Michele Hewitson interview: Siouxsie Wiles

By Andrew Laxon

Serious scientist who sports pink hair and black lacy pantaloons loves Lego and glow-in-the-dark bugs

In simple terms, Dr Siouxsie Wiles makes bugs glow at work. Photo / Natalie Slade
In simple terms, Dr Siouxsie Wiles makes bugs glow at work. Photo / Natalie Slade

Last week, Dr Siouxsie Wiles - a microbiologist who is head of the wonderfully named Bioluminescence Superbugs Group at the University of Auckland - won the Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize.

The award ceremony was held in Wellington, at the Royal Society of New Zealand, Te Whare Aparangi, and she does rather stand out in the official photograph. She, like the other male recipients, is wearing black; the other female recipient, Fenella Colyer, recipient of the Science Teacher Prize, is wearing brightly coloured stripes.

It is impossible to know whether any of the other prizewinners were wearing an old-fashioned, boned corset, but it seems unlikely. So that is not the reason.

You don't want to get caught up in the hair but it's difficult not to. The PM did. "It was really funny, because we ended up talking about my hair colour. And what colours I was going to be, what had I been, what was I going to be in the future.

"Because I believe his daughter, at the moment, has got pink hair. It's not what you'd expect to be talking to the Prime Minister about. We didn't talk about science policy or any of those things. We talked about hair dye."

On Thursday, we sat under a tree in the Domain, opposite the med school where she works and keeps her superbugs and bits of old fish and scary, ancient TB. It was a beautiful day, so she said, let's sit in the park.

She was wearing flat, sturdy, black ankle boots, a skirt patterned with colourful skulls (picked up at a car park market in Wellington; she also got her 7-year-old daughter, Eve, one - with a pattern of lady pirates) and black pantaloons with lacy edges. She said: "I do like my pantaloons."

On our way out, she caught a glimpse of her husband, the mathematician Steven Galbraith. This was mysterious. He works up at the uni, as an associate professor in the department of maths; he had no business being at the med school.

She sent him a text and he phoned her and said she wasn't to leave the building until he'd seen her and that he'd hoped to catch her before she saw me. So he rushed down from her office and rushed up and kissed her and gave her a present. It was a box of Roses chocolates and a book with illustrations by Edward Gorey: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas.

She was over the moon. "One of my favourite books - you're going to get the wrong impression of me! - is An Alphabet of Children's Death ... A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Boris who was devoured by bears ... I don't know!" she said, in response to a look which possibly indicated I was getting the wrong impression of her. "It just ... tickled me!"

I wasn't really getting the wrong impression of her. She is a serious scientist with pink hair and black lacy pantaloons. She looks stroppy and interesting and extroverted. She likes playing at dress-ups, and with pre-conceptions.

She and Steven met at a goth nightclub in London called the Slimelight. She was 22 and a PhD student. He had hair like Robert Smith from The Cure. Was it love at first sight? "Well, it was lust at first sight! We've got this thing, I don't know, it's a biologist's chemistry thing. I love the smell of him."

What on earth does he smell like? "Oh, I can't explain it at all! But I love the smell of him and I think, you know, that the way you match your partner is based on some kind of compatibility of your immune systems or something. There's definitely some science behind this ... There are ways of picking your mate and scent is definitely one of them. He thinks I'm crazy!" Does she smell everyone? "No! No, no, no, no. It's going to make me sound like a loony now!"

When she met the nice-smelling Steven, she was very pale and very thin. She was raised a vegetarian, in the UK and then in South Africa, by her health nut, Baptist, greenie, lefty parents. Her mother is a social worker. Her father is "a sort of social entrepreneur" who runs a scheme called From Cardboard to Caviar, which turns waste cardboard into worm food which in turn feeds the caviar-producing fish in his organic fish farm which employs people seen as otherwise unemployable. "He's a visionary."

Her parents now eat a bit of meat but they didn't for all of her childhood, so as soon as she left home for the University of Edinburgh, she thought: "Meat! Oh my God! Meat! Bacon!" and "started piling on the pounds". I don't think she minds this very much - although the point of the corset is, she says, "to put everything in the right place", now that she is 38. She might regard herself as a sort of experiment. She said: "As a microbiologist, it's probably something to do with gut microbes. So, basically, changing my diet, completely changed my microbes. And I clearly eat too much and don't exercise a lot. But the bugs are definitely part of it!"

