The International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGS) celebrates leaders and inspiring role models in science who are women and supports the next generation of female scientists. First announced by the United Nations in 2015, this day has been celebrated on the 11th of February annually for six years.
As someone passionate about empowering young girls and non-binary people to pursue STEM, I was delighted to be the MC for an IDWGS event for school students. The online event was hosted by Dr Gillian Sparkes, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, and Royal Society of Victoria, held in partnership with Dr Amanda Caples, Victoria’s Lead Scientist, and Dr Andrea Hinwood, Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist. Our aim was to celebrate the contributions of women to major advances in science and inspire students to follow suit.
We invited girls from schools across Victoria to join a live panel discussion with Dr Gillian Sparkes, Dr Amanda Caples, and Dr Andrea Hinwood in addition to talks given by Dr Muneera Bano, Associate Professor Misty Jenkins, and Dr Amy Coetsee. There are stereotypes in science, and when young children are asked to draw or describe a scientist, the result is typically a white male in a chemistry lab coat. But ‘we’re anything but that’, says Amanda. ‘Don’t think that science pigeonholes you’. There are successful scientists who are people of colour, female or non-binary, LGBTQIA+, or who live with a disability. I myself am an Asian, queer, female scientist, and there was certainly a great amount of diversity and representation among the speakers.
Muneera was born in Pakistan, and while her mother had not been allowed to attend school, she was given equal opportunities to education. Albeit, she had no female role models and had to navigate the field alone. She moved into a male-dominated field and excelled there to prove a point: her intelligence was not to be determined by societal expectations. She broke through social and cultural barriers to obtain a PhD in software engineering from the University of Technology Sydney, just like her inspiration, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). Ada is recognised as the first computer programmer. The daughter of poet Lord Byron, she inherited a great imagination while her mother pushed her towards science and mathematics. This combination of arts and science provided a vision ahead of her time, and she laid the foundations for modern computer programming.
A girl from the Victorian bush, Misty did not know anyone who went to university, but once she went herself, she realised the value and power of education. She was inspired by Edward Jenner, who hypothesised that milkmaids were protected from smallpox through their exposure to cowpox when milking and subsequently developed the first vaccine by giving an eight-year-old boy
cowpox. Learning about his story was a lightbulb moment for Misty – science is all around us if we make observations and then test our theories. She was fascinated by the immune system and wanted to know what went on in her swollen lymph nodes whenever she was sick. She completed her doctorate studies and became the first Indigenous Australian to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities. She now leads her own research laboratory investigating ways to harness the full power of the immune system against brain cancers with immunotherapies – a position she never would have imagined herself in.
Amy similarly grew up in a small town in the UK and did not know anyone in the STEM sector or who had been to university. Her love of wildlife and the environment was nurtured by her grandmother, who regularly took her on adventures, along with an introduction to David Attenborough’s documentaries. At the age of 13, she knew that she wanted to work in conservation. She was told by her environmental science teacher that she was wasting her time because she would never succeed, but she pursued it regardless with support from her mother, who regretted not following her dreams. Despite not always getting high marks, she persevered – even working part-time while completing a PhD because she didn’t receive a scholarship. Her conservation efforts now focus on protecting the Eastern Barred Bandicoot, which were extinct on mainland Victoria due to the destruction of their habitat and predation by foxes. Fortunately, the fact that they are not picky eaters and have a short reproductive cycle allows them to rapidly repopulate areas and bounce back. Thanks to the efforts of Amy and her colleagues, they could be the first mammals removed from the threatened species list in Victoria.
In contrast, Gillian had a great role model who unleashed her passion for science: her young, female chemistry teacher in high school. She had been a curious child who enjoyed problem-solving, but until then, only had male maths and science teachers. Being able to identify with her teacher, science suddenly became a lot more fun and accessible to her. This leads to a common thread of advice from all the speakers that we do not have to tackle our career paths alone. We can seek mentors for guidance and support. Mentors have different life experiences and views to offer and lift us up when we feel imposter syndrome.
“Imposter syndrome” is certainly something that often weighs heavily on me. As someone still early in my career, I often wonder whether I deserve to be where I am – was I the best choice to MC this event given that I’m not yet an accomplished woman in STEM? Amanda, Andrea and Gillian have overcome great barriers in their careers, and they now see the greatest as being self-doubt. ‘The only limitation is the one you put on yourself – believe in yourself and your passion,’ says Gillian. The speakers encouraged girls to not be afraid of what others think and to believe in themselves. ‘It’s good to be ambitious and don’t feel bad when someone tells you that you are,’ says Muneera, as someone who was sometimes put down for being a woman who excelled in education.
It is also important to follow our passions. Science is not always easy, but having passion helps you get through it. We have to take risks in life – and sometimes they work out but sometimes they
don’t. Amanda would advise her younger self to rebound from failure more quickly, and Misty acknowledges that researchers need resilience for when things do not go to plan. Even if the future is unclear, it tends to be easier to bulldoze over hurdles in our way if we follow a passion or spark.
While there were many excellent nuggets of wisdom from the speakers, the last I will focus on is their encouragement to be curious and creative. ‘Great scientists always ask questions,’ says Amy. And when answering challenging questions, we often need to think outside the box. Andrea wanted to become a famous singer as a child, but once she learned about threatened species and the environment, she decided that she wanted to use science to help save the world. But like me, she has combined her two loves and sings about science. People can be creative or analytical and logical, but we do not need to be one or the other. By mixing creativity and science, we will create innovative solutions for global challenges.
We need women and girls of all ages to pursue and flourish in a wide range of science-related fields. I like to think that we should be each other’s cheerleaders – lifting each other up and cheering each other on. After an empowering and insightful discussion, we hope that the next generation of Victorian scientists were inspired to be inquisitive, be brave and to follow a path that is their own.
This article was prepared by Catriona Nguyen-Robertson and details the streaming event organised by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Victoria and the Royal Society of Victoria for International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on 11th February 2021.