2019: How was it for you?

If you’re a long-time reader, you’ll know that each December, I put together a ‘review’ blog post of the previous 12 months. These posts act as a kind of personal highlights (and lowlights) reel. As such, they tend to be pretty self-indulgent, so please don’t read this year’s one if that sort of thing annoys you (it’d probably annoy me too, to be honest!) These reviews have been an important part of my life for about two decades (eeeep!). Writing has always been how I’ve processed things, and how I’ve made plans for the year ahead. As a teenager, I did it all by hand, in one of my many journals. These days, I do it online, which also means that it’s freely available for anyone to read. There are positives and negatives to that aspect of it, but on balance, I think it works for me.

Anyway.

The first thing to say is that 2019 has been an important year for me, both personally and professionally. But to be honest, it hasn’t been much fun. I spent most of the time chasing my own tail, and working really, really hard, but ultimately not achieving much. That’s not me being down on myself – it’s the truth. In the face of so many ‘tugs’ on my time and my attention, I think I lost my ability to prioritise. I tried to do too many things in too little time. Individually, these tasks were all worthwhile and important, but together, they wore me down.

For example, over the course of 11 months, I painted every room in our house, and decorated every space really carefully. I loved every second of this process – doing things with my hands has long been a therapy for me – but it was a massive effort and took a lot of time. Do I regret it? Absolutely not – it helped the place to feel like our home. Am I glad it’s all done (for now)? 100% 🙂

I also tried to grow and refocus my business. Yes, I’m a writer, but that’s not all I am. I’ve been working in science communication for a long time now, and I know what works and what doesn’t. I’m constantly looking at how organisations engage with the wider public, and searching for new and better ways to tell science stories. I’ve developed sci-comm strategies for organisations like The Royal Society, I’ve worked with countless schools and universities, as well as lots of big science-led companies. I know my shit. And yet, here in NZ, I’ve really only been offered writing jobs. This was ok in the first year or two – it gave me an opportunity to find my feet, get to know people, and think about what might work best for an NZ audience – but by the start of 2019, I was frustrated.

I was tired of seeing people in highly-paid, senior positions in science organisations who are dazzled by ‘shiny stuff’. They use buzzwords like ‘innovation’, but clearly know (and care) very little about actual, real-world science. I was also tired of scientists being underserved and unsupported, asked only about their work when it suited the PR or marketing teams. I wanted to do more ‘top-level’ stuff – to lead and design high-quality sci-comm programmes, rather than simply deliver content that someone else thinks is useful / interesting / timely. So, I put out the feelers with a few organisations…. but nothing really changed. I was still mostly being hired as a writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing about science, but it’s an incredibly time-intensive process. And when I’m doing it for someone else, there’s a limit as to how creative I can be. Customers usually just want an article with a set format: XXX words, particular key messages, quotes from the scientist, specific titles / names, etc. Very few want to stretch beyond that, so it can feel a bit…repetitive. Hence my desire to be the one leading the programme and redrawing the boundaries, rather than simply producing the content.

I also tried to do some brand-new stuff – e.g. get funding to set up a national network of science ambassadors (similar to STEMNet in the UK), and I put together a proposal for a science podcast with my lovely friend (and radio superstar) Veronika Meduna. Neither of these things really got off the ground. All of this led to a general feeling of dissatisfaction with my career throughout 2019. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of the work that I produced this year, as you’ll see in the next section. I also know how lucky I am to have a few very special repeat clients who I hope to continue working with forever and ever. It’s just that I got it in my head that 2019 would involve a big career leap. And that didn’t happen.

And then finally, there was the book. I’ve written a separate post on that, so I won’t repeat myself here, but needless to say, I made far less progress on it than I needed to. So that was a major source of stress.

All in all, it was quite the toxic work-cocktail! I am fully aware that this all sounds like a mega-moan, and maybe it is. But my work is a big part of my identity, so I always want to be trying new things, and getting out of my comfort zone. However, if 2019 taught me anything, it’s that maybe I need to learn to chill the fuck out, and accept that ‘safe and comfortable’ is actually a lovely place to be. I want to bring that into 2020, in the hope that it’ll help me focus on the things that actually matter. My work mantra for next year:

Don’t worry about growing the business or taking on lots of challenging projects. Just get your bills paid. And finish the goddamn book.

Endlessly-career-driven Laurie will make her return in 2021 🙂

To finish off this post, here’s a summary of 2019’s various work projects. It goes on for a while, so feel free to stop reading now!

** January **
The year started off with me working on a project for the Ministry for the Environment (MfE). I was really excited to work with a government department that does such important research – they’d been on my wishlist for ages.

