Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka ‘Nanogirl’, talks about science on TV, radio, social media and in schools and won the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communications prize. The self-confessed adrenalin junkie runs New Zealand’s only nanomechanical lab.

1. Where did 'Nanogirl' come from?

I have a horrendous fear of public speaking. Before I speak, I'm usually dry retching with nerves. I call it my "super weakness". Everybody has that thing you're not very good at and you can just ignore it or you can say "this is holding me back, how do I work at this?". So I took a lot of courses and an acting coach told me, "just create a personality that's not you but who you want to be like and put that person on stage, because then it's not a personal attack if you get it wrong". The name came from kids when I was doing school visits talking about nanotechnology and making "nano nano" jokes. They called me Nanogirl.

2. How do you think Nanogirl is seen by other scientists?
I'm sure I've lost all credibility in the academic community by targeting children but I don't care. I know I'm a good scientist. I publish international papers and from here I'm going to Florida to speak at one of the biggest materials conferences in the world. Nanogirl is just a hobby I do because I feel it's important to create a science-literate society.

3. How would you describe your childhood?
I grew up working-class with two parents who married at 18 with no qualifications and no money. Mum worked in bars and Dad was in the Royal Air Force learning a trade. We travelled a lot. I learned how to be plopped into a place and adjust quickly. Mum's Hong Kong Chinese, so there's the "Tiger Mom" syndrome. She wanted me to be a doctor. Dad was just like, "be happy, do what you love, we'll work it out". The one thing I did have when I was very young was a computer, a huge expense for us. Of course I pulled it to pieces and taught myself to code. Dad was learning to be an electrical engineer so our dining room table was covered in circuits. At 8, he gave me my own soldering iron.

Advertisement

4. You give 20 per cent of your income to your chosen charities. Why?
I'm not very materialistic. The only jewellery I have is this ring I made on a 3D printer. I need enough to pay my bills and then the rest I want to be able to give back. I see a big inequality in New Zealand and I notice a very small amount of money can make a huge difference to those at the low end. I co-founded a charity called OMGTech where I teach kids, especially from low-decile schools, how to code and then write their own app. One of the kids came up to me and said, "I thought only rich people could make computer games but now I realise I can do it too". Suddenly you've opened up a spectrum of careers to a bunch of kids who are super-smart but missing out just because they're growing up in a situation that's out of their control.

5. When have you failed?
Oh, all the time. I teach my students that failing is good. It's actually a big reason I think girls drop out of science at high school. I find boys and girls are equally interested in science up to 11 when the curriculum gets quite strict. So in the chemistry experiment you have to mix two chemicals and get a certain result and if not then you've failed.

6. You found yourself at the centre of a media storm last year when Paul Henry asked you if you'd slept with Richard Branson. Looking back would you have handled it differently?
No, I'm proud that I handled it in my own natural way, which was to be shocked, to politely say no, and to remind Paul that Richard was a married man.

'Nanogirl' grew up with two working-class parents who married at 18 with noqualifications and no money. Photo / NZME.
'Nanogirl' grew up with two working-class parents who married at 18 with noqualifications and no money. Photo / NZME.

7. You often write and speak about sexism in science. What are the pressures of being the public face of this debate?

It's been hard to be that face and I can never win. Feminists say "You're a terrible feminist" and everybody else is like, "You're worried about nothing". What I've had to learn is to be authentically me and know what my morals are and have a thicker skin. I've found amazing colleagues - Dr Siouxie Wiles, Dr Cather Simpson and Dr Nicola Gaston. Every so often we go and have a cup of tea and share our stories and help each other to deal with all of that.

8. You publicly called out NetGuide for using bikini-clad "booth babes" at the Digital Nationz Expo. Do you think your blog made a difference?
Definitely. The Digital Nationz organisers contacted me and said 'we're horrified'. NetGuide had been told booth babes were against the rules and they still snuck them in. If we see them again I'm definitely going to be the person who uses their public profile to say "This is not okay".

9. Would you ever want to be a mother?
It depends how you define mother. I've asked myself this question a lot lately because I'm going through the process of being an egg donor for a couple that I know and love dearly. After seeing them struggle with the process I just thought, "I've got a whole bunch of eggs that I'm not using" and so I offered them. We all cried for a long time afterwards. I'll be part of its upbringing. I've decided to use my mothering nature to have an effect on thousands of New Zealand children by being a mentor. That may change, I don't know. Many of the women I know in senior jobs don't have children because it's too much pressure.

10. How can we retain more women in the science and tech sector?
We need to have more flexible working conditions and to build confidence in women. Studies show that if you have a job description and there are 10 things you need to have, a man will apply if he's got half of them, and a woman won't unless she's got all 10. We call it the imposter syndrome - a woman doesn't think she's good enough whereas a man assumes he is. More women will get to senior roles if they're shoulder-tapped or nominated and mentored.

11. Do you get much time to indulge your adrenalin junkie side these days?
I try to do a minimum of two hours exercise a day. I run with my dog, a Dalmatian called Noodle, I cycle-commute to and from Te Atatu, kite surf and paddleboard. I think much better when I'm exercising. My biggest scientific breakthroughs are on my bike in the morning when the sun's just rising and there's nothing else to think about.

12. How hopeful are you for the future of our planet?
Sadly, with climate change, I'm not hopeful. I do think we could make some real changes right now to soften the blow, tiny things at home like using reusable shopping bags and biking to work. Be a conscious consumer. Grow your own vege garden. If everybody made small changes it would make a huge difference. What might happen is our life expectancy becomes shorter because of environmental pollution rather than longer because of medical advances, so we'll see which wins.