WinWin Magazine Edition Three WinWin Magazine Edition Three

The scientists.

It is motivating to see people achieving in their own field. We chat to eight scientists — about their own paths to success, the mentors who’ve guided them along the way, and what they’d tell their teenage self.

Dr Paola Magni
Crime solver

Science creates change and allows people to open their eyes to see the bigger picture.
~ Dr Paola Magni

What do you do?
I am a forensic scientist; my job is to use science to solve crimes. Crimes can come in any form and shape; there are many people and many sciences involved in the investigation. 

Specifically, my expertise is the use of clues from nature for crime-scene reconstruction, that is basically the storytelling of the criminal event. Insects help me to estimate the time since death or the abuse of drugs; microorganisms from the water can help me to pinpoint the causes of death; soil elements can indicate where the primary crime scene is.

In 2019, I’m maintaining a balance of work and family, of personal and professional goals. I am a perfectionist and I am a carer, I would like to make everyone that I love happy but there are only 24 hours in a day!

A big opportunity?
The first time that I stepped into a crime scene as expert-witness in a homicide. This happened many years ago, in 2005. I was very young and for the first time ever in my country, someone was called to specifically investigate the insects present at the crime scene. These insects narrowed the time since the victim’s death and therefore the investigation was focused on a specific person who then confessed and now is in prison.

More recently in May 2019, I won the science communication competition FameLab. I was selected to represent Australia at the Global Final, and I was placed 4th in the world.

My job has plenty of surprises, because a crime can happen anywhere at any time. Once I was called to the scene and I had to urgently leave a wedding. Luckily in Italy weddings are so long that I had the time to do my job and come back for a slice of cake!

Beside my work as expert forensic witness, I am also a university researcher. One project that I have been working on is “maggot masses”, that means working with thousands of maggots. The lab was really full, and well, during the night 5,000 maggots escaped… 

Something challenging?
There is something that is called “CSI effect” that gives the wrong perception of forensic science and investigation: it suggests that as experts we are infallible, always ready to go and glamorous, and that every case can be solved quickly. This is not true and sometimes it’s very challenging. It is good for people to understand the hard work behind the scenes.

 A mantra?
“Don’t have fear of the hard moments, from these comes the best” by Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel Laureate from Turin, Italy — my hometown. I met Montalcini when I was in primary school. She came to me and she smiled and said “Do you know that I have a twin sister, and her name is Paola, like you?” — I felt incredible. Her amazing stature as a woman in STEM has always been my guide. I have her picture on my desk.

Rita Levi Montalcini

How does science create change? 
Science creates change and allows people to open their eyes to see the bigger picture. The reason we live is science, and in my work I focus on the science of death and what comes after: which is life — the life of other organisms. These organisms can be used to investigate crimes. It’s a cycle of life, of death, of everything and everyone. It’s science. 

A recent lesson?
I became a Mum not long ago. This has been the biggest joy of my life, but comes with many responsibilities: reshaping days, nights and priorities. I am working full time, and I believe I am doing well, but it’s hard work to maintain the balance and unfortunately not everyone around you fully understands.

What have you observed about the experience of women working in science?
Women are great and can be great team players, multitasking is in our nature, teamed with great soft skills and big hearts. My best friends are women in science, so I can only give thumbs up to them!

Advice from Paola to her younger self:
Don’t be scared of the name or title of the subjects. I didn’t take the opportunity to study things like biostatistics or nanotechnologies because I was afraid that they would be too hard for me. But it’s just a name, you can do it!

Lisa Harvey-Smith
The astro / ambassador

Science absolutely creates change. As we understand more about the universe, the fundamental forces of nature and how everything operates, we can develop technologies that can transform our lives.
~ Lisa Harvey-Smith

What do you do?
I’m an astrophysicist, which means I study how the universe works. I have spent a lot of my career using giant telescopes to look deep into space and study stars that are being born or dying — either in supernova explosions or by shedding their gas into space. More recently I have been helping to create a team of new telescopes in Western Australia called the Square Kilometre Array. 

Now, an important part of my job is advocating for equity in STEM. My focus is on making sure that people are treated fairly and have equal opportunities to take part in the design and construction of future technologies. That is a very fulfilling role because I am changing the world for the better.

This year I am focused on encouraging scientific organisations to change the way they work, so that people outside the traditional ‘mainstream’ of science can excel and take their full part in discovery and development of technology.

A big opportunity?
When I was at university I really wanted to get some relevant work experience in astronomy. I wrote to scientists but I had no luck. I couldn’t apply for the programs advertised at my uni because they were overseas and I couldn’t afford the air fare. So I begged and pleaded with all my lecturers and finally after several weeks I got a lead — one of my maths teachers knew someone in Germany who was looking for an assistant for the summer. They paid my air ticket and accommodation and they even gave me some money to cover food and other costs. So that summer I spent six weeks working at the Max-Planck-Institute for Radioastronomie in Bonn, which was an amazing experience and I really believe it helped me to get my scholarship for a PhD. 

