Dr Gary Payinda was going to be the speaker at The Central Northland Science Fair 2021.
As the fair ended, being held online, you can read his speech welcoming student scientists below…
Kia ora, future scientists.
Ko Gary ahau.
I’m your speaker for the night, and I want to thank you for the next 8 minutes of your time. I also want to thank the organisers of the Central Northland Science Fair for inviting me to speak.
Nga mihi nui.
First off, full disclosure. I am not actually a scientist. I did a bit of science research as a med student, but I can assure you many of your science fair projects are more impressive than any research I’ve ever done.
I’m an emergency doctor. If you were to fall and break your wrist tomorrow, I might be the doctor straightening your broken bones out. Or if you are older, let’s say my age, I might be treating your heart attack. I have a very practical, hands-on job. But I have spent almost all of the 46 years of my life playing around at the margins of “real” science, fascinated by science and medicine.
I’ve always been interested in how things work, and in science’s ability to explain the world around us… and the world inside us. From the time I was a little boy, I was fascinated with the magic of living things. Exactly how does our heart know when to beat, and how to keep on beating, for 3 billion beats in a lifetime? And how does our brain –1,300 grams of what is essentially just cream cheese, form thoughts and hold on to memories?
As a kid, I grew up next to a farm, and I hunted and fished a lot. I gutted fish and deer and was amazed at the stuff I saw inside. I saw calves being born, and it blew me away. For me, science held the explanations to the mysteries of life. So I studied biology, lots of it; starting with 4 years in high school, followed by 4 years of a biology degree in university, then 4 more years of medical sciences in medical school, and ending up with a final 4 years of emergency medicine specialty training before finally finishing up as an emergency doctor at the ripe old age of 32. 12 years of schooling after graduating high school.
Some of the schoolwork was stone-cold boring, I can’t lie, but a lot of it was amazing — especially as I look back on it now, decades later. How does the food we eat turn into our muscles and our fat and the carbon dioxide in our breath? Why do we hiccup or yawn? Why do a quarter of us develop runaway cells that can turn on but can’t turn off, can’t stop dividing, and end up turning into cancer? Or why, as little tiny embryos, do we start off with webbed fingers like a tadpole, and gills like fish, then lose them as we develop our fingers and lungs? Reality is as wild as anything you could see in a movie or read in a book.
But studying science wasn’t just about satisfying my sense of wonder, it was also a way for me to rise up out of poverty and rural isolation. My mom raised me by herself after my father got sick and died when I was six years old. She had lived through World War II, and her schooling ended at age 13. That’s when she, as the oldest daughter, had to go to work full-time to support her family.
She raised me alone, on a benefit, supplemented with occasional work cleaning motel rooms. There weren’t many jobs where I grew up, and most of them paid minimum wage, which at the time was under 7 dollars an hour.
We had to move house 6 times in 7 years, usually because my mother couldn’t afford the rent. We kept moving more and more rurally, where the rent was cheaper. I ended up graduating from a small high school two years early, at age 16. I was in a hurry. Only 6 of the 60 kids in my graduating class went on to university. The rest would work locally, with many of the boys working at a local paper mill or driving logging trucks. Many of us would end up on government assistance.
I didn’t want that. I wanted a life that had more intellectual challenges, more options, and more stability. I knew the only way to get that was to study. I got what I had hoped for, in part due to my love of science, and my commitment to getting a strong science education.
As an emergency doctor, I’ve had to open up people’s chests to sew their stabbed hearts, and cut open bellies to try to save the lives of mother and baby after horrible car accidents.
As a doctor working on board a helicopter over the past few years, I’ve gotten to fly around Northland and Auckland picking up people who’ve gotten into serious trouble with spinal cord injuries or life-threatening burns or really bad heart attacks. I get the chance to try my best to help these patients, using everything I’ve learned and all the skills I’ve practiced. It’s a privilege to get to do this work, and I owe a big debt of gratitude to my mother and my teachers. I take a moment to honour the teachers in this room. You are improving lives in ways you can’t even imagine. Thank you.
So a few years ago, I became fascinated with the ability to look inside patients with ultrasound in order to help diagnose and treat them faster and better, and so I spent about a thousand hours trying to become a qualified sonologist, a doctor with a subspecialty in ultrasound imaging sick patients. A thousand hours sounds like a lot, but if you are enjoying it, it’s not hard work. If you actually find it intellectually amazing AND it helps people too, it becomes a privilege to study and get better educated.
In my twenties, I liked learning about and writing about medicine and science so much I got another degree, a Masters degree in science journalism. I didn’t know where it would lead, but I pursued my interest. Many years later, I would have my own little newspaper column on health and medicine. It ran for years until I got busy with teaching emergency medicine to medical students and doctors-in-training.
I still go back to write some newspaper articles every now and then when I feel the urge.
Let me emphasise this: NOTHING you learn in high school or in university will ever be wasted. No practical skill or intellectual pursuit is ever wasted. It all becomes a tool you can deploy at some later point in your life.
Science was my foundation for all of these things: science was my learning passion, my source of income, my pastime, my way of giving back to society, my way of learning about life.
I hope you too will see science for what it is: a solid foundation upon which to build a passion, a career, a hobby, or a creative pursuit…or maybe all of these things.
You’ve already taken the first step: realising that science is not just a bunch of dead, boring old formulas and random useless facts you are forced to memorise. It is something that you can actually USE, something you can experiment with, and tweak, and create. It’s a body of knowledge that never runs out; a story that never ends. The more of it you learn, the more you will want to learn. The more you go through doors of knowledge, the more doors will open up. It will reward and fascinate you for your whole life.
As I often tell my kids, society needs and wants people that actually KNOW things; people who have a deep understanding of something. …Anything!
It might be the computer science miracle of how your smartphone accesses much of the world’s written knowledge in just a fraction of a second. Or the civil engineering miracle of how concrete buildings can be engineered to shake and sway with the worst earthquakes rather than to crumble into dust. Or the molecular biology miracle of how viruses can be disassembled, and their messenger RNA codes used to create vaccines that have saved millions of lives. Science is the useful, amazing, endlessly fascinating story of life.
That’s pretty much the end of my talk. My parting words of wisdom to you all:
Be interested in the world around you. Learn things. Read deeply. Study. Create experiments. Take things apart. Try new ideas out. Break some stuff. Go back and learn some more. Create expertise in yourself.
If you start young, and just keep doing what you all already are doing, you will be an ”expert” by the time you are an adult.
People will then come to you for answers, advice, technical help, and expertise — whether you end up a scientist, a science teacher, an engineer, or any of the technical and skilled people that keep our society running and innovating.
If you know and love and soak up science, and become an expert, people will seek you out and flock to your doorstep. And you will be able to do important work, and help people, and maybe even change lives.
Science is powerful. Use it like the tool it is. This science fair is just a first step. Kia kaha!
Stay strong and do great things, society needs you!