My other major project for January was with Hutt City Council (HCC). I’d been brought on to help develop a large-scale science festival – the first of its kind for HCC. The Hutt Valley, where I live, has long been a centre of manufacturing, technology, and scientific research, so the council have always been very active in promoting STEM careers and education. I was delighted to be involved, and I spent much of January getting in touch with incredible local labs and companies to see how we could work together.

I published three stories for Materials Today too – you can find all of them here on the blog, or alternatively, follow these links: lightning strikes, natural marine adhesives, and self-cleaning silk.

** February **
This was a very exciting month for me. Herrenknecht – world-leading manufacturers of tunnel boring machines – got in touch with my agent Jane to ask if I’d be up for appearing in a video series they were planning. We started the conversations in late 2018, but February was when it all happened. I was flown to London where I met the Herrenknecht team and spent a couple of days filming, both in a studio and on the tube / on various trains. It was a dream come true! You can see one of my videos here.

I also started working on Brain Research NZ’s annual report – cue lots of interviews with incredible neuroscientists. Always a highlight of my year! The MfE project continued too, and I published a new Forbes piece: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauriewinkless/2019/02/11/could-we-build-houses-with-poop-bricks/

** March **
I finished up on the MfE project this month. I won’t go into the specifics, but it ended up being a pretty negative experience – not one I’m keen to repeat. C’est la vie.

Work on the HCC science festival (by now named Te Wā Heke) continued, as did my report-writing for BRNZ. Two more Materials Today pieces went live (metallic glasses and nanocomposite lithium batteries). And finally, an article I wrote for the MacDiarmid Institute – all about future batteries – was published in The Spinoff: https://thespinoff.co.nz/science/09-03-2019/building-batteries-that-go-beyond-lithium/

** April **
I made some progress on Sticky this month – I got to interview Fiona Fairhurst, the designer of the first sharkskin-inspired suits that went on to dominate the world’s elite swimming competitions. That technology is the star of one of my book chapters.

Rich and I went on a roadtrip in the South Island this month too, and we even got to drive a digger!

Another highlight was being asked to teach Victoria University’s CREW352 – the very same course that I’d been a guest lecturer for in 2018. And finally, one of my biggest Forbes pieces of the year (inspired by the MfE project) was published: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauriewinkless/2019/04/18/new-zealands-environment-is-in-serious-trouble/

** May **
This month was insanely busy. I interviewed an expert on curling, a former Formula1 tyre engineer, a friction-in-sports researcher, and someone working on non-stick surfaces for use inside dishwashers….all for Sticky. And I got to visit Resene, a huge paint factory here in the Hutt Valley, and interview their CTO, who was an absolute gent. I visited my friends at the Measurement Standards Lab (MSL) to celebrate World Metrology Day, and started working on a new project for them. And not work-related, but myself, Rich, and two friends also forged our own knives this month (it was my gift to R for his 40th).

On 24th – 25th May, all our work on Te Wā Heke came to fruition. The first day of the Festival was open to schools, and we managed to get 1800 children through the door. Many were from low-decile schools who tend to be underserved by science outreach programmes. The feedback we got from students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive. I actually had to go and have a wee cry at one point. On the second day, we flung the doors open to the public, and had another 2,500 visitors.

If you’d like to see me more lovely pics from the Festival, here’s a Twitter thread full of them. Definitely my proudest achievement of the year.

Two new BRNZ articles were published – one on sheep holding the key to Alzheimer’s, and the other on the molecular mechanisms of neurodegeneration. Two more Materials Today pieces went live too – one on using sunlight to desalinate seawater, and the other on a snow-powered nanogenerator.

** June **
With teaching due to start in July, I started reviewing applications for CREW352 this month. My work with MSL – largely an education project, based around the SI redefinition – picked up pace too. I edited lots of content (and wrote lots of new stuff, e.g. this timeline) for the Science Learning Hub, and we made a lovely video on MSL’s LEGO Kibble Balance – this will accompany the exhibition stand when it moves to its permanent location.

I spent a long weekend in Taupo with friends, visited a Bostik factory, and published another Materials Today piece. Another BRNZ article went live – this one on a much needed study into dementia prevalence in NZ – as well as a Materials Today Lab Profile for my friend and colleague, Dr Ben Britton. I wrote a Forbes story on earthquake-resilient homes too – it was my least popular (in terms of # reads), but I really like it: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauriewinkless/2019/06/11/earthquake-resilient-home-build-on-rubber/

** July **
I started teaching CREW352 this month. I’ll admit that I was super-nervous in that first week, but I definitely got into my stride. I had a lovely mix of students – everyone from a human rights lawyer and a working GP, to an aspiring vet and a film and philosophy undergrad.

