STEAM powered women unite for Bendigo Invention and Innovation Festival

Biophysicist Dr Donna Whelan has some words of advice for young women considering studying STEAM.

“Go for it,” she says. “I actually can’t think of a good reason not to study STEAM, at any educational level, because we know that the skillset students get from STEAM study is incredibly useful in general, and that high school and university graduates who have specialized in STEAM are very employable. And that includes the Arts subjects like History and Literature.”

Dr Whelan says the challenge is often to keep young women involved, as we know they’re much more likely to drop out of STEAM pathways, starting in high school and moving all the way through to the top levels of academia and industry.

“We also know that this isn’t due to lack of interest or talent so anything I can say or do to encourage them to stick with it is worthwhile,” she says. “If you are keen on STEAM, pursue it and enjoy it, and know that you are also building up important life skills like critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork, alongside an important appreciation and understanding for how the world works around us.”

Dr Whelan will be sharing this message as part of the Bendigo Invention and Innovation Festival’s International Women in STEAM Forum. The Bendigo-based scientist’s stellar career is proof of the opportunities available to women, now and in the future.

The employability of STEAM university graduates has remained relatively high for several decades because of the ever-increasing role that these specialities play in everyday life,” she says. “Everything from disease treatments to artificial intelligence to new energy sources rely squarely on people educated extensively in the STEAM disciplines and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

“However, I think an even more important aspect of the employability of STEAM graduates is their flexibility and adaptability in a fast-changing world. A couple of generations ago it was common for people to choose a career and stick to it their entire lives but now millennials and Gen Z are estimated to have something like six or seven career changes ahead of them.

“STEAM education has the capacity to provide a broad base of expertise and skills – including that adaptability – to tackle these career changes a lot more readily than specialist degrees that often only train students for one job.”

Dr Whelan says she wanted to specialize in Chemistry at university and ended up getting a PhD in it. But she also studied Psychology, History, Literature and even completed a three-year major in Philosophy, rounding out her STEAM education with a very solid emphasis on the ‘A’.

“Even through I am still in science as a career, I can unequivocally say that it was my Arts education that was key in my moving from Chemistry into Biology and Physics, and, more than that, that has enabled me to develop the day-to-day skills I need as a researcher and lecturer. Skills like creative and persuasive writing, problem solving and critical thinking, and good communication and teamwork. And I’ve seen similar in many of my friends who graduated with science and arts degrees and have gone on to find fulfilling careers in disparate areas such as business and project management, teaching, information technology, data analysis, journalism, social work and counselling, administration and politics – just to name a few!”

Dr Whelan says she is part of a valued and supported team of women in STEAM at La Trobe.

“Speaking to my own personal experiences, beginning my independent research career at La Trobe in 2018, it was incredibly empowering to see so many active women around me,” she says. “Having women heading up departments and panels juxtaposed my past experiences in such a good way. I remember always feeling a bit of a niggle at the back of my mind throughout my undergraduate studies that most of my professors – something I already was aspiring to be – were men.

“When it came time to find supervisors for my Honours and PhD projects, I had a lot of male professors to choose from and only a few women. Perhaps most disappointingly, the first international conference I ever attended I had the privilege to listen to a future Nobel Laureate and dozens of experts from my field but, over the course of three full days of non-stop lectures, not a single woman spoke.”

And she still has the emails she sent to her mentors back home from that conference, questioning whether she had any chance in such a male-dominated world. She has proven the answer to be a resounding ‘yes’.

“Things have started to change,” she says, “and in my department and school at La Trobe I don’t often feel that niggle in the back of my mind anymore. I’m empowered to turn down conferences and committees that don’t strive for the same gender equality that La Trobe does, and I’m mentored by several women at the top of their game. It’s already a much more even playing field than it was a decade ago and I’m optimistic that La Trobe is going to continue working for positive change.”

As for her own work, Dr Whelan continues to collaborate with universities in Australia and around the world, researching the molecular structure of cells using the super resolution fluorescence microscope she purpose-built on campus, which is 1000-times more powerful than standard.

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