Something fun about your work?
Astronomy is incredible because you get to travel so much to interesting places. Telescopes are on mountain-tops, in deserts and jungles. It’s a brilliant way to see the world and learn about other cultures. Working with people from different nations helps you grow into a more rounded and open-minded person. 

Something challenging?
Scientific research can be quite competitive in some ways. Unfortunately that’s just the way people have designed the system. Scientists compete for funding all the time, which means they sometimes keep secrets and don’t work together. I’m trying to change that system, so that collaboration is rewarded and scientists help each other more. 

I’m very self-motivated so long as I have a clear goal. For example, if I’ve entered a running race, then I’ll train hard and finish strong. If I don’t have a clear goal then I will not have that same drive. I find goal-setting works for me.

Any mentors?
I have had several mentors in my life, most of whom have been men. My athletics coaches are good examples. People who show kindness and spend time helping me.

A recent lesson?
Last year I was offered my current role as the Australian Government Women in STEM Ambassador. Accepting this job meant quite a change in my career trajectory, moving away from my focus on astronomy, managing a large group of researchers and building a new telescope and working more with government and the community to advance equity in STEM. It was a tricky career decision, but in the end I listened to my heart. I knew that with this new challenge would come an opportunity to change the world for the better. Sometimes we are hanging onto things because they are easier, comfortable, or they are just the way things have always been. Moving to this new job has been the best career decision I ever made.

If it wasn’t a career in science, what would it be?
I love sports and the outdoors. I always fancied being a national park ranger! 

Lisa Harvey-Smith wrote Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime to nurture and encourage more females into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. “It’s important that we foster home-grown talent into STEM and encourage girls as much as boys to develop their interests,” Lisa says. “There is absolutely no difference in the ability between the genders and I am excited to assist in driving this cultural change.”

Advice from Lisa to her younger self:
Don’t be afraid of being yourself. No matter what people say, you are happiest when you are 100% you.

Macinley Butson
Young and armoured.

The injustice and inequality which exists in our world — this drives me and is why I continue to do what I do, even when times are tough. Whether it is a statistic which troubles me or a message from a breast cancer patient: they inspire me to keep pushing onwards.
~ Macinley Butson

What do you do?
I am an inventor whilst also being a student, having graduated from high school last year! 

My most well-known invention is called the SMART Armour, which stands for Scale Maille Armour for Radiation Therapy — and is a device for breast cancer patients to protect their healthy breast during treatment. The essence of what I do has been both my passion from STEM, which started from an early age, and my yearning to help others however I can. 

My focus for 2019 has been getting the name of the SMART Armour out in the public sphere, as well as taking this opportunity to speak to as many people as possible hoping to inspire them through my journey. I have been pursuing these goals, and am so thankful to be given boundless opportunities and support in these endeavours. 

A big opportunity?
Being only 18-years-old and only recently graduated from high school I can’t say I have had much of a career yet. I can think of plenty of events and influential people I have been honoured to meet, each of them amazing and a highlight in their own way. However, I think the most impactful moment came after meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex when they were in Australia. I was giggling and filled with joy as I walked out of the function back to the car. On the way out of the gates, I was greeted by two girls in primary school who stopped me and asked if they could have a photo. They were elated and couldn’t believe they were meeting me, and in that moment, I had a realisation: they were as excited to meet me as I was to meet the royals. That was an epiphany; one of the most impactful moments for me because it was so unexpected.

I didn’t realise I could have that kind of an impact, and so since then, I have tried to inspire the next generation.

I have been fortunate and blessed to have so many opportunities. I would say that being awarded the NSW Young Australian of the Year and 1st place in my category at the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair for the SMART Armour would be two incredible and humbling experiences. To have my  work recognised, even to be able to know there is one person out there who believes in me and what I am doing is greatly rewarding and has kept me going on this path!

Something challenging?
One concept that took me a long time to properly understand was failure, especially in science. 

I was told that what is usually thought of as failure in science usually isn’t actual failure. The aim of science is to find out something that wasn’t already known. Scientists are simply seekers of the truth of this world. Therefore, even if the results are negative you’ve still found something out and been able to irrevocably prove something.

Many people believe that if an experiment “didn’t work” or didn’t give them the results that they wanted, it therefore failed. Research is finding something new. Developing skills is just as important whether it “failed” or “worked”. That took me a long time to come to terms with!

I would say the most challenging aspects have been a combination of my gender and age. Being a female in the male-dominated area of STEM, as well as a young person, has presented challenges; but these two characteristics have also been my greatest assets. They allow me to think differently and bring a fresh perspective which is often necessary for new discoveries!

