PhD Student in Biology
Amy Maslen-Miller is a Ph.D. student at the University of Auckland in New Zealand researching indigenous agriculture—specifically, the Samoan traditional diet. She is also behind the social media platform Samoan Scientist, founded as a way to share her STEM experiences as a Pacific Islander and to promote more diversity in the field.
STEM to the Sky
Feb 15, 2023
I actually didn't like science in high school; my passion for it started when I went to university. It was in my first year of university where I did a paper in plant science, and I really liked understanding in more detail the molecular side of plants and what goes on at a micro-level. Another thing that got me into STEM was when I attended this conference where I was volunteering, helping people take their seats and made sure that everyone was comfortable. At the conference, there were Master’s and PhD students presenting their work about Māori communities; Māori people are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The students helped people understand the environment around Māori, which was very cool for me to see because I didn't know you could do that in science. I really liked it because they were helping their own communities, but also doing their research and learning new skills.
(Credit: Amy Maslen-Miller)
I faced many challenges. A big one for me was learning content through the university way. Understanding how they marked exams and assessments was really difficult for me, so I had to get some support. There was a group called Tuākana, which is a program for Māori and Pacific students to assist with their academic work. They had tutorials and drop-ins where we could ask questions. I found that it really helped me overcome my work and the challenge of understanding the system of marking and examination. They were helping with academic support and also partial support for some of the other things in my life, which really helped me finish my three year degree and continue onto my PhD today.
I did work in Samoa for two years, and the team that I was in was focusing on post harvest work. For instance, you harvest some breadfruit. Breadfruit looks like a soccer ball and is green on the outside. It's quite starchy when you eat it, and you can boil it or fry it like chips. They were harvesting breadfruit and looking at ways to export it from Samoa to New Zealand. The group was saying, “Could we fly it by airplane?” “Could we ship it by container?” If we did either of those things… “What condition would it be when it reaches New Zealand?” “Would it be rotting?” “Would it still be okay to have?”
Post-harvest is looking at different ways to see how long we can preserve the fruit to get it from one place to another, and also how we can make the shelf life of the fruit longer. Another example is taro. I worked a lot on taro in Samoa—it’s a staple of the Samoan diet. It's a root crop: the taro is underneath the ground. You can boil it, fry it, and it's also cooked in a traditional Samoan earth oven called “umu”. With taro, we were looking at ways of exporting it from Samoa to Australia. This includes looking at what temperature to store it in—whether it likes cold temperature or hot temperature—and what condition it would be in when it gets to Australia once it's been shipped through the boat for three weeks. That’s a lot of the post-harvest work that I did in Samoa.
(Credit: Amy Maslen-Miller)
Samoan Scientist started when I was doing my Master’s back in 2015. I was looking at taro and a fungi- like organism that infects taro leaves called the Taro Leaf Blight. I really loved that project—I wanted other people to see what science is like, what I'm studying, and what they could also do in science.
I started the platform Samoan Scientist on Instagram, where I posted a couple of photos of some of my experiments and a little description of what my day to day looked like. I started it because I saw that there were not a lot of scientists on Instagram at the time. I also wanted to share my experiences so that students in high school who may be thinking about science know what it is like; I remember in high school I had no idea what science was like and what research you could do. I felt that with the information on my platform, it could give some help or support to high school students in determining their careers.
"I started [Samoan Scientist] because I saw that there were not a lot of scientists on Instagram at the time. I also wanted to share my experiences so that students in high school who may be thinking about science can learn what it's like."
I've had a lot of good feedback and good discussions with people. Some people say “I too am in the science industry and am a Pacific Islander… it's so nice to see someone else in the industry.” Some other comments from students asked me more questions about the work that I did on taro or wanted to know more about my journey in science.
I felt that I really achieved that social media interaction with the community. But I also want to engage more with our community in-person, even though it's quite hard with COVID. One of my next goals is to really put myself physically into the community. For instance, I had a meeting the other day with a school that is creating a project on the chemistry behind foods. I'm helping them with that and hoping to go into the school to help the students directly.
I would strongly recommend you to shadow someone. For instance, if you want to go into a lab or research center, you can ask: “Can I please follow you around for the day and see what it's like in the workplace?” That will give you an idea of what it's like in the real world and what people do in research and science. Then you can say, “I really enjoy that, or no this is so not for me.” Also, if there is an internship that you have within your school or perhaps something during the holiday break or summer, I would really recommend that. Again, that gives you insight into what it’s like day to day as a researcher as well as into different research organizations.
If you find that research is something you really love, it's really nice to have that connection because hopefully once you finish high school and go through university, you maintain that connection, and they may have a job for you after you finish your degree. It's a really good way to network but also to ask yourself, “is this career for me?”
(Credit: Amy Maslen-Miller)
At the moment, my research is very boring. I'm in my fourth month of my PhD, and for all researchers, we have to do a scope of the current research that's out there. I'm writing my literature review where I read all the different works that relate to Samoan traditional foods—it also covers obesity and type two diabetes. I'm doing a lot of reading and writing, and what I am trying to find is where my research fits into the current research out there. When it comes to research, you're always wanting to do something that's new that someone else hasn't done or building on top of research that has already been done. So it's a really important part of the research project.
In high school, I thought that science didn't require a lot of English, but that isn’t true. You need to have really good reading and writing skills.
Another good skill to have is perseverance. In science, especially with experiments, nothing goes to plan and a lot of things go wrong. It's really important to be persistent with your work if something goes wrong. You want to be able to troubleshoot, knowing how to not dwell on the negative part of the experiment but thinking instead, “What do I need to do next?” and “How can I solve this issue?” While science can be really challenging, don’t let it bring you down, even though it definitely has happened to me. It’s a really good tip to have to build up your persistence for research.
"In science, especially with experiments, nothing goes to plan and a lot of things go wrong. It's really important to be persistent with your work [even] if something goes wrong."
Science wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I thought science was very straightforward: you do an experiment, you get a result, and then you discuss it. For me, science also meant that it was very westernized where things are done in a particular way, and in one way. But what I've realized is that science is actually unpredictable. It's really a bit like a rollercoaster. Here in New Zealand, I feel that it's changing. For instance, Mātauranga Māori, which means Māori knowledge. The traditional knowledge of Māori . I've found that I can be more myself in science, and I can bring more of my culture—-my Samoan heritage—to science. I can study work that is going to help our Pacific community. The takeaway is that science has evolved over time to allow more Indigenous voices and Indigenous projects to be carried out.
"I've found that I can be more myself in science, and I can bring more of my culture—my Samoan heritage—to science. I can study work that is going to help our Pacific community."
(Credit: Amy Maslen-Miller)
I hope to see more inclusion of a variety of voices. I'm a big believer that scientists are there for our community. We are there to answer our community's questions. Our community is not made up of one culture. There are so many different races and ethnicities within our communities, so our science needs to reflect that by having a variety of voices and ethnicities within the science industry. I really hope that we are able to develop that area of science and be able to create safe spaces for a variety of ethnicities in the science space so that we can better help our communities.
Follow @Samoan Scientist on Instagram, TikTok, Youtube, Facebook, and podcasting platforms.