In partnership with the Australian National Maritime Museum, UNSW hosts a series of Young Scientist Talks for 400 female high school students. Speakers discuss the diversity, challenges and highlights of their science journey to date, before engaging in a Q&A session.  

Read some of the most popular Girls in Science FAQs asked by the audience of students at the 2019 and 2018 Women in Science Symposiums.

2019

Sarah Reeves

Sarah Reeves is a science curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum). She holds a Bachelor of Science majoring in Physics and Chemistry, and a PhD in Astronomy, from the University of Sydney.  

How did you manage study, work, and life? 

Very poorly. Looking back, I would say I focused too much on my studies at the expense of my physical and mental health. Obviously studying hard is important to getting good grades and achieving your career goals, but research has also shown how important it is to have downtime. When you don’t you make more mistakes and become less efficient. I’m glad now that I have much more balance in my life, and I would encourage everyone to carve out time for exercise and a social life. 

Do some aspects of science ever scare or shock you? 

I’m more often shocked by the lack of science literacy (i.e. scientific understanding) among people – the fact that climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers still exist often shocks me. Hopefully scientists are doing a better job of communicating to the public their science and how scientific research works, ensuring that the next generation will have much greater interest in science and the ability to tell fact from fiction. 

Were you intimidated by studying science in university? 

A little! I knew I wanted to study Physics but didn’t actually get the marks to study the Advanced level stream normally taken by those planning to major in Physics. When I enrolled, I was allowed to join the class anyway, but had to sign a form saying that I was doing so against their advice! It wasn’t exactly welcoming, and I was definitely concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  

Fortunately, with a lot of hard work I was able to get the marks I needed to continue with those subjects, and eventually went on to do Honours and a PhD in Physics – but it showed me the importance of having confidence in yourself. University is also very different from school: there’s less support and discipline so you have to be very self-motivated, and that can be quite intimidating at first. 

What branches of science are in the highest demand? 

I don’t have a definitive list, but I would say anything to do with climate and energy science, computer science, robotics/AI, nanoscience and quantum science/computing would be some of the biggest areas right now and will continue to be into the future.

Chantelle Doyle

Chantelle Doyle is currently a consultant botanist, as well as being a mum and science radio presenter. She studied Biological Science at UNSW, but also Theatre and Performance.  

 As science deepens and grows bigger, will it be harder for people to research and study it? 

Absolutely not! One of my favourite expressions is, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” and this describes scientific enquiry perfectly. It is about asking questions and seeking answers to the best of our current ability.  

Firstly, our abilities and resources to answer questions are always shifting, and secondly, science is different to other professions, in that is more a concept and way of choosing to approach life and your work - with curiosity. The idea of science is that it should always build on the knowledge, processes and skills of those that have gone before. 

Were you intimidated by studying science in university? 

Yes, I was then, and I still am today. The way I have come to terms with that intimidation is to recognise my strengths, and be comfortable admitting there are areas I need help understanding too. Being intimidated isn’t a bad thing either, it means you are associating with people who can inspire and challenge you to achieve more than you would have in a comfortable and safe environment.  

I have also come to accept that people who behave in a deliberately intimidating way are usually scared, threatened or intimidated themselves. I try to treat these people with compassion. 

What was a difficult part in your study and career journey? 

As mentioned before, feeling intimidated or inadequate has been my biggest challenge and remains so today. Each day I try to do something small that extends my skill set and knowledge base, and then be happy with that effort. I have had to accept I can’t know everything and the small efforts day by day have a beneficial cumulative effort. At some point in your career you notice people start referring to you for advice or guidance, and at that point is does get a bit easier because you realise you must be doing something right!  

Any tips for getting into university or getting a job as a scientist? 

My advice for getting a job would be to find people or companies that align with your interests and goals and pursue work with them. Don’t be afraid to send an enquiry email and then a week or two later follow up with a phone call. For the most part, businesses and people admire enthusiasm and resolve. It also shows some initiative, which surprisingly is not that common! You also may need to do a placement or take a junior role, but this can help you get a foot in the door and shows willingness to learn. Another great way to build your resume is to contact academics at university and ask if they need any assistance as a technician, this also helps build experience in your field of interest.

Cat Vendl

Cat Vendl is a vet and marine microbiologist. In her PhD at UNSW, Cat is exploring a method to monitor whale's health by researching the microbial communities in the blow of whales and dolphins. 

How did you manage study, work, and life? 