A mantra?
There was a moment I was listening to a speaker who said something which has stayed with me ever since. He said:

“If not me, then who? And if not now, then when?” …this has become my mantra for life!

Any mentors?
I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by amazing people who encourage me in this path, including my family, teachers, friends and mentors. Truthfully, I am inspired by the people and situations which I see around me. 

I think sometimes we get incredibly caught up in the news that we forget there are people out there doing things for communities. These people inspire me.

How do you make difficult decisions?
Making the tough decisions is incredibly difficult and I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution to problems (I wish there was!). For me it is all about considering myself in that moment, what is best for me there — and then thinking about what is best for me in the future. If they line up, fantastic! If not, then it’s time to do a lot of thinking and definitely asking a lot of people for advice and wisdom. 

If it wasn’t a career in science, what would it be?
If I wasn’t in science I would probably be in something teaching or communication based. I love English and writing so I could imagine myself in that space. Even now, I am incredibly passionate about science communication.

Are there specific hurdles for women seeking a career in science?
I think the biggest hurdles are what women think; many girls feel intimidated to be the only female in a room. It is heartbreaking because these girls want to be there and they’re so valuable; they just struggle to overcome this fear. That’s why I love speaking to girls and encouraging them in STEM regardless. And it can certainly be daunting; I know how that feels! Overcoming fear is incredibly liberating — you’re so valuable in that room.

Advice from Macinley to her younger self:
I am still a teenager! But I would tell myself that all the hard work is worth it to help others. I still believe this and remind myself of it when I am facing difficult times — remembering who it is for. 

Nerilie Abram
Climate Warrior

Follow your heart and do what you love. We spend so much of our lives at work, it seems a shame to spend that time not being happy.
~ Nerilie Abram

What do you do?
I’m a climate scientist. More specifically I’m a palaeoclimate scientist, which means I look at how Earth’s climate has changed in the past and what that tells us about future climate change and the impacts it will have.

For the past few years I’ve been working on a United Nations report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change where we are presenting an outlook for the ocean and cryosphere (ice) in a warming world, and what options people have for responding to the changes ahead. It is really important work and I’m proud to be a part of the international team bringing this together. 

A big opportunity?
When I was 15 I did work experience at the CSIRO labs in Hobart. During that week I was able to move through a whole range of cool research areas, but it was the day that I spent with Antarctic researchers that really left an impression and started my passion for wanting to know more about the Antarctic. I still have the black and white computer print-out on my office wall that the researchers gave me of a giant iceberg they were tracking by satellite at the time.

I absolutely love getting out of the office and into the field. I work on coral reefs and in Antarctica; the science we are doing there is exciting and I feel really privileged to be able to work in such amazing places making discoveries that really matter for the whole world.

Something challenging?
One of the things that I wrestle with as a climate scientist is the amount of travel that my work involves. I work on big international projects with big teams, and there is only so much that can be done by teleconference calls (usually held in the middle of the night for Australians!). I also collect my research samples from some of the most remote parts of the planet. So I wrestle constantly with my carbon footprint and how to not be part of the problem I’m trying to fix. I guess that it parallels the issue that all people face when confronted with climate change and the changes in lifestyle involved in ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is a sad reality that harassment is a part of science, though thankfully a rare part, and this is where I’m learning many lessons. I’m trying to learn how to be stronger when I face harassment or when I see harassment happening to others so that I don’t just keep my head down and tolerate it. 

What helps you stay motivated?
I love what I do, so the motivation comes naturally, most of the time. Whenever I need a pick-me-up I try to get outside and take in the beauty of nature. This morning I watched the sunrise over Coogee beach, and now I’m feeling rejuvenated for the day ahead!

Any mentors?
A French ice-core scientist, Valerie Masson-Delmotte is a huge inspiration to me. She’s an amazing scientist with a breadth of knowledge that I’ve not seen in any other researcher and she is a leader on the world stage in making sure that climate change science is communicated effectively to people. It is a real honour to be able to work alongside her. 

How do you think science creates change?
Science is a constant process of learning. We are continually building on each other’s ideas and converging on new discoveries. The important part is taking that step from scientific discoveries into real-world applications. For my research area that means making sure that our discoveries on how climate is changing are accessible to people – everyone from politicians, businesses, communities and individuals – who need to make decisions about how to respond to climate change.

How do you deal with tricky decisions?
Ha, is blind luck an appropriate answer? I feel like there has been a lot of luck involved in shaping where my career has gone, but at those decision points I have always gone with my heart and what felt right. I look back at those decision points and sometimes wonder what my career would have looked like if I made different choices; for example, what if I chose petroleum exploration instead of climate change for my PhD research topic? 

But at the end of the day, whenever I’ve made those choices I’ve then continued looking ahead and thinking about how to make the best of my current position and where I want to go rather than dwelling on whether I made the right decision in the past or not.

