PRAC­TI­CAL MAGIC

A SPIR­ITED NEW ZEALAND BIO­CHEMIST AND EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR IS FIND­ING WAYS TO SUP­PORT WOMEN IN SCIENCE ON HER OWN HOME SOIL

NZ Life & Leisure - - News -

Al­though she wouldn’t use th­ese words – she is a sci­en­tist af­ter all – bio­chemist Iona Weir is find­ing alchemy in New Zealand’s soil

IT GOES AGAINST the laws of science and rea­son, but there was some­thing a lit­tle spooky about the way Dr Iona Weir found her prop­erty in Wa­iatarua in the Waitakere Ranges. It was as if a cos­mic force drew Iona, a bio­chemist and mi­cro­bial sci­en­tist, and hus­band Chris O’Brien to the cliff-edge prop­erty in the thick of the na­tive for­est. It had many strikes against it. The build­ing – a dinky, prac­ti­cal house with no char­ac­ter – was perched on a scratch of flat land at the top of a drive so steep it would leave moun­taineers breath­less. Then there was a hulk­ing re­warewa smack-bang in the mid­dle of the city views, like a bas­ket­ball player at a con­cert.

“The house prob­a­bly wasn’t sen­si­ble, but there was just some­thing about it. I could see so much po­ten­tial. It’s the only place in my whole life that’s felt like a home,” says Iona.

Iona had an un­con­ven­tional up­bring­ing. Her fa­ther, a truck driver for the Min­istry of Works moved con­stantly around the coun­try mean­ing Iona at­tended 31 schools. It isn’t per­haps the imag­ined child­hood of a top scholar whose PhD was judged best in the world in 1997. But a log­i­cal hy­poth­e­sis would be that the re­peated re­lo­ca­tions helped her adapt to any en­vi­ron­ment. That would in­clude find­ing a home in Wa­iatarua with its rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dream­catcher hip­pie-ville. (In fact, there are seven other sci­en­tists in the small artis­tic town­ship. Con­clu­sion: avoid ob­server bias.)

Iona and her hus­band had lived in Toronto, (where she re­searched the pro­grammed cell death of plants) and in Chicago, Illi­nois, and Vir­ginia for Chris’ hu­man re­sources job. The ap­pli­ca­tions of her work in­clude can­cer treat­ment, skin care, di­ges­tive health and the de­vel­op­ment of crops which are re­sis­tant to drought and pest. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies have of­fered her jobs all over the world, but there was some­thing be­witch­ing that patch of bush in west Auck­land.

If there is magic in New Zealand, it comes from the unique mi­croflora of the land, she says. The soil bac­te­ria and fungi found in Aotearoa’s an­cient earth, iso­lated from the rest of the world since its land mass broke away from Gond­wana, is what gives na­tive plants such as manuka, kawakawa and re­warewa their famed medic­i­nal and an­tibi­otic qual­i­ties. “It’s not manuka as we know it with­out the bac­te­ria. The soil bac­te­ria and fungi give those trees their im­mune sys­tem – it’s sym­bi­otic.”

The garden Iona has cre­ated at home in Wa­iatarua is a world apart from the man­i­cured greens of Oa­maru Pub­lic Gar­dens where, as a stu­dent, she worked as a gar­dener. Her garden is Harry Pot­ter-es­que, with pur­ple garden stones and stat­ues of chess pieces and fairies. Chris also has a garden rail­way, which runs around the tram­po­line. It’s de­signed as out­door fun for their daugh­ters, Sian­nah (13) and Tess­cinta (11) but with a prac­ti­cal side.

“I had my kids play in the dirt when they were young. I didn’t want them to ac­tu­ally eat the dirt, I just wanted to ex­pose them to the bac­te­ria and fungi in the soil to build up their im­mune sys­tems.”

Big Pharma is sniff­ing around New Zealand’s na­tive plants, and Iona is wor­ried about keep­ing the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and re­search about New Zealand’s soil bac­te­ria on home soil.

“I have seen some in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies claim­ing their prod­ucts have New Zealand com­pounds in them. I love New Zealand, and launch­ing my own com­pany was my way of keep­ing the re­search and the busi­ness here.”

Iona’s busi­ness Dec­ima Health launched Atopis, a patented eczema, pso­ri­a­sis, acne and menopausal skin treat­ment range ear­lier this year. Atopis fol­lows a hand­ful of prod­ucts Iona has ini­ti­ated in New Zealand while work­ing at other firms, in­clud­ing the pre­bi­otic Phloe, and New Zealand’s top-sell­ing gas­troin­testi­nal health prod­uct, Kiwi Crush, a ki­wifruit di­ges­tive health drink used in hos­pi­tals to help pa­tients af­ter surgery and can­cer treat­ments. When work­ing as di­rec­tor of mi­cro­bial screen­ing com­pany BioDis­cov­ery, she sup­ported mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Dr Sean Simp­son (fea­tured in NZ Life & Leisure, is­sue 36) of Lan­za­t­ech in the bio­fuel firm’s early stages. A de­sire to grow New Zealand’s science econ­omy is one of the rea­sons she’s stayed here to launch her own firm.

“I worked in govern­ment de­part­ments for many years, and I got sick of in­vent­ing things and not hav­ing them com­mer­cial­ized. In academia I found I wasn’t in­ter­act­ing with the real world or solv­ing real peo­ple’s prob­lems.”

