I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Tauranga Girls’ College 2016 Academic Prizegiving (2/11/16), which celebrates the achievements of girls in years 11-13. I learned that the school continues to punch above its weight with our Māori students achieving at the national average (a big issue in New Zealand education).
What follows is the text of my talk. This will not be exactly the same as the talk given as I went off-book a few times, but it is as close as I can make it!
It’s honestly such an honour to be here, speaking to you – I’ve wanted to do this since my first academic prizegiving in 2007, largely because I’m a massive dork. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a good time at high school; I realised I was queer and came out to one of my best friends, who was Catholic, and that went about as well as you’d expect, I’ve since been diagnosed with autism which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew me at high school, my depression first started presenting and was mostly unmanaged, and of course being a teenager is weird. The contrast is turned right up on your life which means the highs are super high and the lows absolutely suck.
But before I continue to dispense wisdom – which I am going to do – a brief history of where I’m at. I grew up mostly in Tauranga with a two-year jaunt to Beirut as a child. In year 13 I represented New Zealand in Biology and the only paper I failed in NCEA 3 was biology, a juxtaposition I have quietly enjoyed since then.
I then went as far away from Tauranga as I could and completed a degree in Genetics at the University of Otago. During my honours year – a final year focussing on research with a major written component – I founded the science students association at Otago, presented at a poetry conference in Los Angeles, and was part of the debating squad that went to Kuala Lumpur, because when people say “now, you really need to focus this year” my response tends to be “wATCH ME”.
I worked for ACC for five months and then left Sunny Dunedin to start my PhD at the University of Melbourne. For my PhD, I investigate disorders where your body can’t generate all the energy it needs. I’m trying to develop new treatments and ways of testing treatments, because the particular set of diseases I look at don’t have any treatment. I’ve also I’ve helped run the Women in Science and Engineering group, science festivals, research students associations and generally been over-committed, which my supervisors, uh, might not be totally into.
I feel like I flail effectively, resulting in a lot of cool things like being flown around Australia, being on TV, and getting published in books. So I’m going to give you a few Hot Tips about how to live your best life, because the future is terrifying and we all need all the help we can get.
Tip number one: Say yes.
Last year I got to go to a youth leaders conference in Australia. My initial inclination was to say no, because I didn’t feel like a leader or an Australian or a capable human being. One of the hardest things to do is to say yes when you don’t think you belong or that you deserve something. I started down this path by responding to requests as if I’m joking, which is literally how I ended up with multiple radio interviews and a podcast!
It took maybe six months before I was confident of saying yes to things – and from there it was a short distance to the nerve-wracking experience of being on national television less than 24 hours after going to hospital with horrible gastro. Confidence is genuinely something you can fake until you have it.
Say yes to things, even if you’re scared, even if you’re still a bit sweaty from being sick, and even if you’re not sure if you’re deserving.
Tip number two: Accept yourself
Accepting yourself isn’t just about body image, it’s about being unashamed of who you are and your passions. I am an angry feminist and I listen to Hamilton and Alainis Morisette to pump myself up and sometimes I spend eight hours playing computer games and once I rapped about bioethics to a room full of hippies.
And I’m depressed – and accepting myself isn’t just chilling on that but understanding that I might need to have ongoing medical intervention for the rest of my life to not want to die 24/7, and knowing that that’s okay, my brain’s just a bit messy but medical research has got my back.
Everyone is a giant dork about something, and it’s weirdly difficult to accept that and have a good time. Don’t feel guilty for liking or wanting or doing things. They’ll inform what you’re good at and help you enjoy and appreciate your life.
Tip number three: ask the question
Adulthood isn’t like, you leave high school and suddenly it all makes sense. From my experience it’s mostly being confused, having a sore back, and wishing you were fitter. You’ve probably heard from your teachers that the only silly question is the question you don’t ask but quite genuinely, that is such truth. I still don’t know if I’m meant to add salt or oil when I make pasta, or how a top-loader washing machine works, or how to make pancakes but thankfully all my high school teachers are here so they’re going to save me right after this.
On another note, I’ve been keeping track of things I’ve googled during my PhD, which has included my favourite, written in a moment of weakness: “how does chemistry even work”.
Seriously though – if you’re not sure about something, or you’re confused, or need help, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking about it. I’ve noticed that as I collect qualifications, the more that people know, the more willing they are to admit they don’t know things. And people that know a lot love sharing everything they know. Get ahead of the curve and start asking now.
Final tip: Don’t worry, it’s okay
There are many ways to get to where you want to be. It’s incredibly important that you know that no exam, no test, no class is worth your mental and physical health. I had a nervous breakdown during year 12 exams – so as long as you don’t do that, you’re doing better than me. And if you have a nervous breakdown, well, I’m doing a PhD now, so you’ll probably be okay.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned since high school is how well Tauranga Girls’ College set me up for life. The great things about girls’ schools is that they allow you to explore and develop your personality, interests, and leadership capacity in a space somewhat isolated from the pressures of society. The unique thing about TGC is that it does it well. You – and all the girls who aren’t here tonight – are being provided opportunities that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.
You’re lucky. You’re brilliant. And I look forward to you changing the world.