Are there specific hurdles for women seeking a career in science?
I’m much more aware of the hurdles and biases now that I look back on my career than when I was facing them as an early career scientist. One of the major hurdles is in the transition years between finishing a PhD and getting a permanent job, when many researchers are working on short contracts and moving between cities or countries. This often falls at around the same time that people want to start a family, and so it can be particularly hard for women to make it through that stage and continue with their career in research.

If it wasn’t a career in science, it would probably be something outdoors – I think I’d go crazy if I was just working in an office all the time! So maybe a National Park ranger or landscape gardener, or something else that let me be close to nature.

Vanessa Hill

I think that if you want to do something unique, you have to work to create your own success. I’ve had some great opportunities, but they’ve come about because I’ve worked my butt off to be in the right place to be able to receive them.
~ Vanessa Hill

What do you do?
I’m the founder of BrainCraft, a popular YouTube channel and learning media company. I make YouTube videos about science for a living! The videos are educational and focus on how you can use brain science in your everyday life — to boost happiness, to strengthen relationships or increase productivity. Outside of YouTube, I write, produce and present videos for other companies and broadcasters — like the ABC or PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service in America).

A big opportunity?
When I was in my last year of uni one of my lecturers at the University of NSW mentioned that the CSIRO does internships, so I followed up on that, did an internship there and it led to me working for them for six years. It was such a good starting point for my career. 

I must have called more than a dozen times — for weeks — before I finally reached my future boss. I was persistent, enthusiastic and a hard worker. 

Something fun about your job?
I get a lot of comments and emails from people who watch my videos about how the information I’ve shared with them has helped them sleep better, break bad habits, and improve their marks. On a grander scale, when I was working at CSIRO they did work to improve the nutritional value of wheat and other grains. They developed new materials and techniques that doctors could use to 3D print new sternums and rib cages for surgery patients. Science and innovation is really an avenue to help people. 

Something challenging?
Both the science and entertainment industries can be really competitive, so I find it challenging to really believe in myself and be an advocate of my own work. No one teaches you how to do that in school! And as Aussies, it’s often encouraged to be “one of the boys” — for lack of a better idiom about women — and not talk about our success. 

YouTube is challenging in different ways — being a creator is pretty demanding on both your time and emotions — basically you rely on the attention of others for your income.

There are a lot of Internet trends and creators who come and go, but I’ve been a full-time YouTuber for six years now and it’s a constant grind — writing, filming, editing and such. 

A mantra?
My “personal purpose” to enrich the lives of others through education helps me stay motivated — no matter how cool your job is, when you’ve been doing it for a few years (or more) you start needing more help to feel motivated.

Any mentors?
At one time in 2012, when I was working for CSIRO, it seemed everyone in a position of leadership was a woman — my supervisor, our manager, our division manager, the CEO (even the Prime Minister and the Governor General). My managers at this time really believed in me, advocated for me, and it was ultimately this period that gave me the confidence to start my own business. 

Exposure to badass women really impacts you — even if you don’t realise it at the time. I’ve always felt a need to profile women in science in my work, to highlight both them and their amazing research.

A few years ago I made a short film about Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular biologist from Tasmania who was part of a small team that discovered telomeres, which are caps at the end of each strand of our DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. These caps play a big role in ageing and tend to shorten as we age, and Dr. Blackburn has since found that certain actions — like not smoking, eating well, sleeping enough and exercising — can lengthen telomeres and ultimately lengthen your life. Dr. Blackburn is the only Australian woman to have won a Nobel Prize. People need to know that, so another young woman from Tassie reading this can be the second. 

How does science create change?
Aussie astrophysicists who were studying black holes used some of that radio astronomy technology to develop the tech behind wifi. Wifi! We can’t deal with it when it’s slow, let alone imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. 

For the past six years, I’ve been making YouTube videos that have taught millions about cool things in brain science, from neuroscience, psychology and human behaviour. I’ve covered our new understanding of tiny brain cells that shape how you think and learn, what cats taught us about perception and how we recognise voices. 

But over the past year, I’ve noticed that a new generation of viewers is turning to YouTube for personal betterment and life skills. So, I’ve taken everything I’ve learned about these disciplines (and how to share them with people) to educate viewers about how they can leverage what they do and don’t know about their brains to live a happier life and perform better at work.

I’ve been teaching science on YouTube for years, but now it’s getting personal: it’s about self-improvement.  

As an area of science, this comes with some challenges. How can you find and communicate scientifically accurate information that leads to self-improvement? There are hundreds of people out there with a hot take and lots of psuedo-science YouTube channels that are popular, present things as fact, but the information is just their opinion. And often rubbish. 

