Exciting times for women in meat science

Gale Brithwell, AgResearch
Dr Gale Brightwell, AgResearch.

As one of the meat industry’s most senior female leaders, AgResearch science team leader for Food Assurance Dr Gale Brightwell has been pleased to note the sudden growth of numbers of young women entering meat and livestock science in the past five years.

“It’s an exciting time for young career-minded females, the current focus on women and opportunities available means today the world really is your oyster,” she says.

Looking back on her own 28-year research career, Britain-born Brightwell recalls from an early age she always had a love of science, biology in particular.

She originally trained as a medical laboratory officer at the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, starting in 1980, straight from school. Brightwell completed her degree and PhD in molecular microbiology at the University of East Anglia in 1993, which she says was one of her career highlights.

“That really set me up for the future,” she says.

The future included her first postdoctoral position at Bristol University studying the role of the transcription factor, WT1, in normal nephrogenesis and Wilms’ tumour (WT) development. Two years later, it was off to Australia and the Centre for Molecular Cell Biology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane to work on another transcription factor, Brn-2, involved in melanoma proliferation. She returned to the UK to take up a scientist role at the British Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, Wiltshire, where she trained to work with Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) level III pathogens and gained three patents.

That was all before moving to New Zealand in 2004. While in the UK, she had gone for five different jobs and was offered all of them. The one she picked was at the Ruakura campus in Hamilton for the AgResearch food safety team where – continuing a theme from early in her career which led her to choose medical-related work – she felt there was a gap where she could help the applied team develop a more academic focus. She’s been there ever since and, after 15 years, it’s the longest appointment she has ever held and one she really enjoys.

“Anywhere where you feel you’re doing something valuable as a scientist really ticks the boxes,” she says.

The AgResearch hat is one of four professional positions she currently holds. Alongside being one of the overseers for the new AgResearch/Massey University Joint Food Science Facility taking shape in Palmerston North, she is also acting director of the Hopkirk Institute and is associate director and science theme leader (mitigation) for the NZ Food Safety Science and Research Centre – the virtual centre set up three years ago and funded 50:50 by the Ministry for Business Innovation & Employment (MBIE) and industry, including the Meat Industry Association, Zespri and DCANZ. She is also editor for Meat Science.

Biology springboard to interesting pathways

Biology has been a useful platform enabling Brightwell to leap to different disciplines within the science, such as her move from medical-related science in the UK to food-related work in New Zealand.

“Like most folks, I’ve kind of fallen into my role via interesting pathways,” she says. ‘It wasn’t a big jump to go from human pathogens to food pathogens.”

Her impressive research portfolio listed at Research Gate shows her being named in 47 peer-reviewed journal articles, two conference proceedings and in four patents. Research interests now cover many aspects of food assurance and molecular microbiology. In particular, the rapid detection and identification of zoonotic organisms, pre- and post-harvest antimicrobial intervention and control of pathogens, understanding the microbial ecology and bacterial population dynamics within complex environments as well as clostridial spoilage of meat and dairy products.

“Seeing your reputation develop and how people are really reacting to your science outputs is great for confidence building,” she says.

But, this is only the tip of work in which she has been involved with the meat industry.

Brightwell is AgResearch’s science leader for MIA Innovation’s partnership programme too, has contributed to the E. coli Food Safety and Shelf-life industry forums and been involved in the planning of the AgResearch Meat Technology workshops. In addition, she has played a part as a member of the steering group for the China Food and Drug Administration Scholarship programme, a member of the Meat Industry Technical Sub-committee for E. coli O157 mitigation and was a facility director for MIRINZ, AgResearch (2005-2007) amongst others.

She likes being able to see the large picture, relishing relationship building with meat companies, the Meat Industry Association, Ministry for Primary Industries and MBIE, along with juggling funding opportunities and drivers.

“We work so close to policy, industry and ministers that you actually see where your science fits and how you are bringing benefit to New Zealand,” she says. “The research focus is well thought out here, because funding is always tight, and you can really see those connections and benefits.”

Women need mentors

Brightwell says while she was one of few women entering the higher level of science management in the 1980s – most tended to go in and stay at the technical level – she has never experienced sexism in the workplace.

“What held me back early on, was probably me – I’ve been the barrier,” she says, citing her relatively recent realisation that she had “imposter syndrome”.

“As a female from a certain era – when children were seen but not heard – we just didn’t take advantage of the many opportunities on offer that our male counterparts may have done.”

She has been delighted to see larger numbers of women entering meat science in recent years. “We need to assure the younger females entering the workforce now that those feelings are normal and to encourage them to push through.”

A mentor – which she firmly distinguishes from an advocate – is really important for that, she believes, although personally she didn’t have one. Closest to it was Professor Pat Jacobs, a retired Doctor of Science. She was still working at Salisbury District Hospital when Brightwell spent four years there – before her move to New Zealand – on a Wellcome Trust-funded project investigating the molecular mechanisms behind one of the most common forms of mental retardation in boys, Fragile X.

“She was walking the talk. She had an incredible career and personal life and was interested in other things outside work. I always looked up to her as a role model,” Brightwell says, adding now she would “really like” to become a mentor herself for younger women in meat science.

“I believe I am a good listener and have experiences to share that may help our young female scientists develop their careers and aspirations,” she says, inviting them to contact her at AgResearch or at the NZFSSRC Women in Science breakfast meeting in Christchurch on 1 July.

Outside a busy work-life, Brightwell relocated from Hamilton to Palmerston North a couple of years ago, part of an advance guard for AgResearch’s realignment of scientific platforms. She now lives on a life-style property outside Palmerston North with a partner, two dogs, two cats and a cow – and, yes, the latter is NAIT-registered.

Brightwell says they are slowing dragging the old 1990s bungalow into the next millennium, along with the bird-loving former owner’s garden.

“We are currently planting more natives to attract even more birds to add to our resident populations including tui, kereru, morepork, shining cuckoo and kingfishers. We really enjoy listening the birdsong and feeding the tuis,” she says.

This is one of a series of MeatExportNZ profiles highlighting the roles senior women hold in New Zealand’s red meat sector.


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