It’s very important that you allow yourself time to relax and do completely work-unrelated things in your free-time. That involves everything from spending time with your family and friends as well as practising your favourite sport or other activities that you really enjoy. Get to know yourself to learn what you need to do to be able to wind down and to feel really content with yourself. 

Do some aspects of science ever scare or shock you? 

Yes, working in science, especially research in my case, comes with many challenges. You never stop learning new things, for example a new computer program necessary for your project (biology research involves a lot of modelling and computer-based analyses these days). That can be scary sometimes, as the challenges never stop. However, that’s the great thing about working in science as well. It keeps you on your toes and you never get bored. 

Any tips for getting a job as a scientist? 

Once you are in university you will be taught about your subject of study in a broad way. You will learn all the basics. Try to find out early on what exactly you find interesting in your field. The more you try to specialise early on, the easier it will be to find your niche later in your working life. Ask the lecturers you like for volunteering opportunities or undergraduate part-time jobs. This way you will get to know your field of study from a different perspective. 

Tiffany Chen

How did you manage study, work, and life? 

I always made sure that I had time to do something other than study or work because my dad brought me up on a “play as hard as you work” mentality (meaning you should spend as much time doing non-work-related stuff as you do on work). I have always enjoyed playing sports to take my mind off work stress. My brain feels energised after and I find that I can focus better too. 

What was a difficult part of your study and career journey? 

The most difficult part of my studies was when I was struggling to pass my first-year chemistry subject. I just didn’t understand the concepts, and the course was progressing at a pace that I couldn’t keep up with. It was the first time I was failing assessments in my life. What got me through it was when I asked classmates for help and they took the time to explain the concepts to me in a way that I could understand. I also accepted that failure is okay because I was trying my hardest. I just had to pick myself back up and try again because sometimes results just take a bit longer to achieve. 

Did you have help to get where you are today?  

What helped me get to where I am today is that I received lots of good advice along the way from peers, teachers, managers, and sometimes even random people that I met at events. Be a sponge and absorb all the advice you’re given, because you never know when it might come in handy. 

 Any tips for getting a job as a scientist? 

A great tip I always tell people is to go out there and make connections with other scientists, or people with links to the scientific field/industry that you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to be at a super formal networking event. Say hi to a sales rep when they’re on campus or go to career expo and chat with the people there. If you’re memorable, your name might come up when a job position becomes available. 

2018

Catherine Isaac

Expertise: Mechanical Engineering and Biomedicine 

Catherine Isaac graduated from UNSW in 2016 with a Bachelors of Materials Science and Master of Biomedical Engineering. During her degree she researched novel high entropy alloys and spent a summer at North Carolina State University. For the past year she has been working as a graduate engineer at Cochlear and has recently transitioned to her permanent position as a mechanical engineer in the Implant Research & Development Department.  

 Do you have any advice on how to do well in science subjects at school? Particularly in the HSC? 

Try to understand the concepts rather than just learning the information. A key tip to doing well in science subjects in the HSC is to ensure that you know the syllabus and can answer each of the syllabus questions confidently. 

What advice or tips do you have for aspiring women in engineering? 

Take every opportunity you can to meet people working in the fields that you’re interested in. This will allow you to make connections and to learn what different jobs and opportunities are out there. Taking internships in a variety of roles is also a great way experience what it’s actually like working in engineering as well as learning how to apply your knowledge. But most importantly do what interests you and stay curious! 

Who was your biggest science inspiration growing up or who are they today? 

David Attenborough has definitely my biggest inspiration growing up. The environment and conservation is extremely important for humans as a species to survive and one of the issues that many scientists face, no matter the field, is getting people to take notice of their work and findings. Whether this comes in the form of funding, policy changes in government or affecting how the average person behaves, e.g. using reusable bags at the supermarket instead of plastic bags.  

David Attenborough has successfully helped to spread awareness and teach people about different types of flora and fauna and several environmental issues. This is one of the first steps needed to influence change in today’s society. 

Erin Prince

Expertise: Pharmacology and Japanese  

Erin Prince is a fourth-year student of Science/ Arts at UNSW. She majors in Pharmacology and Japanese. Her pharmacology major allows her to understand disease, disease prevention, pandemics, drugs and public health. She hopes to work for the World Health Organisation in the future.   

Besides the learning of another language what benefit does a Bachelor of Arts give you with the Science degree? 

Initially I chose to study the BA alongside the science degree because it allows me to do courses in other areas I'm really interested in, such as asian politics, culture, society.  