We’re finding solid research that shows how small talk can boost your wellbeing, or how over-apologising can be detrimental to your self-esteem and relationships. It can come across as less “sexy” when we’re talking about scientific studies a lot and don’t always give direct recommendations, but it’s important to have accurate, reliable sources and also communicate the importance of the scientific method. 

How do you make tricky career decisions?
When I’m making tricky decisions, there are three questions that I ask myself to evaluate the options: (1) Will the work make me happy right now? (2) Will it advance my career? And (3) Will I be able to live the kind of lifestyle I want?

If it wasn’t a career in science, what would it be?
I think I would be an architect! When I was in Year 7, my parents started the process of building a new house. I would pore over the floor plans, draw up my own suggestions and loved going to the showrooms on the weekend. To this day, I’m obsessed with home renovation shows and continually want to paint my walls.  

What have you observed about the experience of women working in science?
I’ve observed that it’s challenging for everyone — doing a PhD and working in research can be demanding and is often a 24/7 commitment: experiments need to be checked on weekends, too. It can also be really rewarding. You’re essentially contributing to all of the knowledge in the world. When I analysed the results from my first experiment I thought, “Wow, I know something that no one else in the world knows yet.” It’s a cool feeling. 

Stats do show that more women leave science over time. At uni, most courses have a 50/50 gender split, but then as careers progress the workplace becomes skewed with more males. 

There are a lot of reasons and speculation about why this could be. It could be because women feel a lack of belonging in STEM fields; it could be because some institutions don’t offer adequate maternity leave, which can be really important at a certain stage in your life. 

But, science is for everyone and the people reading this are the ones who can make the biggest change. Degrees across STEM — Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths — teach you so many important analytical skills that transfer across industries. For example, I work in the entertainment industry and use formulas and write code to create some animations. 

More representation will lead to increased feelings of belonging in the field, more women in leadership positions in labs and institutions, and more diverse innovations. Because it’s been shown that diversity boosts innovation across whole companies.

Advice from Vanessa to her younger self:
If I could give my teen-self a piece of advice, it would be to focus more on uni and to not be afraid of committing to more years of study by doing a Masters or PhD straight away. I worked a lot (at cafes etc.) through my undergrad degree and it really affected my marks. I was always so keen to get out into the workforce. Chill, Vanessa! Now you have to work for the rest of your life. 

Melody Ding
Risk minimiser

One thing I find women better at is seeing the world beyond their work and feeling content, independent of career success. I think this is so important; work is endless and can easily take over our life if we let it, but we need to keep in mind that work enriches who we are but does not define who we are!
~ Melody Ding

What do you do?
I am an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. I work in public health, specifically I try to identify the associations between risk factors and health outcomes and find ways to reduce risk and improve health. 

My days can vary quite a bit. In the office, I work across multiple projects, so my days often involve meetings with my colleagues, future collaborators and students. I always look forward to some quiet time analysing data and writing up our findings. I try to take a break when I can and think the best when I am on my bike or taking a walk.

In 2019 I’m working on how to align our strategies to promote healthy lifestyles with those to promote a healthier planet, and understanding and promoting the co-benefits between the two.

For example, a walking and cycling-friendly urban environment and a healthy and mostly plant-based diet help us achieve both health and sustainable development goals.  

A big opportunity?
My career in public health would not have happened if I were not given an opportunity when I was a dreamy biology-major undergraduate student in China. I struggled to make peace with a learning environment and subject area that I did not enjoy and longed for a change. At that time, I did not know much about the world outside of China, or the world outside of biology. I heard about the concept of public health from a friend and became intrigued. After much research, I decided to pursue a graduate program in the United States. I reached out to many professors in several universities. Most emails were never answered, but one professor in San Diego saw the potential in me and took me under his wing. I am forever grateful to him. 

Something fun about your job?
What I enjoy the most about public health is the potential to make the world a better place (literally, not in a cheesy way). Our work has important implications on the health and wellbeing of people around the world. The aspect I enjoy the most about academia overall is a sense of freedom. Intellectually, we are free to explore our ideas in a supportive environment and geographically, our work involves lots of traveling where we have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with colleagues from many different countries. 

Something challenging?
Academia is very competitive, which means we have to work very hard to stay in the game. I generally find it hard to “shut down” after leaving work and work easily seeps into life despite my best effort of trying to keep it separate. This is particularly challenging for me because I work with many international collaborators, so it is typical for me to be flooded with emails from Europe before going to bed and wake up with unread emails from the Americas. 

One lesson I learned recently is the need to develop a system to prioritise and say no sometimes. Last month I took on so much — I did not want to decline any opportunities because I did not want to disappoint others. In the end, I felt burnt out and had to disappoint others even more when I eventually realised that I could not deliver everything I promised. 

A mantra?
When I encounter setbacks in life, I always believe that things will turn out fine in the end. I am a firm believer of learning and growing from adversity.

