Female STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) academics share their personal thoughts on career success in their chosen fields.
To celebrate National Science Week (12 – 20 August), a week that aims to encourage an interest in science pursuits, meet 12 female academics from across the University who share a personal insight into the challenges and motivations of embarking on a career in science.
Wonder woman in science
Dr Anne Thomas is a Senior Lecturer with science. She works in geometric group theory, a recently-developed area of pure mathematics that combines ideas from algebra and geometry.
There are going to be challenges along the way, but the important thing is to come back from them, and you will be able to do that.
Janos Bolyai was one of the founders of non-Euclidean geometry. He wrote to his father in 1823: "I have created a new universe from nothing".
Wonder woman in public health
Professor Kirsten McCaffery is a behavioural scientist. She has a national and international reputation for her psychosocial research in the fields of screening, shared decision making and health literacy.
I am lucky to have been mentored by some excellent people who nurtured my career and most importantly showed me that I was more capable than I thought. Realising that someone you hugely respect and admire believes in your ability is very empowering. You can easily doubt yourself but it’s hard to doubt someone you admire enormously. Having confidence that you can succeed is essential.
I don’t have one single role model – rather several people whose traits I admire and try to emulate. Emeritus Professor Les Irwig has been an amazing role model for leadership and creating a nurturing environment where people are truly respected. My female colleagues Professor Alexandra Barratt and Professor Lyndal Trevena have shown me it’s possible to manage the challenges of a family and work, yet still achieve great things academically. Professor Don Nutbeam and Professor Steve Simpson continue to inspire me to think big and be ambitious. The cleaner who changes the toilet roll – every day with a friendly smile and hello in the School of Public Health teaches me to be grateful.
Wonder woman in pharmacy
Dr Ingrid Gelissen is a Senior Lecturer in pharmacy, her research focuses on the cell biology of lipid transporter proteins in the context of cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease.
Don’t be intimidated by successful senior scientists. Instead, go and talk to them about your work.
I don’t have one specific role model but have had a number of female academic role models over the years both in Australia and overseas during my post-doc. They all had the same thing in common – extremely hard working, experts in juggling family and work commitments, and passionate about science.
Wonder woman in dentistry
Dr Smitha Sukumar is a Course Coordinator and mentor in dentistry. Her research aims to provide insights into the degree of antibiotic resistance in the oral microbiota of Australian children.
Embracing opportunities in all facets of my career. I lived overseas and took up opportunities which I was uncertain of (research) and it resulted in profound changes to my career trajectory. Sixteen years ago, I started as a full time private practitioner in a suburban dental clinic with an interest in teaching. I have ended up as a full time academic and researcher undertaking my PhD.
Take the leap, undertake your PhD before life gets in the way. I was very intimidated by the idea of a PhD in my late 20’s.
Wonder woman in engineering and information technologies
Dr Jacqueline Thomas is passionate about improving peoples' lives and protecting the environment. This led her to conduct research into water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) in developing countries.
You are better than you realise. Keep learning, thinking, planning, adapting and working hard, while simultaneously accepting new challenges and pursuing your goals with energy and commitment. It will take you to places you would have never have thought of.
For me, one of the biggest factors has been the courage to take risks. I have taken positions that did not financially make sense but paid-off with experience. Similarly, I have also taken on large responsibilities without a lot of support and had to learn on the job very quickly or fail.
Wonder woman in science
Dr Sophie Webber is a lecturer at the University and human geographer who conducts research about the political economies of climate change and international development assistance, principally in South East Asia and the Pacific region.
Making your way as an early career researcher is always full of doubt and insecurity. I have an incredible network of other young scientist-friends (mostly women) who work all over the world. I think it is only with their support, encouragement, and belief that I have been able to navigate these uncertainties.
I’m not one for motivational quotes. But, as a geographer of climate change and climate politics it is my duty to provide a quote that really signals that the locus of our work is in the political-economic domain, rather than some separate environmental one. Neil Smith writes:
“We are used to conceiving of nature as external to society, pristine and pre-human, or else as a grand universal in which human beings are but small and simple cogs. But here … our concepts have not caught up with reality. It is capitalism which ardently defies the inherited separation of nature and society, and with pride rather than shame. In its constant drive to accumulate larger and larger quantities of social wealth …, capital[ism] transforms the shape of the entire world.” Neil Smith (2008 ) Uneven Development pg 7.
