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PodcastsDecember 7, 2017

She’s flying with NASA and fighting Gwyneth Paltrow’s fake science. She’s 18.


Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week 18 year old Alexia Hilbertidou talks following your passion, no matter your age.

At 16 Alexia Hilbertidou looked around and saw that she was the only girl in her IT and physics class, then the next year the only young women in advanced physics.

What was going on? How did women go from the forefront of coding to under-representation, at a time when it is meant to be more accessible than ever? Well, to change the ratio you have to change the structure. So Alexia decided to take the message to young women while still choosing what subjects they would take, and so founded GirlBoss NZ, an organisation which encourages young women to embrace STEM, entrepreneurship and higher leadership.

In just 18 months, GirlBoss NZ is New Zealand’s second largest network of women, with nearly 8000 members.

At 18 years old, and just finished high school, Alexia has spoken to nearly 20,000 young people, teachers and business professionals about gender equity, STEM, and the future of work.

This passion for future-focussed education has seen her named a Top 30 Global Teen Leader, a Top 5 Young Leader by the Ministry of Youth Development, and the most influential New Zealand woman under the age of 25 at the 2016 Westpac Women of Influence Awards. A serial entrepreneur, Alexia was also the national winner of the Unitec Coding App Competition, at 16, receiving a $30,000 prize for KaiShare, an online food redistribution platform. To talk changing the ratio, and her work, Alexia joins us now.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below or via Spotifysubscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

Let’s talk about the NASA trip. So how did you, as a communicator in the STEM subjects, come to be picked to go on this amazing NASA mission?

I was invited by the US Embassy here in New Zealand to go and be part of the NASA Project. I was selected as a scientific communicator. Something that NASA is really passionate about – and the general scientific community right now is really passionate about – is how can we make science accessible to everyone. How can we break it down so that people, the everyday person, can understand it. That’s something I’m incredibly passionate about. We’re having a real rise of anti-science rhetoric because the scientists that are in a lab aren’t always communicating with the public, and I feel a growing lack of trust between the public and scientists. So how can we bridge that gap?

It’s such a mismatch, because scientists by their code and ethics have to rely on facts and have to only say things they can back up, while the forces that are undermining science in the public sphere will make up any old thing.

Exactly. A lot of the time the people that are spreading anti-science messages are promoting products, and I know well-known pseudo-scientist Gwyneth Paltrow sells her various anti-science sort of projects. It’s amazing because she can glamourise and take all these photos talking about the wonders of these projects when there’s absolutely no science to back it up. And how is a normal scientist sitting in a lab supposed to compete – how are they going to compete with that?

Also many scientists don’t want to be political as well – they think it doesn’t align with the core ethics of science. I mean I spoke at the march for science held earlier this year, which was a global march around sixty countries–and there were various articles about New Zealand scientists who weren’t supporting that, and who weren’t going to be at the march because they said we should not bring politics into science and and that’s not the role of the scientist. So there’s still many factors which means that science communication has got a long way to go.

Keep going!