She says: "I don't want sympathy. I want people to see it. I want people to see what happens when we are vocal, when we speak out about our areas of expertise."
Let's take a look at what has happened to her, Siouxsie Wiles, prominent, successful, respected and awarded University of Auckland scientist, microbiologist, infectious diseases expert, science communicator and New Zealand's most prominent expert voice on Covid-19.
One example: on June 18, a Twitter user posted a link to an article from The Spinoff, headlined: "Siouxsie Wiles to Paleo Pete: I'll take medical qualifications over your 'common sense' any day." This is a small selection of the comments that subsequently appeared on that post:
[Post contains a full-length photograph of Wiles] "Typically these sanctimonious types like @SiouxsieW will only post their headshot Maybe you need to try the Pasta diet 'Suzy'? Go pasta fridge, pasta shop, pasta Macca's…" [The inclusion of Wiles' Twitter handle - @SiouxsieW - ensures she will be notified of the tweet.]
"Pink could lose a few pounds just saying."
"I'm guessing around 100lbs at least to be out of her current obese state ... what do you think @SiouxsieW?"
"Science Siouxsie must know a thing or two about healthy diets and healthy living. Remember she said that everything was unsafe except supermarket shopping - can't keep Siouxsie from her snacks."
"Don't think I've ever seen the lower half!"
"Believe me ... guys look even when we know its likely to scar us mentally for the future."
"Get ready to be scarred ... Susanna has a better diet ? Well, the proof is in the pudding (pun intended)." [Attaches the same full-length photo of Wiles posted earlier]
"Holy shit ... We knew the Pink Hair was vast, but in that shot it looks like a Pink Burkha."
"Apologies for destroying your breakfast! Sausage and tang today was it?"
"Not quite. But that image of the pink burkha will remain with me for the rest of ... the day."
When she won the Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize in 2013, she said: "I love to enthuse about science but I also believe our profession has a responsibility to be approachable and explain things to the public in a jargon-free way. It's also important because many New Zealand researchers get taxpayer funding to carry out their research. If we want to continue being funded, it's vital that we tell the public what we are doing and why it is important."
That prize was worth $100,000, including $50,000 for further development of her science communication skills - recognition of their importance - but how much money is enough to warrant the sort of abuse outlined above and also below? Why would anyone want to continue in the face of that?
She says: "It's just made it completely anxiety-inducing, when everything is just horrible, horrible messages from awful people. Yeah, it just makes me sad and a bit anxious. I guess it's like your favourite shop or your favourite food, or something that you love, is suddenly not what it was before and it's actually quite a horrible thing now. And it makes me very sad.
"I'm getting loads of people that are quite happy to tell me how much of a satanic witch I am. I know that the people on the other side vastly outweigh them but that's not what you see, so I have to remind myself of that. It's hard when you kind of swim in this toxic thing."
In 2013, she won the Royal Society Te Aparangi Callaghan Medal, which recognises outstanding contributions to science communication and raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress. In 2016, she won the Sir Peter Blake Trust's Blake Leader Award. In 2018, she was a finalist in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year. Last year she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to microbiology and science communication.
She runs a laboratory at the University of Auckland, researching infectious diseases and searching for new antibiotics in the race against antibiotic resistance. As with any scientific research, the primary requirement is to publish the results in scientific journals. She says: "For many of my colleagues, that's kind of where it stops. You've communicated your work where it's supposed to go – to your colleagues or the people in your field – but to me, that's never been a satisfactory ending. The process doesn't stop until it's been communicated to any audience that might need it."
She wants people to see the person behind the scientist. "To me, that's really important, because everybody thinks of science being this unbiased thing, above everything else but it has to be done by people, who have all sorts of flaws in their character. So you need to know who these people are. So for me, social media has been about showing, 'Yes, I'm a scientist, but I'm a mother, I'm a baker, I play Lego, I do these things and these are my values. This is me.' So you understand why I'm talking about something, how I'm talking about something."