The bugs are definitely part of it. She has been obsessed with things, namely bugs, that glow in the dark since she was a little girl.

Her mother has told her that in South Africa she was fascinated with fireflies around an outdoor tap. She doesn't remember this, but it seems entirely in keeping with her character that she would carry an obsession into a grown-up career - one that has enormous appeal to 10-year-olds, say. She says she's really about 10 years old.

At work, she makes bugs glow. In simple terms - and it is her skill for making science both simple and exciting that won her the prize - if you make nasties glow in the dark, you can get very fast results for new drugs which show whether the nasties are alive or dying or dead.

At the recent Art in the Dark Light Festival in Western Park she collaborated with an artist, Rebecca Klee, to make an installation of ... glow-in-the-dark 3D printed squid. This was very cool and quite beautiful - "they are things of beauty" - but what is it about things that glow-in-the-dark? She looked at me with some amazement and said: "Who doesn't like things that glow in the dark? Do you not like things that glow in the dark? I think they're amazing!"

Does she have a house full of things that glow in the dark? "Just me!" She's had pink hair for so long - it takes three hours, every six weeks, to keep up, which sounds a terrible bore but she takes her laptop and works - she can't remember quite why she first made it pink. But at a guess, she thinks it's because it's the nearest she can get to glowing in the dark.

You can see why they gave her that award. She does glow. She makes science amazing. She makes most things amazing because she is amazed by almost everything. She said, about her husband: "I'm as in love with that man now as I have ever been!"

He has a bit of competition because: What is her relationship with bacteria, exactly? "Probably unhealthy. I kind of give them human features. I really think of them in terms of: 'What are they doing? How are they feeling today?' I have a love/hate relationship with them because obviously there are those that are utterly awful. TB kills 4500 people a day. But I respect it, and I love the glowing ones, obviously!" She hasn't yet given them names. But she has thought about it. The good bugs could have the names of superheroes; the bad ones the names of villains.

Did I say she had an obsession? The list is long: Hawaiian bobtail squid, bacteria, communicating science, blogging, Twitter, Lego. When she is not blogging or tweeting or playing with squid or bugs, she plays at Lego, at home, with her daughter. (She doesn't drink and she can't drive; the second half of that equation "really annoys" her husband who does drink.) The best thing about being a grown up, she said, was not having to wait until Christmas to get new Lego. "I can afford my own!" What is she getting for Christmas? "Probably Lego."

Another of her things is getting riled about the perception of scientists, particularly women scientists who are, weirdly, often portrayed as naked, or wearing only lingerie, under their lab coats. (I didn't ask but I'm pretty certain she doesn't wear her corset under hers.)

She goes to schools and gives talks about what scientists are really like, with pictures of real scientists doing things like skateboarding or playing a guitar and intersperses these with stock pictures. She asks the kids to pick the real scientists and guess what? "The kids always pick the stock pictures! They pick semi-naked women in lab coats!"

It is for this sort of work - and the kind of sexy glow-in-the-dark stuff - that she gets attention. Also, she is not shy. She said, about that hair: "I guess it's ended up being a fantastic gimmick. People know who I am."

I wondered whether there were any grumbles in scientific corners about the amount of attention she gets. "I'm sure that there are." She just doesn't hear them. "I put my fingers in my ears! Because, actually, the reason I'm doing this is that it's not all about me. I happen to have got good at communicating science ... And it's about the science. It's about correcting the record when there are science stories going on and there are things that are being misrepresented. And it's also about showing people that scientists can communicate." Also, "I'm funded by the taxpayer so, God damn it, the taxpayer has a right to know what I do with their money."

Yet another of her things is that there aren't enough women at the top of science: "Oh, these women! They're haemorrhaging and bloody hell, I'm one of them!" She left a permanent tenure track position in London, at Imperial College, to come to New Zealand. She would marry a New Zealander. There is, she reckons, a thing in New Zealanders' DNA which is activated after they have a child.

"They want the child to grow up in the sun, and I can see why." Her four-year fellowship at the university has finished; she now has to apply for jobs. But she has only a "slight niggle, only that I'm one of those women who sabotaged their career. How could I be that woman? But I guess on the other hand, I got to meet the Prime Minister! He gave me loads of money!"

The prize is $100,000, half of which is to be spent on science; half on whatever she likes. That's a lot of Lego, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she blew the lot on squid.

- NZ Herald

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