely uninsulated. Housing in NZ can be really crap . Too many of them are damp and cold, built with wood (because of earthquakes) and most DON’T HAVE CENTRAL HEATING. As a northern hemispherian, this blew my tiny mind – NZ really doesn’t ‘do’ central heating. So, in winter, you need to have oil heaters everywhere. Even with that, our house was fucking freezing, and Richard’s asthma was DREADFUL.

We asked for an air quality test, but the estate agents said no. We battled back and forth with them the entire time we lived there, but they never ever took our concerns seriously. So when we found another, very lovely, place to move into, we told them we were moving, and dared them to hold us to the existing contract – the house was unlivable, so as far as we were concerned, they’d breached their contract with us. Rich was amazing at dealing with them, and in the end, they stopped arguing and we moved out without taking too much of a financial hit. IT was worth all the stress though – the place we moved to is just SO SPECIAL. We love living there.

June also brought my RadioNZ debut… but I wasn’t talking about science! Journalist Wallace Chapman had contacted Let Toys Be Toys to ask if any of the team would be willing to talk about gender stereotyping on his show, so I was volunteered! From conversations offline, I knew Wallace was a big fan of LTBT, but he played devil’s advocate on air… in the end, I think it went ok-ish – but you can judge for yourself 🙂

— Right, so, this has gone on for WAY longer than I expected – and here was me thinking that 2017 hadn’t been all that busy?! So, I’ve decided to split the post into two parts, and end this one here. To read more about the second half of my year, head over to Part 2.