Meet Wellington physics whizz Catherine
Access Client and Victoria University student Catherine is one remarkable 18 year old. The young Wellington physics whizz has gained herself more awards in 2016 for her specialist field of physics than most people could shake a √ at!
Finalist in the Youth category of Wellingtonian of the Year 2016 alongside 'Where the Wilder People's' Julian Dennison, winner of the Prime Minister's Future Scientist Award and winner of Royal Society Wellington Regional Science Fair (where she bagged 5 individual prizes), she's showing potential of a shining future. Catherine achieves all of this despite living with ischemic spinal cord injury since birth. Catherine spoke to us about her life, the heavy and rather impressive 'International Young Physicist Tournament' trophy gleaming on the shelf behind her. Importantly Catherine doesn't let any disability define who she is or reflect in her successes.
'I'm not setting out to change social stereotypes. It's what I've grown up with all my life so I know no different,' she says. Catherine's twin sister Veronica was born able bodied and yet the pair share a special relationship as Veronica assists Catherine at times. Catherine, modest about her successes, doesn't want to be defined by her disabilities but rather sees them as incidental to her academic success. She developed a strong interest in science and physics through support at her former school, Onslow college and namely her teacher Kent. 'I've always been interested in science and math. Perhaps it was understanding how developments in technology and science have been used to help create innovations which sparked that interest.'
Catherine, who's family spend their time reading and learning and avoid television, is an absolute font of knowledge. 'The Beatles actually helped fund the development of the CT scan,' she shares. 'Their success funded an engineer to pursue independent research. He ended up winning the Nobel prize for medicine. The UK Ministry of Defence helped develop carbon fibre, which now plays a role in my splints. When you look at disability aids which have developed over time, most have been through indirect needs or even funding from warfare, aimed at rehabilitating former soldiers. That's something that appeals to me. Not looking at the end goal but understanding the journeys involved in developing a solution to a problem.'
Catherine shows the carbon fibre splints used to support her ankles. 'My toes are supported by moulded foam implants in my shoes. I have botox injections to suppress involuntary muscle spams in my legs and feet.' Botox has a documented 790 uses, Catherine explains. There are 7 different strains of the bacteria used to develop the botox drug, to mitigate human resistance. Botox, it seems, has clinical applications that extend far beyond the cosmetic use commonly associated with it.
'I've had five major operations in my life, the biggest one when I was 13 years old to fuse a metal rod to my spine. Although my angle of movement is only 30 degrees rather than 80 degrees it means I can be more upright. Although I can walk short distances with crutches I mainly use my wheelchair, which is a rigid titanium framed seat designed to be a bit higher so I can be more at eye level. At school I actually used a segway to get around. It's amazing how being at the same eye level as people affects how they talk to you and they treat you differently.' That's an important factor for Catherine, who wants to be seen as independent and not reliant on care.
'For me receiving care from my support worker Moana helps but if Moana is not able to be here then I do not accept relief. If I have to manage by myself, or with family, short term then I'd rather do that as it's not life or death. It may be more difficult and take me longer but how Moana and I do things has been developed over the course of my lifetime.' Incredibly Moana started with Access 16 years ago and Catherine, then barely a tiny 2 year old, was her first client.
'I've seen her grown. Through school into a young woman,' says Moana. 'I started with Access after being in a voluntary support group with my church. When Catherine was young she was so very independent and never stayed still. I once caught her climbing onto the kitchen table to look out the window to look for her Dad. it gave me such a fright!'
Rarely do clients and support workers share such a long history and be able to recount such personal tales. But such is the wonderful partnerships of trust and respect that we see develop in this sector.
So where does Catherine see her future going? 'The area of physics I'm specialising in is characterising materials, experimental and classical physics and developing models to demonstrate the Van Der Pauw model of resistance. Most of my inspiration comes from my peers such as former Onslow student and Prime Minister's Future Science Award winner Stanley Roach. I don't look at the Nobel Prize winners and try to follow their path, instead looking to just learn as I go along. You can't foresee all the world's problems that will need solving in a world that is changing so much. Life isn't always about solving the world's problems. Just like being a female and wheelchair user in a male dominant industry, I'm not setting out to change the world. I just do what I'm good at and what I enjoy. I suppose that's one thing about having a disability. You just need to find what you can do and find something you like. Adaptability is important.'