Iona be­gan de­vel­op­ing Atopis when her daugh­ters were young, turn­ing their play­house into a makeshift lab. She used com­pounds found in na­tive trees grow­ing in her garden, in­clud­ing pollen ex­tracted from that re­warewa tree. A few “ac­ci­den­tal ex­plo­sions” drove Iona to es­tab­lish a proper lab in Rose­bank with a small team of sci­en­tists who have one thing in com­mon – they are all women. Specif­i­cally, work­ing mums.

“An all-woman lab, hell yeah. If you show up in the school

hol­i­days, we’re not there, and some­times the mums bring their kids to the of­fice. It doesn’t af­fect our work at all, and it’s im­por­tant to me to make a work­ing en­vi­ron­ment that’s healthy for fe­male sci­en­tists.”

She says this is a reaction to work­ing in govern­ment re­search for many years, an em­ploy­ment en­vi­ron­ment that wasn’t good for women. “I even­tu­ally re­al­ized the only way I was go­ing to be able to have chil­dren and keep my ca­reer was to form my own com­pany.”

Early in her ca­reer at one Crown Re­search In­sti­tute, Iona over­heard a se­nior sci­en­tist rul­ing her out of a PhD place­ment with the re­mark, “Well, we can’t choose her, she’ll prob­a­bly go off and have a baby.” To­gether, Iona and an out­raged fe­male col­league cre­ated a false med­i­cal re­port stat­ing Iona had fer­til­ity is­sues. They placed this in an en­ve­lope on her desk. “Low and be­hold, two weeks later I was given the job, and it was clear they had looked through the en­ve­lope. I can’t be­lieve I had to do that.” Her em­ployer did not no­tice Iona had never signed the em­ploy­ment con­tract that had a clause bind­ing her to her job, just in case she wanted to be a breeder (she did).

It wasn’t a one-off in­ci­dent. In an­other job, she learned that all her male col­leagues were be­ing paid more than she was de­spite their iden­ti­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions and that her male as­sis­tant earned 25 per cent more than she did. “I re­al­ized I had to value my­self as no one else ever would. I vowed never to un­der­sell my­self and I’ve had many men tell me I’m over­paid.” In an­other role, she got told off by HR for mak­ing fun of her male co-work­ers.

“If I wore a skirt and a top it would get com­mented on

‘An all-woman lab, hell yeah. If you show up in the school hol­i­days, we’re not there’

by the men I worked with. Ev­ery day they talked about my ap­pear­ance. Back then some of them wore long socks san­dals and pais­ley ties, so one day I de­cided to show up dressed ex­actly like them. They didn’t find it funny.”

There are acts of re­bel­lion through­out Iona’s life but usu­ally they are very log­i­cal. She mar­ried Chris at 20, while they were both at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury (Chris study­ing po­lit­i­cal science and psy­chol­ogy and Iona biotech­nol­ogy and bio­chem­istry). The pair braved the Christchurch win­ters liv­ing in a car­a­van but left univer­sity with money in the bank.

She has a mis­chievous look on her face when de­scrib­ing her fam­ily’s ice cream fa­nati­cism. The fam­ily freezer is filled with ice cream and when they gather to watch their favourite tele­vi­sion show 7 Days, Iona, Chris and the girls each have their own flavour. “I know I work in the health in­dus­try, but if you want to eat a tub of Moven­pick, knock your­self out. Life should be fun.”

Both Sian­nah and Tess­cinta have shown abil­i­ties in science – for a school project, Sian­nah mod­i­fied a preg­nancy test­ing kit to test for con­tam­i­nated cook­ing oil – but Iona wants them to be cre­ative and is care­ful not to push. What she will do is try to build an in­dus­try that sup­ports women to have ca­reers in science, and she’s push­ing for change in the way science is taught in schools.

“I have been talk­ing to politi­cians and schools about ways to give girls the chance to do more hands-on ex­per­i­ments. Boys of­ten push girls out of the way; we need to change that.”

WORDS EMMA R AWSON PHOTOGR APHS VANE S S A L EWI S

While many would curse the view­block­ing re­warewa, bio­chemist Dr Iona Weir has nur­tured it and har­nesses pollen for use in her pre­bi­otic eczema medicine.

When Iona and Chris pur­chased the land 20 years ago all that ex­isted on it was a small, un­fin­ished house with a tiny win­dow fac­ing the city. They ren­o­vated and ex­tended, de­sign­ing a home that max­i­mized the city and Manukau Har­bour views, with a home of­fice for Iona.

Iona de­signed a fun mag­i­cal garden for the girls to play in to ex­pose them from an early age to ben­e­fi­cial soil bac­te­ria; Chris is a mem­ber of the Auck­land Garden Rail­way Guild, and col­lects vin­tage rail­way pieces and trains and mod­els. Tess­cinta joins him in build­ing the train vil­lage that cir­cum­nav­i­gates the tram­po­line and, to­gether, they at­tend all guild meet­ings.

Iona has been a di­rec­tor of sev­eral com­pa­nies but has al­ways been the only fe­male board mem­ber. “In the early years on boards I would have men talk over me and ig­nore what I was say­ing. My cur­rent board chair­man Paul Dal­limore is fan­tas­tic and treats me no dif­fer­ently.” New Zealand’s science econ­omy is one of the rea­sons she’s stayed here to launch her own firm.

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