Alumni Profile: Amy Van Wey Lovatt

 Name: Amy Van Wey Lovatt

Program: Ford Opportunity, class of 1998

Undergraduate school: Willamette University

Hometown: Central Point, Oregon

City and country where you currently reside: Hamilton, New Zealand

I work at AgResearch Ltd. and my work is amazing! I have the privilege of adding to our scientific knowledge, using mathematics. A lot of science is about focusing on the minutiae, because the complexity of dealing with complete systems is just too daunting. That is one area where mathematics can help, because we can use mathematics to show that complexity can be built from simplicity, from fundamental physical and chemical laws. This means that I am constantly learning, because my research spans human nutrition and digestion to farming and plant dynamics. Thus, I need to understand not just mathematics, but learn about human biology, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, soil science, and so on. As well as modelling complexity, I use mathematics to test hypotheses that cannot be tested in real life because the procedures to do those tests would be too invasive, too costly, or impossible with our current technology. For instance, I have used mathematics to predict changes in populations of human gut microbes as a result of changes in diet, tested hypotheses around the metabolic pathways of microbes, and simulated the effects of a biocontrol on weeds in pastures to determine which traits are necessary for effective weed control, both physically and financially.

There were many motivating factors which led me to move abroad. The global financial crisis (GFC) was the tipping point. As a solo parent I was seeking economic security and stability. However, because of the GFC my position as a mathematics instructor at an Oregon community college was not as secure or stable as I had hoped. The writing was on the wall, so I started looking abroad for employment. Having a teenage son, I focused on English-speaking countries. When I found an advertisement for a PhD to do mathematical modelling in human nutrition and microbiology, my interest was piqued. I was bored with teaching, I had always been a successful student, a PhD would provide more career opportunities, and they would pay me to do it!!! Moreover, this would mean that my son could stay in one town for high school (he had been bounced around enough – 12 different schools in 9 years). How could I pass up this opportunity?!?! I figured, worst case scenario, if we didn’t like living in NZ or I wasn’t suited for the research project, we could always move back home.

I have lived overseas for 7.5 years, since October 2009. I had only intended to be in New Zealand for the length of my PhD. I did not expect to meet and marry my husband there.

I used to miss a lot about the US (friends, family, food, etc.). My Scottish-Kiwi husband and I were even contemplating moving to the US. However, I am fortunate that Skype lets me keep in touch with my family and friends and my job has given me opportunities to visit the US from time to time as well as to travel to other parts of the world. One thing I don’t miss about the US is the increasing polarization of US politics. As it happened, I was in the US during the last elections. It was disappointing to see political parties and individuals (including friends and relatives) who used to share many beliefs about what made the US an amazing and vibrant nation, who used to have vigorous but reasoned debates about how to reach the nation’s shared goals, yet now focus on personalities and point-scoring.

If you have an opportunity to live elsewhere – a new town, a new state, or a new country – I would highly recommend it. Living in different cultures has broadened my perspectives. Other countries have different norms. For instance, an effective communicator in the US will not necessarily be effective elsewhere. I have found this personally. Directness is highly regarded in the US, but often considered rude and uncouth in New Zealand. I am still learning to adjust my communication to be more acceptable in the environment I live, without compromising my own values. Nowhere in this world is perfect, and I still think the US is the greatest country in the world, however, there is always room for improvement as individuals, or as a nation.