Looking back, it was often the case that something good did not happen but made room for something better along the way. So I learned to let go and move on quickly and not lose my motivation in my work and life. 

Any mentors?
I have many amazing mentors, men and women, who play an essential role in my career. In addition to regular catch-ups, I turn to them when I have questions and need help making decisions. 

Melody, how does science create change?
In an ideal world of public health, our individual and collective decisions and behaviours should always be based on scientific evidence. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a place, otherwise we would not be dealing with unhealthy lifestyles, rising chronic diseases, and deteriorating environments at the current scale.

The reality is that our decisions are often contaminated by cognitive biases, competing interests, inertia and resistance to change. I think it is important to bridge the gaps between scientific research and evidence-based decision-making, particularly policies. This is equally, if not more important than creating scientific evidence itself. 

How do you make tricky decisions?
Frankly, I have made mistakes at both ends of the spectrum: too quickly without thinking and too slowly after overthinking. To me, it has become increasingly more important that I follow my heart. A fundamental challenge of fast-paced modern living is being so trapped in endless to-do lists and cost-benefit analyses that we forget how we truly feel and what we really want in life. Therefore it is very critical to find breathing space in our busy lives to be with ourselves, whether it is meditation, yoga or a walk in a park. The key thing is to be a mindful observer of our thoughts and feelings, to hear what the heart desires.

Are there specific hurdles for women seeking a career in science? Gender stereotypes don’t help us achieve gender equality, but I do think as women we tend to overthink and question ourselves before taking actions.

Personally, I tend to be too critical of myself, which hinders decisive actions. When I have a good scientific idea, I tend to spend weeks pondering, convincing myself that this may not be a meaningful idea, because of A, B, C… then more often than not, I’ve dropped an idea only to find it become a hot research subject a couple of years later.

I know scientists should never be too convinced of ourselves and that deep thinking and certain levels of self-criticism are critical to scientific development, but many conscientious scientists (and I have observed a lot of female scientists in this category) like myself should also learn to believe in ourselves and not let our deep thinking get in the way. 

What have you observed about the experience of women working in science?
Public health is an area where women’s success is highly celebrated. I have observed many impactful female researchers and scientific leaders excelling at bringing positive changes to the world. While personal styles differ a lot, I tend to find some common traits among successful female scientists. They tend to be conscientious and ethical, less likely to cut corners and take shortcuts to success. They tend to be nurturing and supportive and selflessly give their time away helping others even in this brutally competitive industry. 

Advice from Melody to her younger self:
Not to worry too much about what others think if you know your heart is leading you onto the right path. Looking back, I spent too many years of my life trying to ‘fit in’ and be ‘liked’. After all these years, I finally understand what an exhausting process that was! No matter what we do, we will never be validated by 100% of people 100% of the time, so we need to focus on what we think is right, for ourselves, not what makes us ‘popular’. 

Amy Searle
Student & scientist 

I can never really pin-point a moment when I knew I wanted to become a scientist, it was just something that happened and I didn’t consciously connect it to my Aboriginality; but now I’m reflecting, maybe it was a part of me all along…
~ Amy Searle

What do you do?
I’m a final year PhD student in the field of biomedical science, so I’m almost a full-blown scientist! Biomedical science is a huge umbrella term — the specific field I research is heart disease and other diseases that have blood clots as their common feature. There is no ‘average day’ in science — one day I’m experimenting in the lab, another day I’m analysing data or reading what other scientists around the world are working on — but since I’m in the last year of my PhD, most days are spent writing manuscripts and seeing my thesis come to life. This year I’m also focused on publishing my latest findings in quality journals.

In 2018 you were awarded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scientist Travelling Research Award. Does your cultural background affect your interest and ambition in Science?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been scientists for tens of thousands of years — there is scientific information embedded into oral stories and practices passed down through generations.

There are researchers out there who have dedicated their career to matching these stories with historical events and scientific knowledge!

A big opportunity?
I had the opportunity to research a novel therapeutic for abdominal aortic aneurysm, which is a disease with a very high mortality rate and one that my Pa survived, so it was a very meaningful project to me on a personal level, but also one that will shape my career in the future. After publishing this study, I presented the results at many conferences in the ‘young investigator award’ category and won each time. Although I have other projects, this is the only one to be published so far, and the success that has come as a result of this single project will allow me to finish my PhD with an impressive CV, which I believe will help shape my career in the future.

Something fun about your job?
A lot of travel! After publishing your most recent breakthrough, you apply for travel funding so you can present your findings at conferences. My first ever publication had two ‘first-authors’ (first authors are the ones who do the majority of the work), which is pretty common early in a PhD. I shared the first authorship with my supervisor, and between the both of us, we presented our findings in Europe, the US, China and pretty much every state in Australia!