Wonder woman in health sciences (physiotherapy)
Dr Marnee McKay is a Lecturer at the University. Her research focuses on addressing the lack of normative reference data relating to physical or performance-based outcome measures of health across the lifespan.
I believe that my enthusiasm to challenge myself, a superb support network of family and friends and a good sense of self have helped me reach the goals I have set for myself. All of my successes can be attributed to the consistent and generous support and guidance I have received, and continue to receive, from senior researchers and academics, in addition to a happy and healthy life outside of work.
Professor Jennifer Alison is a role model I can only hope to emulate one day. She manages to combine clinical work, a stellar academic career with highly impactful research and a busy happy family. In addition to this, is she always generous with her time and smiles. On a personal level, I can’t look beyond my mother and late grandmother, I sincerely hope their energy, compassion and determination is genetic.
Wonder woman in architecture, design and planning
Dr Naseem Ahmadpour is a lecturer in Design Computing. Her research is interdisciplinary and focuses on design for wellbeing and motivation looking at the implications of several psychological theories.
In my opinion, resilience is the biggest contributor to success regardless of how you define success. The ability to face your choices, the courage to go outside of your comfort zone and perseverance in the face of new challenges, helps you achieve things you had never thought possible.
As a PhD candidate in Canada, the story of Magda Arnold inspired me the most. At the age of 32, a newly arrived immigrant in Canada and a mother of three, she started studying psychology and went on to complete her doctorate, create her own cognitive theory, and pioneering the idea that how we appraise a situation determines what emotion we experience. Her story resonated with me as a curious student who wondered if it is ever possible for someone to explore what interests them personally in their profession.
Wonder woman in health sciences (radiography)
Associate Professor Sarah Lewis’ research interests are in the areas of articulation of clinical ethics in the radiography/radiology service setting and the impact of ethics and professional boundaries upon the role of the radiographer.
Science is as much about people as it is about atoms. You will find a profession that you love that will combine these two. Stop giving your science and maths teachers a hard time, you are a scientist at heart, you CAN do algebra and will grow into your analytical skills.
I have been fortunate enough to study and work with my role model, John Robinson, since an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney. He taught me that diagnostic radiography is an art, a science and an ethical profession. Daily, I am reminded through his energy why I love being an academic. I am also inspired by Dame Marie Bashir, a most remarkable woman of science and integrity. I get goose bumps when I hear her speak about her work caring for others.
Wonder woman in science (psychology)
Associate Professor Murianne Irish’s research on memory dysfunction in dementia has transformed how we understand and manage cognitive dysfunction in dementia.
Stop comparing yourself to others. During school, university, and even my first postdoctoral research position, I constantly doubted myself and my career trajectory. I would look at other successful researchers, often many years ahead of me, and feel bad about myself. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself and that the academic trajectory isn’t necessarily the same for everyone. We all have unique paths and I had a number of career breaks, but ultimately, I have ended up exactly where I want to be.
I don’t have any specific role model as such but there are many inspirational men and women who I look up to and try to emulate for different reasons. Some of them I admire for their elegant experimental designs, others for the quality of their writing, and others still for their mentorship, positive outlook, and openness. I try to distil the various qualities that I admire into my work ethic and into my approach to supervision, and hope that I, in turn, can become a role model for others.
Wonder woman in dentistry
Dr Tihana Divnic-Resnik’s research interests lie mainly in the areas of periodontal therapy, bone regeneration, tissue management, oral microbiology and locally delivered oral microbials.
As we gain more experience, we change our point of view, and the way we deal with different situations in our lives. However, no matter the situation, it is very important to stay calm, patient and see the positive side of both our victories and fails.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning” by Albert Einstein.
Wonder woman in engineering and information technologies
Professor Fariba Dehghani leads a multidisciplinary bioengineering research team focused on developing technologies for nutritional food products and biomaterials, with particular emphasis on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
My father, who is over 80 years old. He is constantly reading, learning and teaching himself new skills. Growing up, he had an incredibly strong work ethic and was deeply connected to the community, which has made me value collaborative research tremendously. He encouraged me to pursue higher education in sciences and engineering even though he knew it would not be an easy path for me. He was my biggest cheerleader and he still inspires me every day to realise my full potential.
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity” by Louis Pasteur, and "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" by Albert Einstein.
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As communities around the world prepare for International Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions of ten female researchers at the University of Sydney who are transforming the lives of women and men.