In the fifth of our opinion pieces from Science meets Parliament sponsors, Pamela Naidoo-Ameglio, Head of ANSTO Nuclear Operations, encourages STEM professionals to embrace the pivot in their careers.
As we’re all well aware, 2020 was the year of the pivot. As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, we rapidly swapped the office for working from home, corporate attire for activewear, and conferences for virtual meetings.
Much has been written about the long-term effects of this rapid shift, with an in-depth study by McKinsey and Co concluding that the world of work will be forever changed.
However, while McKinsey predicts a sharp increase in the number of STEM professionals in the decade following the pandemic, STEM as a field still harbours a preference for a straight, uninterrupted career path, colloquially referred to as the ‘pipeline’.
A 2014 study in Science Education Policy revealed how overly simplistic and limiting this pipeline metaphor is. They found that only 39 per cent of the people who have careers in STEM showed an interest in those disciplines during secondary school and took the relevant course work, such as calculus.
By contrast, my decades-long career has been typified by several key pivots. The first of which occurred when I was just 22. I was a young, fresh faced graduate geologist working in the mining industry, and was asked to attend the site of a fatality. The ceiling of one of the tunnels had collapsed, crushing one of our miners. As I examined the site of the tragedy, I was hit with the overwhelming realisation that my job wasn’t just about mapping rock structures and predicting areas of potential collapse. It was about people’s lives. The danger was real, and our miners were dependent on reliable and timely information to keep them safe. This experience went on to define my professional life, which has been focused upon using my skills to keep people safe.
I pivoted once again in 2018, when I was recruited as the Head of ANSTO’s Nuclear Operations. My experience in mining empowered me to lead a team of 400 highly-skilled staff to ensure the safe operation of the OPAL Multipurpose Reactor, the reliable production of nuclear medicine, and the responsible management of radioactive waste. Safety remains my foremost priority, and in 2019 I was proud to lead the safe dispatch of 10 years’ worth of spent fuel from the OPAL reactor for reprocessing in France.
It was not lost on me that this waste represented 5.5 million nuclear medicine procedures, leading to the detection of cancers and heart disease. This fuel also enabled environmental and health research, and irradiation of 45 tonnes of silicon a year for use in high powered electronic devices including high-speed trains, hybrid cars and wind farms.
The success of that spent fuel shipment was a result of the diverse backgrounds of the entire team that helped to get the fuel safely dispatched. This ranged from reactor operators, project engineers, lawyers, commercial staff, radiation protection services, the logistics company, regulators, officers from the Australian Federal Police and NSW Police, as well as standby emergency services. I will never forget the dedication to safety of the various teams, the camaraderie and keeping up of spirits when everyone’s energy was low, plus the joy of knowing the mission was accomplished.
It’s time to embrace the pivot in STEM and make it easier for people to transition between disciplines and industries as their careers progress. Not only is this realistic, but it also helps address long-term disparities in the number of women and other minorities pursuing careers in STEM.
I’ve had the privilege of mentoring over 1000 students, young professionals and senior leaders over the course of my career, partnering with organisations such as Women in Mining, the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM. Through these experiences, I have advocated that while navigating career changes can be scary, the sheer breadth of what STEM careers have to offer in solving the difficult problems facing society, and the fact that you build transferable skills along the way, can make it very rewarding.
How will you #embracethepivot in your career?
Pamela Naidoo-Ameglio is Head of ANSTO Nuclear Operation. This piece is published as part of a series from sponsors of this year’s Science meets Parliament.