Nicola Gaston recognised for science leadership roles, equity work

Professor of physics awarded the Thomson Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Professor Nicola Gaston
Professor Nicola Gaston

Professor Nicola Gaston was awarded the Thomson Medal by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on 8 November for transformative leadership for the research, science and innovation sector, and as a ‘driver of change’ towards equity for women in science.

As a professor of physics at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, Nicola is focused on computational simulations of nanostructured systems.

Over the past decade Gaston has served as president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, worked to increase equity for women in science, including publishing her book, Why Science is Sexist, and is co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a Centre of Research Excellence.

At the scientists’ association, she successfully helped the organisation to navigate a time of change including the establishment of the National Science Challenges, creation of Callaghan Innovation, disestablishment of Industrial Research Ltd, and incorporation of the Ministry for Science and Innovation into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Another challenge was a proposed Code of Public Engagement for scientists and researchers. Gaston's advocacy resulted in guidelines that seek to support scientists rather than restrict them from speaking out on matters of public importance.

“I think it's far more valuable to have 12 scientists say more or less the same thing, but then maybe disagreeing on small details, than it is to have one person as the mouthpiece for a scientific discipline,” she says.

Published in 2015, Why Science is Sexist has had a wide readership, and led to Gaston being invited to speak internationally on equity for women in science.

“So, why is science sexist? Well, science is sexist because we’re people who do science. And unfortunately, we make sexist and other kinds of biased judgements all the time,” she says.

I do not feel that this is an award for me so much as an award for scientific community

Professor Nicola Gaston

At the MacDiarmid Institute, Gaston and co-director Professor Justin Hodgkiss, of Victoria University of Wellington, transformed the focus to sustainability in material science and nanotechnology.

“I’ve always thought that material science is inherently related to sustainability, perhaps for the simple reason that we have a finite number of all the elements in the periodic table on this planet... So we wrote the plan to bring the expertise of the people involved in the institute together in as strongly collaborative ways as possible to create the most impact.”

“Deeply humbled” by the award, Gaston says, “I have always – apart from a few occasions when I have felt it my duty to take aim at the gender balance of the Nobel Prizes – really loved award ceremonies within the research community. It matters that we celebrate what we most care about – I’m a big fan of positive feedback loops when used for good.

“That said, I do not feel that this is an award for me so much as an award for the scientific community. I am very grateful to the members of the Council of the NZ Association of Scientists who taught me so much during my tenure as president; to those who supported me in writing Why Science Is Sexist; and to the wonderful folk at the MacDiarmid Institute it has been my privilege to work with.

“I’d like to particularly thank Justin Hodgkiss, my partner-in-crime as co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for the last five years. I have a very long list of things to thank him for, but we have honestly gotten so good at finishing each others’ sentences that I will just say ‘Thank you, e hoa, for …’ and leave the rest to him to fill in.”

Media contact

Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
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