Having now come towards the end of the combination though, I realise there are actually heaps of benefits. Our science affects people in the word and lots of the world problems such as climate change, food security, global health are science issues at their core but they need government policy makers to invest money and create policy for any positive change to be had. In order to craft successful policy, one must understand the history, the diplomatic relations, cultural prejudices based on religion, that are at play. So, this part I have benefitted from. 

How hard is the work at university? 

It depends how much effort you want to put in. If you want to strive to get the most out of it, it is hard to manage your time to get on top of all the work. Nothing is hard in terms of your capabilities to understand it, it's just that you have to spend the time sitting down, reading and synthesising the information to get it. Your peers in your degree are your team mates and your lecturers, tutors, academics supervisors etc., are all there to help you. Hence, the more you reach out early and have a solid group of people to check in with, and you get help from, the easier the work is.  

What were you biggest motivator to study science? 

That it is innovative and there are constantly new things to know and understand. You aren't looking at only what has happened, you are asking questions and doing research that is completely new and unheard of and your potential discoveries can have huge flow on effects.  

Ayse Dereli

Expertise: Medical Science and Teaching 

Born in Turkey, raised in Brussels, Belgium, Ayse picked up an early passion for science and teaching. Ayse Dereli obtained her BSci (Adv) degree at the University of Sydney majoring in Physiology and Pharmacology and completed Hons (1) at Westmead Hospital. She is currently in her second year of PhD at UNSW. Her research interests centre around nerve, brain and behaviour.  

Did you find becoming a scientist stressful? If so, how did you cope? 

Of course, if you want to be successful at something, you need to face the challenge and overcome the hardship which, from time to time, could be stressful. However, if you like what you are doing that stress is temporary and you become satisfied and enjoy it at the same time. I believe that this is the case for any kind of profession if you want to be successful at it. Let’s say sociology or law, extreme opposites to science. Again, you will need to spend long hours to hit the target and become successful which again, will be stressful.  

When I get stressed, I take a break. When I say a break, it is a good quality break where I do not think one bit of what I was doing and change my focus to something else, like watching a movie or spending an afternoon with my family. This allows me to spend that negative energy elsewhere. Then after a good sleep, I restart again with a freshly recharged mind. Sometimes, I also like talking to my other friends who are also doing science to get motivated. 

What subject that you studied in high school do you think was most beneficial to your future? 

I studied English, Maths, Chemistry, Biology and French. I found Chemistry beneficial to what I am doing now, which is pharmacology. Biology was beneficial at a certain extent; we did a lot of plant biology in high school which was not necessarily useful to me. Maths is definitely useful anywhere in science.  

English is fundamental as when you work in Science, you also need to be able express your ideas, findings, discoveries or opinions in an easy to understand way. This is only possible if you have proficient English. 

Have you experienced any challenges working in STEM as a person of colour? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?  

In Australia, I never came across people who addressed me based on my ethnic background or religion. However elsewhere in the world, like in Europe some scientists can make the colour a priority. This is totally not acceptable. This becomes difficult once you are looking for a job or get in somewhere. Before they look at your talent and experience in science, they make a decision based on your colour. However, as I have mentioned earlier, in Australia, I was never faced with that problem.  

On the other hand, I have a three-year-old son and here, in Australia, some superior people told me that I would not be suitable to be a scientist as I needed to look after my son as well. This is a totally wrong reasoning - am I going to stop living my life just because I have a son? I had faith in me which I needed to show them. I told those people that I was passionate about research and that I would do long hours but finish my PhD if that was their concern. I also told them that I wanted to be a good example for my son, trying hard to reach the success. It was striking to see that many people had that prejudice.  

However, as time passed, they witnessed my hard work and how I took my job seriously and now they don’t look at me that way anymore. If you come across any situations where people make you feel that you are different, or that you are not suitable, have faith in you, be honest and show them your passion and how much you want to do that job. It will take time but finally they will understand that their attitude was unnecessary.

Tilly Boleyn

Expertise: Science Communication 

Tilly Boleyn is a curator focused mainly on science/health/medicine. She’s passionate about issues of equity in the delivery of health services, highlighting pseudoscience, science communication/education, and how art/science collaborations can contribute to knowledge. Basically, she is a massive nerd who’s curious about the world and everything in it. 

How do you know when you've found the right career for you? 

