Thursday 11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It exists to help to inspire more girls and women into science, technology, engineering and maths.
This year’s theme is ‘Women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Globally, fewer than 1 in 3 STEM researchers are women – and only 1 in 3 female students choose STEM-related fields in higher education.
To mark the day, we asked our Superstars of STEM why they chose a career in STEM, what they love about it, and for a message to young women and girls about STEM careers.
2019 Superstar of STEM Dr Georgia Ward-Fear said her STEM career was sparked by wanting “to live a life of curiosity, passion and excitement, while working to protect wild places and wild animals.”
Dr Bianca Le has a similar take: “As a kid, I was in awe of researchers who were on the edge of knowledge. Being a scientist means I get to explore something no one else has ever discovered before – you can’t do that with many jobs.”
2019 Superstar of STEM Dr Kirsten Ellis added that a STEM career meant you could combine that quest for discovery with personal passions.
“I love that I can combine creativity and technology to improve the lives of people living with a disability,” she said.
Associate Professor Rashina Hoda loves that her STEM career encourages abstract thinking to solve practical problems.
“I was drawn to the analytical and abstract thinking and creativity that STEM offers. Being able to devise innovative solutions to real-world problems was a big pull.”
While fellow Superstar of STEM, Annelies Moens – a globally-recognised expert in data privacy – said she was inspired by her first computer.
“I had a technology-free childhood, but when I was 13 we got our first computer at home. So I took the opportunity to learn all about them. I had a great all-female computer science class all the way through high school, where we learnt about technology and computer programming,” she said.
“I loved the feedback and results-oriented nature of computing and working out what went wrong when something didn’t work as expected.”
“It’s different every day. You get to help people, help the planet, and make a difference,” said Dr Sharon Hook.
That ability to make a positive impact is also important to Dr Divya Mehta, a researcher working at the interface of genomics, statistics, and psychiatry.
“Through my STEM career, I know I will have real-world impact by improving health and making a difference in the world. I want to be a STEM role model for my daughter, my nieces, and for all the young girls out there by inspiring the same fascination for science as I have.”
“Every week is different, an adventure, and you never know what is coming next,” said Dr Doubleday.
“I also love that we get to follow our curiosity and investigate questions that intrigue us – and usually we are the first to deliver new knowledge or understanding on a topic, and that’s pretty cool,” added Dr Gardner.
Dr Hannah Wardill agreed that the amazing variation of STEM careers was a big incentive.
“The best thing about a career in STEM is that no two days are the same! Some days I am working in the lab, other days I’m talking to people affected by cancer to understand how I can help provide better care during treatment. And I get to travel the world to talk about science.”
Dr Jessica Danaher, whose research focuses on nutritional genomics, agreed variety is an exciting part of STEM careers.
“Every day is so different! In the last week alone, I have run educational nutrition workshops for my university students, tested DNA and gut microbiome samples in the laboratory, contributed to important strategic decisions within my organisation, worked on scientific papers, and been interviewed for a magazine article on nutrition myths,” she said.
That theme of translating leading-edge science into people’s everyday lives was echoed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Science expert Dr Dana Rezazadegan.
“I think the best side of having a career in STEM is working on the cutting edge,” she said.
“As a roboticist and AI scientist I can do research around topics that are changing the quality of people’s lives and always be involved in state-of-the-art technologies. In the near future, even traditional ‘non-tech’ industries will rely on professionals with STEM skills more heavily as technology becomes even more universal.”
Infectious diseases physician Dr Kudzai Kanhutu said a STEM career offered opportunities to make the world a better place.
“[I’d say] you deserve to contribute to the way that we see and understand our world. A career in STEM is a really powerful way to change minds and influence the world in positive ways,” she said.
Some of the Superstars said that with society facing multiple challenges from the coronavirus and climate change, the world needs the next generation of STEM experts.
“Problems are best solved when many different minds tackle them together,” said climate science and science communication expert Dr Linden Ashcroft. “Your mind, and your voice, is needed now more than ever.”
“Our planet is facing a lot of challenges right now,” added postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO Dr Erin Hahn. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and STEM needs creative solutions from unique individuals. With a degree in STEM, your voice can be the change.”
Some of the Superstars of STEM highlighted that studying science and technology can open doors to future careers that you might not expect, and a STEM career didn’t necessarily mean a lifetime in a laboratory.
“Growing up, I didn’t really know what a career in STEM looked like beyond working as a scientist in a lab,” said statistician Dr Nicole White.
“I’ve since realised that at the heart of all STEM careers is a passion for problem solving and discovery. If you enjoy studying STEM at school, never be afraid to pursue your interests just because you’ll be the only girl in the room. Be open to the possibilities that a career in STEM can offer you.”
“STEM subjects are tools which are increasingly essential in everyday life,” added Co-Founder of ANDHealth Grace Lethlean. “If you want to ‘keep your options open’, do STEM – don’t close doors on yourself. When I was at school app developers did not exist, but now there are heaps my age, and they are glad they did STEM to have the tools to build on.”
But whatever choices you make, it is important that you make them for yourself and choose something that you’re passionate about.
“Don’t be afraid to try out lots of different things to find what you’re truly passionate about,” said Dr Erin McKillick.
“No matter what career path you choose, find something that you love, be brave, and be you.”
“Just do it!” added nutrition and food technology expert Dr Jessica Danaher. “And believe in yourself. Girls generally suffer a lot with self-doubt. Make sure the things you are telling yourself are as kind as the things you’d say to a friend.”