Something challenging?
The majority of experiments don’t turn out as hypothesised. In fact, this isn’t a bad thing because the more doors that close, the more focused the research becomes, getting closer towards a breakthrough — but it is definitely challenging. For example, I’ve been optimising one of my projects for the past three years and only now, just as I’m about to finish the PhD, have I started getting the experiments to work. Over the past few years, this project has really tested my patience and perseverance!

A piece of wisdom?
My PhD supervisor taught me to apply for everything — every award, every grant, every scholarship — because you’ve got to be in it to win it! As for staying motivated, I make sure that I maintain somewhat of a work-life balance by playing sports, which allows me to switch my brain off for an hour or so each day.

Any mentors?
Yes, I have many mentors whom I call upon for different reasons. I can always count on the honest feedback and advice of my supervisor Xiaowei. Her support and guidance has seen me transition from a research assistant with good technical skills into a young scientist who can think critically and work independently.

How does science create change?
Science creates change by advancing our knowledge and capacity. In my specific area of science, our end goal is to reduce the mortality rates associated with heart attack and stroke so that it’s no longer the leading cause of death worldwide. It’s important that people live a quality life, not just a longer one, so we hope to see the morbidity rates associated with heart attack and stroke decline as well.

A recent lesson?
I’ve learnt that the career journey is not linear and to be open to the lessons of the road less-travelled. I entered my bachelor’s degree with the aspiration to study post-graduate medicine. I sat the GAMSAT (costly and gruelling med entrance exam) every year for too many years and was devastated each time I wasn’t offered an interview. One year, I progressed to the interview stage, which I thought meant that I nailed it, and then didn’t receive an offer. That one really squished my dreams, so I decided to start a PhD and continue with a career in biomedical science. Halfway through my PhD, I recovered from the trauma of my previous experiences and applied for medicine again and have been offered a spot in 2020. Now I’ll start my medical studies, not only with a PhD, but also invaluable skills and networks gained along the journey, which will help me become a great doctor in the future.

How do you make tricky decisions?
I talk to as many people as I can. Firstly, I talk to colleagues and mentors who have gone through similar experiences or are in a position where I want to be in the future. For me, these particular people are usually very busy, so I go armed with a list of questions or things that are worrying me so that I get the most out of our conversation. I also talk to my partner, family and friends. The people who are close to you give the most honest advice and often have a different perspective to work colleagues. The most important thing is to own your decision — get advice from as many people as possible, take it on board but ultimately you make the final decision.

Are there specific hurdles for women seeking a career in science?
Yes, but there is a lot of momentum and change in this space at the moment. Traditionally, it’s really hard to take time away from a career in science as it’s so fast-paced and there are always new discoveries. Additionally, applying for and securing funding is extremely competitive so there’s not a lot of space for prioritising anything but a career. This has caused a major issue where there are a lot of junior women scientists and very few senior women scientists — it’s very hard to get back into science after starting a family. Things are changing though! Workplaces are supporting women back into competitive science following maternity leave and funding bodies now take into consideration career disruptions and carer responsibilities. These changes are recent and still taking shape but when I think about being a woman in science, I see an optimistic future.

What have you observed about the experience of women working in science?
Nearly every woman scientist I know is extremely dedicated, persistent and most of all, humble. Realistically, all the women senior scientists I work with have got to their position against adversity. There was no momentum around supporting women in science previously, but these lab heads and senior scientists still made it to the top of their career. Even though these women are extremely successful, they are also very supportive of young scientists like me.

Advice from Amy to her younger self:
Don’t take opportunities for granted as if they are a rite of passage. I’m the first person in my immediate family to graduate year 12 high school. My parents worked hard to send me to a good school and as a young adult, I never realised the sacrifices that they made to do that. Everything I have achieved in my career so far is a result of those opportunities my parents gave me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Vivian Sim
Behind the scenes

The old notion that women are not capable of rational and logical scientific thought processes still presents an obstacle today.  It’s important that we are confident in our abilities and effectively communicate our knowledge in our specialised research areas.
~ Vivian Sim

What do you do?
I work as a technical officer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The School of BEES offers many classes and field-based courses for budding scientists and I work behind the scenes to assist academics in undergraduate teaching laboratories, setting up and packing down the labs for biology and botany. My job also involves organising various aspects of field trips, as well as running about at rockpools, boat ramps, National Parks and local parks for live animal and plant specimens to be used in teaching. 

In 2019, I’m working on community outreach. Our policy makers are ignoring peer-reviewed science leading to policies that are putting the environment at risk. We are fast approaching a point, if we have not already exceeded it, where the natural resilience of our ecosystem will no longer correct the changes we’ve so readily made.

A big opportunity?
I have been fortunate to participate in several community outreach events to discuss my microplastics research (and even science in general), and my first event was a big turning-point in my love of science communication and public speaking (though that terrified me!)

