Position: University Lecturer, Department of Applied Sciences, University of Otago.
Field: Clothing and textile sciences.
Dr Bronwyn Lowe hasn’t had your ‘standard’ scientific career path. Rather than becoming more and more specialised in one area of science, the Australian has seized every chance to try something new. In her 25 years in science, she has worked in four different fields in two countries (Australia and New Zealand) and continues to expand her scientific horizons at every opportunity.
From microscopes to rivers …
At school, Bronwyn knew she was interested in what things are made of – but she had no clear idea of what she wanted to do as a career. She decided to do a degree in materials engineering, but she says she had “no real idea of where it would lead”.
Bronwyn’s first science jobs focused heavily on microscopy. Between the 3rd and 4th years of her degree, she spent a summer at CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) studying ceramic composite materials under the scanning electron microscope (SEM). In her first job after her degree, she looked at the microscopic structure of metals from the engines of jet aircraft, seeking signs of wear and tear.
During her next position with the Victoria Solar Energy Council, Bronwyn developed an interest in the environment, so she went back to university to study environmental science. She eventually did a PhD in which she studied plants growing along the banks of rivers and how river management affects them. Already, her open-minded approach to doing science was paying off. She says, “Because of my diverse background, I was quite comfortable working as a botanist at the same time as a geomorphologist at the same time as a hydrologist!”
I always look for opportunities, and my life outside of my work is really important to me – so I’ve tended to go from job to job, rather than finishing school, going to university and thinking, ‘I want to be that kind of scientist’.
… and back again
Since moving to Dunedin with her partner, Bronwyn has found herself back in the world of microscopes. After a short stint working on the chemistry of streams, she spent time collecting spider silk and studying its structure under the SEM (with Dr Phil Bishop). Next, she took up a position analysing lake phytoplankton under the optical microscope. Most recently, she has been working on the harakeke collection in the Dunedin Botanic Garden, characterising the different varieties according to their microscopic features and working closely with Māori weavers to put her findings in context.
“It’s all the same if you step back far enough”
Some scientists would be daunted by the concept of moving between several areas of science – after all, every discipline can seem very specialised to an outsider. For Bronwyn, though, all science has a similar underlying structure “if you step back far enough”. She sees scientific disciplines as languages, each with their own vocabulary and set of rules, and getting to grips with those rules is the key to feeling confident in a new area of science.
Bronwyn’s confidence and open-mindedness mean that she could turn her hand to anything. So that leaves just one question: what will Bronwyn do next?
This article is based on information current in 2012 and updated in 2018.
Read this 2012 paper co-authored by Bronwyn Methods for identifying plant materials in Māori and Pacific textiles and from 2017 Polarized Light Microscopy: An Old Technique Casts New Light on Māori Textile Plants.
In this Podcast from 2017, Dr Barbara Anderson and tamariki from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori talk textiles with Bronwyn.