This is a really deep philosophical question. It’s on the same level as: What am I here for? How do you know you’re happy? So my short answer is: I have no idea! I think that for most people there is no “right career” so much as three main areas of skills involved with their current job:  

  •  A set of things you’re interested in. 
  •  A set of things you’re good at doing. 
  •  A set of things you’re learning how to do better.  

In my opinion you never stop learning how to do things or think about things differently that you have before. That’s what experiences in the workplace brings you – changes in perspective and skills. So as long as you’re learning things and enjoying at least a part of your job then you’re doing great. Your life will hopefully be many years long with little changes and big changes throughout. Everything within that time is your career path. Education is never wasted and the people you surround yourself with personally and professionally have a big influence on your life.  

I had a little google around and found some different perspectives from other people about your question too. Researching many different perspectives is an excellent start to making up your own mind.  

Do scientists make lots of money? 

The lines are shifting and changing all the time. It depends on what you mean by lots of money and it depends on what area of science you choose, who you work for, what level of responsibility you want in your role etc. The choices are varied in financial reward and other less tangible rewards. An overview in the New Scientist magazine in the UK last year found that the average salary for a UK scientist was the equivalent to AUD $68,000 (37,228 Pounds). Just like every other industry, there is a large gender pay gap in science and engineering. You can change that by noticing it, speaking up about it and changing it when you have the influence or power to do so. Interestingly. 

How important was your ATAR (HSC Mark) in getting into your course and career? 

I didn’t get a high TER (what it was called when I did Year 12) but it was high enough to get me into a Science degree at that time, which was what I wanted to do. In that degree I was able to experiment and take a whole range of courses (in not only science) to help figure out the bits I liked and the bits I didn’t like so much.  

If you don’t get into the course you want to do with your ATAR then do not despair. There are so many other pathways to get what you want. Research your options and talk to other people either at school or at the uni to get guidance about what you could do.  

Adrienne Harrison

Expertise: Aquatic Ecology 

Adrienne graduated with an Honours degree in Marine Ecology (UNSW FAMER lab & NSW DPI) and followed her passion for aquatic ecology, particularly invertebrates in her professional career. She currently works in the Aquatic Ecology team at Sydney Water and has been involved in method development, quality management and long-term ecology monitoring since 2010. 

What is the best thing about your job? 

Fieldwork is at the top of my list. Sampling freshwater bugs sometimes involves bushwalking into pristine national parks and collecting water bugs. I love the boat trips we do as well, being on the water and observing the physical conditions, flora and fauna first-hand tells us the story of the site. It’s also a lot of fun and I love communicating the science and importance of what we do.  

How did you find a job after or during university? 

During university I attended a course called Ocean Biology and Fisheries in 3rd year. It was a very practical course and we had a guest lecture by a scientist from NSW Fisheries. He mentioned a program that was underway that they were looking for people to work on as casuals. I spoke to him at the end of the lecture and he encouraged me to apply. I ended up working one day a week whilst studying, conducting boat number monitoring in Port Hacking for a fishing effort study.  

I was able to visit the Fisheries site at Cronulla, which is sadly gone now. I ended up going on to do honours at UNSW with a professor at UNSW and a co-supervisor from Fisheries. This was great for networking and getting an idea of what professional life is like in an applied science industry. 

After completing honours I applied for a lot of jobs and was knocked back because of a lack of industry experience. I worked as a Research Assistant at UNSW for a few months on a marine ecology project. After that, I decided to visit some staff from the Australian Museum’s Marine Invertebrate Research area who had helped me during honours. I ended up volunteering with that team on day a week for a year. I learnt so much about how museums work and was able to contribute by updating historical records of specimens kept there. Some specimens were from as far back as 1880.  

I had a very short aquatic ecology position at NSW Office of Water in Wollongong and worked on freshwater bugs and water quality monitoring. The fieldwork was great, one site was only accessible by 4WD and we had to canoe to our site. 

After that ended, I found it very hard to find a full-time job. I was working in a horrible production line position, with a very un-friendly atmosphere. I hadn’t been accepted on any graduate programs and I was losing hope. 

I went back to the museum and they asked me how the marine invertebrate project was going in Wollongong. I said that I wasn’t working on that project but it sounded interesting. He gave me the contact details for someone from Sydney Water who was working on that project. I contacted her to find out more and she told me she was about to leave and I should apply for her job. I applied and during the interview realised that my manager from NSW Office of Water used to manage one of the interviewers and another interviewer used to work with my honours supervisor from UNSW. Everything went well and I’ve been there for almost 8 years now. Networking is so important. 

