It is no secret that there is an implicit bias against women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and in recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on recruiting women into such fields. However, many who have left careers in STEM posit that there are also issues within these industries and fields themselves that need to be addressed in order to retain women. So what is it really like for young Australian women scientists? In this interview series, we find out.
I talk to several young women from different fields of science about their work, as well as any instances of discrimination they may have experienced or witnessed, and their hopes for the future.
The next interview in this series is with Nathalie Farah. Nathalie is currently in her third year of an Advanced Sciences degree at the University of Queensland, majoring in Chemistry.
YEN-RONG: Hi! Just introduce yourself a little – what kind of research have you been involved in, and what are you doing now?
NATHALIE: As a part of my undergraduate degree, I’ve undertaken two separate research projects. The first included studying the effect of changing the zinc work function on the efficiency of a thin film. This was a study where the results can be ultimately applied to increasing the efficiency of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) devices and solar cells. My second research project included changing the structure of the polymer “Alginate” in order to increase efficiency of protein delivery. I’ve undertaken both projects at SCMB (The School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, at the University of Queensland).
YEN-RONG: What’s the most exciting thing you’ve come across in your studies?
NATHALIE: It’s always amazing to me to analyse my results and see what the effect the work that I’ve done has on my structure/device. I enjoy starting a new project and learning everything about it.
YEN-RONG: What are three things about your field of research that people would not otherwise know about?
1. OLED screens are actually different from LCDs because their mechanisms of light production are different. This means that their device efficiency and image quality is also different.
2. Everything is made of polymers. Your shoes, clothes, your house, shopping bags, preservatives in your food and so on.
3. There exists a machine that can show us an actual molecule and shows it as an image called AFM. It’s like a chemical camera
YEN-RONG: Which misconceptions about your field do you really want to combat?
NATHALIE: Chemists are not pharmacists. Chemists do more than just synthesise drugs. Chemistry is still required for a better life and chemicals are not necessarily always bad.
YEN-RONG: Have you personally experienced any kind of discrimination in the lab or at conferences that you’ve been to? If so, please elaborate. If not, do you have any colleagues that have experienced this?
NATHALIE: I’m still in my undergraduate degree, but I have felt out of place in many lectures that were dominated by males. Also, I get strange looks every time I say that I’m an executive member of a club that supports women in science. People always ask, “What’s wrong with women in science? You have all your rights already.”
YEN-RONG: Do you think your race/ethnicity alters the way people interact with you in a professional sense? E.g. at conferences, etc?
NATHALIE: Ethnicity definitely plays a big role in how people interact with me, but not necessarily in a bad way. Usually people interrupt me to ask where I’m from or where my accent is from, but I’m always happy to have the chat.
YEN-RONG: What kind of strategies would you like to see implemented in science oriented workplaces to combat gender discrimination?
NATHALIE: We need to have longer maternity leave times. This is the reason why most women who graduate from a science degree don’t go on to do post-graduate work as they are worried about balancing family life and a career in science.
YEN-RONG: What is a recent scientific discovery or advancement that you’re most excited about?
NATHALIE: I’m most excited about all the advancement being made in regards to making “meat” in a lab. I feel like this discovery will play a big role in shutting down factory farms and hence decreasing methane production globally.
YEN-RONG: What do you think you’d like to do after you graduate? What would be your dream job?
NATHALIE: I’d love to be a professor at university. I love teaching people chemistry and I also love research. That being said, I want to work in toxicology straight after I graduate, just to get a feel of what it’s like to work with the government.
Yen-Rong is a Brisbane based writer. She is the founder and editor in chief of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian Artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn. You can read more of her work here.