I was privileged to speak at the Aspiring Women in Science conference in Brisbane, Australia last month. I think this is a fantastic initiative, which gives senior school girls an insight into working in various fields of Science (including Engineering and Medical specialties). Girls from years 10, 11 and 12 from all over Queensland were invited (mostly aged 15-17). Why girls? I attended a few of the talks myself and it reinforced my own view that there are experiences and conditions specific to women in Science. In talks on Science-as-a-career, information and advice from a woman’s perspective wouldn’t normally come up. It’s only fair to be as informed as possible when making a life choice. Both research and non-research careers were featured in the conference program.

We heard a lot of inspirational stories from Scientists in many different fields. Professor Ian Frazer – inventor of the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine Gardasil – was the keynote speaker. He spoke of his exciting adventures of discovery, from his childhood in Scotland to fulfilling his dream of building the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane. His dream will allow local scientific discoveries to be developed to commercialisation in Australia, instead of being sold to overseas companies. The virus (HPV) is a major cause of female cancer deaths in developing countries, and Prof Frazer is still battling to spread this message.

In the other sessions many women spoke of their work, of what excites and challenges all Scientists, and the challenges that women in Science in face because they’re women. Although we like to think that parents have equal roles nowadays,  a woman in research will likely have to decide whether she puts her children in childcare from a young age or give up research. Grandparents and other extended family are often not around to help because research fields are so specialised that researchers are likely to live far from their home town. These are stories that are familiar to me and were reinforced as I spoke to and listened to other women.

Several researchers, including Prof Frazer, spoke of the frustration of grant writing, the pressure of finding research funds, and the difficulty of sustaining a research career through short-term employment cycles. But more than one researcher also mentioned a published research study showing that a female name on an application for a (US) University Science position means the applicant is less likely to win the job, and the starting salary will probably be lower. Women also compete for grants, publication, promotion and leadership roles. And they drop out faster than men.

I don’t want to sound too negative, but students should be informed when they’re planning their future. I also believe things are slowly improving and if we keep on challenging the system it will keep on getting better. Being aware of the problem is part of working for a solution.

I can speak for scientific research and the thrill of discovery – if it excites you and you’re willing to give it a go – then go for it. Determination is part of the secret of success. I’m inspired by Jim Carrey’s lesson from his father: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

But I do think that if you’re taking a risk it will be a bolder and better one if you have a safety net – such as family support, or a professional qualification as a backup plan.

I can’t pass up the opportunity to present these words from one inspirational woman about another, Maya Angelou (nothing to do with Science).

The Aspiring Women in Science conference was co-ordinated by Ela Martin and St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School in Brisbane. Part of the reason I was invited to speak is my history as a past student. I admire the school for making this conference and the school’s facilities and resources available to ALL girls in Queensland. Queensland’s a big place and some girls travelled a long way to make it. So, to Ela Martin and St Aidan’s, to Queensland University who supported the conference, and to all the Scientists who gave their time, a big thank-you for your initiative. I hope this idea has wings – per volar sunata.

 

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