Getting science out there

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BRANZ Materials Scientist Catherine Nicholson is a passionate advocate for finding new ways to communicate to diverse audiences the work she and others do to make a difference to our lives.

Q. What’s your background – where you grew up and your education?

I am from a small town near Belfast in Northern Ireland. We lived adjacent to the countryside, and my dad had a hobby farm with cattle. I have always loved animals and imagined I would like a farming-related career so embarked on a combined biology and agriculture degree at the University of Aberdeen.

It came as a surprise when it was the chemistry papers I enjoyed the most. I ended up graduating with a BSc (Hons) in chemistry in 1996, staying on to complete a PhD in chemistry in 1999. I was fortunate to have Professor Fred Glasser as my PhD supervisor – a world-leading authority in cement and concrete research. He set me on what would become my future career path in materials research.

Q. What was your career path before BRANZ?

After completing my PhD, I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2000. I initially stayed in cement and concrete research, working on geopolymer materials as green alternatives to traditional cementing systems. After a brief foray into research administration, I returned to the research lab at Massey University where I looked at the response of bone to exercise in young racehorses. It might be surprising to hear how much in common cement and bone have as far as materials science is concerned. With a long commute to Palmerston North and two young children by that stage, it was time to look for a new job closer to home.

I was thrilled to find a materials research role at BRANZ that was only a 15-minute drive away and located in an amazing rural setting. It sounded like the perfect position and an opportunity to learn about new materials – this time in the context of construction.

Q. What does your role involve at BRANZ?

I started at BRANZ as a Materials Scientist in January 2016. I enjoy the variety of work – no two days are ever the same. I am involved in the whole process of scientific research, from initiating new project ideas in response to industry needs through to managing the work and communicating the results to the people who need to know them. The research may involve desktop analysis, lab work and field trips or site visits.

Much of my work involves looking at the long-term performance of new materials and components that may have had only limited use in New Zealand. My research helps ensure innovative products have been appropriately assessed to ensure they will meet our expectations of longevity.

Q. What is the most satisfying aspect of the work you do and what are the challenges?

Seeing how applied research can make a difference in real life when it gets picked up and used. This is also one of the biggest challenges as translating key research findings into industry practice usually takes an enormous amount of time and effort. It’s why I became interested in science communication and now have complementary skills that can benefit our technical work.

Q. Tell Build about your interest in science communication. How can scientists improve communication of their work?

Few scientists are trained to communicate their science to a broad audience, despite its importance. Research with the potential to improve or transform the future of our building sector needs to be communicated effectively to the right people to be used.

Last year, I completed a postgraduate certificate in science communication through the University of Otago. This showed me the limitations of simply presenting information, data and facts and expecting action or behaviour change as a result. We need a more nuanced approach that considers people’s values and tells a story about the issues. Researchers also need to think more broadly about the channels used to reach different audiences –for instance, through interactive webinars and social media.

Everyone is busy and time is precious – if we communicate our research succinctly and in ways that our different audiences prefer to receive their information, then we will do better.

Q. Is there anything else you want to add?

Housing impacts almost every New Zealander in some way. I feel privileged to be able to contribute to better buildings research and to work alongside experts with genuine commitment and passion for the work we do at BRANZ.

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