Her employers don't necessarily agree with that. Academic careers are not advanced through newspaper op-eds and television interviews. If anything, she says, her communication work has been actively disincentivised.
"I've had some horrible conversations with very important senior people at the university who just don't value it. It's been very depressing but, again, I'm a bit stubborn, where I've thought, 'No, you might not value this, but actually there is value in this and so I'm going to keep doing it regardless.'
"Probably the worst thing to do to somebody like me is to say, 'Don't do that.'"
"It's irritating to be preached to by an intellectual lemming. She hasn't the ability to question faux science or identify false data, yet tries to pass as 'creative'."
" ...she's still a nitwit."
"... this so-called scientist..."
"I don't recall the last credible thing she said."
"Pink Siouxsie, the fake 'science' lady."
"Stop putting this clown on a pedestal of knowledge, she's been wrong so many times."
"Siouxsie only wants recognition. The hair is a clue. She has no better skills on pandemics than any of us."
"Sixiouse Willis is a moron." [sic]
Q: "Do you ever feel like you're just wasting your time? You've got the trolls, obviously, but also the people who insist that they know more than you?"
A: "Well, as a woman, that happens quite frequently anyway - that's just a hazard - especially one with pink hair who some people find it very difficult to take seriously. Often people explain our expertise to us when they don't have any."
Q: Do you ever think about just getting off social media? Off Twitter?
A: That would be very hard.
Q: Because you think it's important?
A: Yeah, but it's also a place full of amazing people. I mean, I have met so many wonderful people, and I've learned so much incredible stuff."
"For me, Twitter has actually been a great place. I follow lots of scientists. I follow lots of people in all sorts of different areas and so it's been it's been a really nice place to kind of hang out and to find out what people are thinking and to find new stuff and to educate myself about things that I don't know about, outside of my experience."
"It's like all harassment. Everybody's asking me what I should do rather than go well, like, why should I do anything? Why don't we deal with the people who behave like this? They're the ones in the wrong, not me. So we often police usually women and their behaviour, rather than going, 'You know what? You people are a**holes. Why are you doing that?'"
Online abuse of women
Australian political scientist Jessica Megarry has spent years studying the online abuse of women and has a book coming out on the subject later this year, No Space of our Own.
"It comes up again and again in the public sphere," she says. "It doesn't really matter what industry the woman works in. She could be talking about gardening, she could be talking about online gaming or she could be talking about science in the middle of a pandemic, but it's a similar type of abuse. And I think that points to the fact that women really are still oppressed, their behaviour is still heavily policed in the public sphere and it doesn't really matter what they do."
Part of the problem, she says, is that we expect women to look a certain way – an image of ideal femininity – and women are held to account on that. "It's hard to win this, right? if you're too feminine – if you're too stereotypically attractive – you're going to be ridiculed on that basis. If you're not feminine enough, you're going to be ridiculed on that basis."
More broadly, she says, when a woman speaks in public she transgresses her traditional role, which is in the home. She says public life has traditionally been a place for men to act as they wish. "Women entering the public domain transgresses this, so you see this pushback, trying to put women back in their place."
Somewhere like Twitter might appear to offer equal opportunity participation for everyone, but, Megarry says: "The question is: who's heard, who's listened to, and who's abused?"
"What a ghastly individual this woman is."
"This bitch is evil."
"She's just mad."
"Go away you boorish attention seeker."
"Bloomfield got the Bus. This one is going to need something a bit bigger. [Post contains a photo of a train]. Has got a Cow catcher on the front so should do the trick just fine."
Wiles' University of Auckland colleague and fellow recipient of both the Prime Minister's Prize for Science Media Communication and Callaghan Medal, physicist Shaun Hendy, has led modelling on the spread of Covid-19 in this country, has made media appearances throughout the epidemic, has tweeted about it to his thousands of Twitter followers, and has gone through the whole process almost entirely without abuse.