I also travelled to Auckland to act as a New Zealand judge for the 2019 Dyson Award. This was a really fun experience, and I was honoured to be asked. We picked a national winner as well as two other finalists. Although none went on to win the international prize, they were all worthy entries, and I wish them all the best with their future development.

I carried on working for BRNZ in July, writing stories and interviewing scientists. One piece went live this month: http://www.brnz.ac.nz/news-events/preventing-stroke-through-coaching. Two Materials Today pieces were published too – one was on graphene solar cells, and the other was a Lab Profile of Prof Shelley Minter from Utah.

I had an exciting call with a group called the Asia-Pacific Metrology Programme (APMP), which offers training and support to metrologists (measurement scientists) across the region, supported by Germany’s PTB. It looks like I’ll be doing some work with them in 2020 – big thanks to MSL Director Dr Fleur Francois for recommending me 🙂

** August **
CREW352 teaching continued this month, as did my BRNZ work. I published an article on some fascinating work by Owen Jones from the University of Otago, wrote about electronic skin for Materials Today, and published my most popular Forbes piece of the year – on the disappearance of sand, thanks to our obsession with concrete.

I did some book-writing, and headed to Sydney with Rich for a holiday. Writing this now, in December, in the midst of the bushfire crisis, I’m very grateful that we got to see the Blue Mountains when we did. So, so heartbreaking.

I also started a fundraising campaign to get a copy of Angela Saini’s book INFERIOR into every secondary school in NZ. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment!

** September **
CREW352 continued this month, as did minor book-related progress. One of my favourite BRNZ interviews of the year resulted in this article, all about the complexities of neurodegeneration. I also profiled MacDiarmid researcher Dr Natalie Plank for Materials Today. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary this month, as well as my 36th (ick) birthday. AND I got to go on a steam train 🙂

** October **
I started working with another of my favourite clients, the MacDiarmid Institute, this month. Lots of interviews, lots of paper-reading, lots of learning. I did a couple of book interviews too, and started to review my CREW352 student folios. I had a lovely Skype call with a group of future scientists in Cleveland, Ohio – they’d used SATC as a reference for the First LEGO League competition they’d entered. They went on to win their regional competition!

I also helped BRNZ to promote an incredible theatre production that they were sponsoring, and got to see the show in person her in Wellington. You can read all about ‘The Keys are in the Margarine’ here: https://thespinoff.co.nz/science/10-10-2019/bringing-memory-loss-to-life-through-theatre/

Two more Materials Today pieces went live: quality control of nanotube devices, and a Materials Down Under profile of Dr Volker Nock.

** November **
November was mainly focused on BRNZ work and my CREW352 folio reviews. I also headed to Sydney to attend the APMP conference. I contributed to workshops, gave a presentation on the upcoming training course that I’m developing, and advised on future sci-comms projects. It was a busy, busy month, but quiet in terms of published work. We had two lovely friends stay with us for a few days towards the end of the month, so I was in full tour-guide mode. And I said farewell to my lovely students.

** December **
I really pushed myself this month – I relaunched our INFERIOR campaign, and did two radio interviews; one on Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoon show, and the other on Wellington Access Radio. We’re now up to $2864 (of a $7700 target), so we’re getting there! But we still need many more donations. Can you help? You’ll find all the details here: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/get-a-copy-of-inferior-into-every-secondary-school

I started working on another project with MSL – this one was to develop a metrology kit with the awesome team at House of Science. This kit aims to inspire primary-school children and introduce them to measurement science. I worked with lots of MSL scientists to come up with ideas, wrote up the initial plan, and then travelled to Tauranga to further develop the idea with Jane at HoS HQ. This project will go into early next year, but I’m really excited about what we’ve come up with.

I also spent a full week working on the book, and made lots of progress. I interviewed Prof Amy Betz about ice formation, and Dan Bernasconi about the new Emirates TeamNZ racing boat (which basically spends as little time in the water as possible). Both of those conversations had a big impact – Amy now has a starring role in one of my chapters, and Dan will appear in another one. I wrote my long-overdue update on Sticky, and received some lovely feedback from readers. It was a very good week.

We also celebrated our Welly-versary in December – I can’t quite believe we’ve been in NZ for three years! And over the rest of the month, I made time to catch up with lots of friends. I took a WHOLE WEEK OFF for Christmas too.

It might not sound like much, but it was just what I needed. I slept a lot, read books, went to the gym, ate out, lazed round, and did some DIY…. I am happy to be back at my desk this week 🙂 And finally, a couple of days ago, another MacDiarmid story was published on The Spinoff. I am really proud of this article, so I hope you enjoy reading it: https://thespinoff.co.nz/science/28-12-2019/how-to-reduce-the-carbon-cost-of-building-our-world-with-steel/