I was invited to speak at the Bag-It event at the NSW Parliament: an open forum for ministers and the public to discuss increasing calls for a ban on single-use plastics across the state. 

I realised that I had the platform to empower individuals with a better understanding of science for making informed decisions. I decided community outreach was a component I wanted to build into my career. 

Something fun about your work?
My community outreach work has demonstrated that the youth in Australia are the catalyst for change. They are the loudest voices fighting for changes in environmental policy (as we have recently seen with the successful Climate Change strikes nationwide).

We, as a society, do not give enough credit to the youth of Australia in these circumstances.  They have not only shown an interest in my microplastic research, and science, but have a thirst to better understand how the world works and the impacts we have on our environment. In an ever-increasingly connected world, they have demonstrated time and time again that they have the power to bring about changes in practices in their households and then impart knowledge throughout their social circles. 

Something challenging?
There are always new challenges I’m facing as I settle into my job as a technical officer and I’m given more responsibilities. The focus of my degree and research has predominantly been marine biology/ecology, so my first undergraduate course responsibilities were two biology courses — which weren’t too big a leap from my skill set.  

From an industry perspective one of the biggest challenges is getting your foot into the door to convince prospective employers to give you a chance. The available number of jobs in the current workforce is significantly less than the number of new science graduates so there is a highly competitive workforce where fresh science graduates are competing with previous graduate cohorts for jobs. 

A mantra?
Don’t fear hard work to get a project done and don’t dive straight into the project at the start. A new project can be daunting at the best of times: take the time to stop, slow down, change gears and get into the right headspace at the start. As I’ve matured, planning is something that not only excites me but puts me at ease.

What works for one person won’t necessarily work for you. Trial a range of methods till you find one that works and is comfortable for you.  

Any mentors?
I certainly have people I look up to and consider when making decisions in my career and to meet with to brainstorm ideas, projects and problem solve. I will be eternally grateful to Hayley Bates who hired me as a casual technical officer and academic, after working with her as a teaching laboratory demonstrator during my postgraduate degree. She provided me with a positive working environment and guidance to grow my skills as a critical thinker, planner and organiser. Hayley’s belief in my skill set and ability opened the door to a permanent position as a technical officer in BEES and has enabled me to continue doing what I love in science.

How does science create change?
Science creates logical and critical thinkers in our society which is an asset as they can investigate and discern the validity of information rather than accepting information at face value;  there are always ‘hidden agendas’ in the presentation of the constantly refreshing news cycle.

Amongst family and friends, everyday conversations can provide a forum for healthy debate of information and understanding brings like-minded people together. In the community, I’ve seen grassroots groups apply pressure on councils, such as Mosman Council, to ban single-use coffee cups and single-use plastic bags prior to the state-wide ban in NSW. This initiative has spread to coffee shops across the state (with a slight twist) – shops are offering discounts to patrons bringing their own reusable cups or offering a cup wall of ceramic cups. 

Scientific literacy in the population is important so that the informed decisions of consumers — and the pressures they place on industries and governments — can be the catalyst for wider changes. 

The interest in the community into the impacts of microplastics and the calls for increased industry accountability have led to a level of consumer scrutiny we have not seen before in such a short period of time. Within a year of the microplastic issue coming to light, the NSW government announced a system for voluntary industry bans in relation to the use of microplastics in products — the fact this moved through to some level of policy within a year is unheard of.

A recent lesson?
Value yourself and the skills you have to offer, because if you don’t who will? Know your worth and your rights, and work to find a healthy work-life balance. I strongly encourage people to leave work in the office and treat home as a safe place, a haven to unwind and recharge. 

How do you make tricky career decisions?
I know it’s cliché but writing a pros and cons list has always helped me to unravel the thoughts tumbling around in my head and visualise them in a single space, forcing me to stop and slow down rather than rushing with a rash emotional decision.

I have also been extremely fortunate in finding a supportive partner (who is also a fellow scientist) who not only stands by decisions but talks through the problem to build a sound game. Finding someone who you can trust to breakout your ideas and decisions is an invaluable tool as they can view the problem from a different angle.

We need to better safeguard the world’s ecosystems, their natural resources and (endemic) species to ensure the continued functioning of the biome. 

If it wasn’t a career in science, what would it be?
I’ve always been interested in science since I was a child — it all started with watching Free Willy all those years ago! I can see myself possibly working in game design — I’ve always been interested in combining art and science (in particular coding and specialty software use) to create immersive environments and storytelling. 

What have you observed about the experience of women working in science?
The women I’ve had the privilege to work with are an incredibly supportive network of collaborators. We not only hold ourselves accountable for our work responsibilities but ensure we find our work-life balance as a team and in our personal lives. 

Advice from Vivian to her younger self:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
2. If you make a mistake, own it and use it as a learning experience in both your professional life and career.