He says: "In general, the online abuse is often targeted at women or minority groups and the white males like me generally get an easier ride. I think that's what's happened. She's an extrovert, she's got pink hair, she really stands out and I think that really annoys some people, and so they'll pick on those personal characteristics. You often see her being accused of attention-seeking, when actually she's just doing her job."
Hendy says scientists normally only speak to the public on issues they've spent years researching and refining and having peer-reviewed but because we're in a pandemic that is only a few months old and the public is desperate for information, there's no time for all that and scientists are having to rely more than usual on their judgement.
"I think women will be more likely to be critiqued for that than men," he says. "It's that stereotype, right? I get away with it because I look like your stereotypical scientist. Siouxsie doesn't."
One of the things Wiles has been criticised for is not being qualified to speak on Covid-19 because she's a microbiologist, not an epidemiologist or virologist but Hendy says the criticism is unfair. He says: "She does work on human infectious disease, so she has a lot of understanding of how diseases spread. There's a lot of epidemiologists that have almost no expertise on infectious disease, so it can be a very narrow label."
Hendy is a physicist, a field that has very little to do with the study of infectious diseases. The potential for criticism from people who see him speaking outside his domain is high: "I do cop a little bit of critique," he says, "but boy, you could really go to town on me and people haven't bothered. That's the thing."
University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker is probably New Zealand's second most prominent public voice on Covid-19, after Wiles. He says: "With a fast-moving pandemic, people will have different opinions, what they think the evidence is saying. I would say I almost always agree with her message but not always. I think that's why you are going to have people pushing back occasionally."
He says: "The other thing is going into the social media spaces, which are almost designed to be combative. I personally don't know how anyone copes with Twitter for very long. I joined it and was almost immediately put off by its ability to create and sustain vile attacks on people and ideas. I just didn't really want a bar of it, because a lot of participants just seemed to be there for the fight rather than to improve knowledge and understanding between people."
'Women have to try harder'
Wellington film-maker Gwen Isaac, who has just released a short documentary, Siouxsie and the Virus, about Wiles' life in the days leading up to lockdown, says she can't help but think the abuse is because Wiles is a woman.
"She's getting attacked about other things that are not related to her job. And I don't think Michael Baker's being told he needs to wear better suits and sort his hair out and got to lose some weight and all the rest of it. When a woman sets up like that, they're just so much more vulnerable."
Isaac says: "Women have to try harder. We have to have social media accounts. We've been on the back foot for years. We have to take all the tools and exploit them so that we get heard."
After Wiles was quoted in a recent Stuff article calling conspiracy theorist Pete Evans' views "dangerous and "depressing", Evans posted a link to the article on his Instagram account, adding: "She worked for 10 years at the imperial College of London. Who wants to go down that rabbit hole in relation to this scamdemic ." His post included a photo of her. Here is a small sample of the 572 (at time of writing) comments:
"State of that women good god."
"She needs to put down the cheeseburger and grab an apple."
"I wouldn't take any advice from an overweight, red haired gypsy."
"Sick sick lady."
A few hours later, he posted about her again, a video this time. A small sample of the 602 (at time of writing) comments:
"Yes it's not a face for tv that's for sure."
"That's not her hair … that's her brain."
"Lol … It has pink hair and probably goes by the pronouns they/them, an idiot …"
"She even looks like a clown. Plus she talks like one."
"She sounds like a Dumb S***"
"I can smell the BS a mile off, I wouldn't trust anyone in a perceived position of influence with Pink Hair."
"The whole system will dismantle itself when health 'experts' look and sound like this."
Wiles says New Zealand's response to Covid-19 is a reflection of her own approach to life. By that, she means she sees herself as part of a much bigger thing. By that, she means this isn't all about her.
"I'm a fat, middle-aged woman," she says. "Do you really think I actually want this attention? I want people to understand what's happening around them and why they need to behave in a certain way. And if they don't, it's going to be really horrible for all of us."