Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles has been providing calm scientific explanations on radio, in print, online and on television, a voice of reason in these unprecedented times. She tells Elisabeth Easther about her life.
We moved to South Africa from the United Kingdom when I was 4 and it was a pretty idyllic childhood. I was very booky and I loved swimming so I was either reading, swimming or playing with Lego. I definitely wasn't a girlie girl. When I was 15 we moved back to England. My parents stayed behind with my younger brother to sell the house, while I was sent ahead to the UK to start school. For six months I lived with relatives I didn't know very well, that was pretty hard, but we got through.
When I was about 16, I started dying my hair various shades of purple. At university I went back to being a brunette but, partway through my PhD, I decided I wanted blue streaks but the hairdresser said, "not with your complexion. How about red or pink?" I started with a reddish-pink fringe, but soon wanted more, so I got more streaks then decided to go entirely pink. Before I bleached the lot, the hairdresser asked if I was sure, as there'd be no going back. That was 20 years ago.
Science opened up for me when I was given a book called The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases, all about the plague and tuberculosis. I was fascinated by these microscopic creatures that could change the course of our lives, how the plague changed everything in the Middle Ages and how those small creatures can upend us so rapidly. We all think we're indestructible and it turns out we're not.
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Because I liked learning it was very clear I should go to university, where it was a toss-up between biology and psychology. At the open day, I simply preferred the people at the biology stand and I signed up to do a genetics degree at The University of Edinburgh. The first year was very generic and I discovered I really enjoyed microbiology.
My husband is a Kiwi who had gone to the UK to do his PhD and, when we got married, we thought we'd stay there. We were in London when our daughter was born, and that's when Steven realised he wanted Eve to have a childhood like he had had - to have sand between her toes, that's what he liked to say. We both had lectureships in the UK when he was offered a job in the maths department at Auckland University. I was at Imperial College London at the time, and things were going very well for me. I'd just won a big prize, my trajectory was going great guns and everyone thought I was crazy to leave - at the time it certainly felt crazy, and I didn't realise how badly science was funded here in New Zealand compared to the UK. But we never wanted to look back and wonder how life could've been, so we jumped in and sold our house, knowing if it didn't work out, we could go always back.
A year after we moved, we went back to the UK for six weeks and rented a house just around the corner from where we had lived. I went back to work. I still had people who worked for me at Imperial, and I had an honorary position there so I slotted quickly into my old life. However, four weeks into that trip, I came home to our apartment one day and said to Steven "I'm ready to go home now". He was so relieved.
I now have a role here that's perfect for me. I've always been fascinated by creatures that glow and use light in different ways and I'm also fascinated by infectious diseases and I'm so privileged to combine those two things in my work to tackle a global problem – although not the one we're facing now, I'm talking about antibiotic resistance.
Because I've been doing science communication ever since I came to New Zealand, in many respects I've been training for this role for the past 10 years, blogging and podcasting, making kids' TV shows and building a skillset to communicate complex things. That is really needed right now and my family make it possible for me to do it. I'm good at multi-tasking, but I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing if I had younger children or a partner who couldn't pick up the slack.
Not quite sure where to start today. There's more covid-19 stuff to write, this week's lectures to prepare, and all my lab and students to catch up with. Might start with breakfast & writing a list :)— Dr Siouxsie Wiles (@SiouxsieW) March 29, 2020
There's a lot of misinformation out there, but what I learned from the wonderful Jess Berentson-Shaw is not to repeat myths, even to debunk them, and instead talk about stuff that's real. Right now, we need to recognise how serious this is. Maybe it doesn't feel serious but if you look at other countries that are a few weeks ahead of us, and we're in an incredibly privileged position. Because of our isolation, we were several weeks behind the rest of the world in getting our first case and we've also got a government and Prime Minister who have been acting fast on really good scientific advice.
We're going to stay home, and do as we're told. My husband and I still have jobs, although my colleagues, knowing I'm full time on this at the moment, have been incredibly generous allowing me to do my thing. My daughter will spend a bit more time on her device, and I'm hoping to do some work on a big Lego build we started last year. We did not need to panic-buy Lego, as we have several sets we've not yet opened.
My hope is that New Zealand will come out of this relatively unscathed. It's difficult when people are yelling about the economy but, what we need to do is stay in our bubbles, break the transmission chain and stamp this virus out. In other countries it's zoomed away from them, and it's really unclear how they will recover. It's horrifying when you think how many people will die. Listening to the New York mayors' press conference, they said they needed 30,000 ventilators and the government gave them 4000 - how do they choose which 26,000 don't get a ventilator?
I read an article in a prestigious medical journal that offered guidance to doctors on how to decide who lives and who dies. Because we moved fast, we shouldn't get to that point, but everybody who mucks around will make this last longer. You cannot get cross about being told to sit still, because being really fed up with lockdown after one or two months, that is a small price to pay.
• Dr Siouxsie Wiles is a science communicator, microbiologist, Associate Professor and head of The Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at University of Auckland