What types of things do you do every day in your role?  

My role is based around 4 areas, field, office, lab and adhoc work. Most of our work is for Sydney Water, routine monitoring that we do to look at any impacts of the Waste Water Treatment Plants on the streams and ocean. We also do water quality monitoring and bug work for some councils and other government departments 

Field work takes the whole working day and can be in anywhere from the Blues Mountains, Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park to Shellharbour. We look at freshwater bugs, aquatic plants and marine flora and fauna. It can involve long bushwalks, boat work and four-wheel driving. There are always challenges and changes, so we have to think on our feet and use our scientific training to problem solve. 

Office work involves data entry and analysis, report writing, project management and a few other things. 

Majority of the animals we collect cannot be identified in the field, so we preserve them and take them back to the lab. We use different microscopes and reference material to help us count and identify the animals.  

The adhoc projects that come up are great because they challenge us and sometimes put us outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes we receive samples of animals we don’t normally study and it gives us an opportunity to go back to our books and university notes to come up with answers.  

Michelle Bull

Expertise: Microbiology  

Michelle is an applied research microbiologist focused on the food and health sector. Before starting her own company, Michelle worked in the food industry in Australia, Europe and the USA as a researcher for the CSIRO. 

Is completing a masters or postgraduate degree necessary to get a good job in science? 

I think there are good jobs to be had in science that won’t require a Masters or other post-graduate qualifications. For example, there are many technical level positions in universities, hospitals and even in some companies (e.g. pharmaceutical, food, manufacturing). It might mean some limitations on promotions though, depending on the science field or setting you are in.  

For a more research-oriented career in science, you would typically (at some point) probably need to or want to pursue post-graduate study. This is what I did, after two years in a technical position I felt ready to go back to more study.  

In any career these days it is also typical that you would pursue continual professional development through workshops, courses, other professional development opportunities. In some instances, your employer would support the cost and time for this. In other cases, perhaps when you are looking to advance your career by changing jobs, you would need to bear the cost of this yourself.  

Is it possible to be a scientist part-time? 

Yes, I have done this over my career. I returned to work part-time after I had each of my two children – working 3 days per week. After they were both in school, for a year or so I still only worked 4 days per week. This was accommodated by my employer, which was CSIRO, and later I commenced in a part-time position with a small biomedical company. I had worked for CSIRO for many years and was embedded well into a research area during this time – so I don’t think it affected my career progression too much.  

I was fortunate to be able to work flexibly (my partner could also adjust his work commitments) at times as well – so I could travel to meetings that were not on my ‘work days’. If you are working part-time in research though, it will affect how quickly you can complete projects – which might affect your publication rate etc. 

Did you ever think you were going down another career path before changing to science? 

Back when I was in high school and looking at university courses to apply, I briefly thought of working in the allied health field. I think I liked the idea of working in a laboratory more and therefore decided to pursue science. I’ve very glad I did choose science, because I have worked in amazing teams, studied various aspects within my field, and had impact commercially while working for/with individual companies. Now I’m in my own business, I have the opportunity to be a scientist while teaching others (from young students, through to teachers and the broader community) about microbiology and scientific research.  

Fiona Stapleton

Expertise: Optometry  

Fiona was the first female head of an optometry school in Australia. She is also a clinical scientist with expertise in epidemiology and clinical research in the fields of corneal infection, dry eye and contact lens related disease. 

Fiona was awarded her PhD from City University and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at University College London. Fiona has over 200 peer-reviewed publications and has published one book. 

How did you find the branch of science that best fits your interests? 

I knew early on that my skills fitted best with Maths and Science. I liked the discovery and rigour aspects, and that there was usually a right answer, but I had fairly limited school career advice. I elected to do a degree in Maths initially, but wanted to take a year off to explore as to whether this was the right choice for me. I then spoke to a lot of people and worked out that I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects but also liked interacting with people and after lots of questions, I landed on optometry as a combination of physical sciences and solving visual problems. 

How do you maintain motivation? 

Life and career is always very diverse and you don’t succeed in every area. Celebrate your successes and that helps to stay motivated. I love helping students and researchers to develop and do well in their chosen field and that is one aspect of my role which always keeps me motivated. 

How and when did you know you wanted to have a career in science? 

Early on for me – probably came around the point of choosing electives. In the United Kingdom you chose fairly early and this set me on the path from 14 years of age.