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 is with Samantha Nixon. Samantha recently completed her Honours degree, and is currently working on her PhD at the Institute of Molecular Bioscience, focusing on spider venoms as treatments for parasitic diseases. She is a Westpac Future Leaders Scholar, and will be heading to Antarctica as part of Homeward Bound, a leadership development course devoted to empowering women in STEM.
YEN-RONG: What have you done in the past, and what research are you doing now?
SAMANTHA: I look at spider venoms as new treatments for parasitic diseases, which means hairy tarantulas, buckets of sheep poo and blood-sucking worms on a daily basis.
I started research using 3D modelling and printing to understand bilby anatomy, so that we could develop treatments for major diseases like arthritis and dental disease which are serious problems for bilbies in captivity. I also used this technology with critically endangered Northern Hairy Nosed wombats, so we could better understand how the low genetic diversity was affecting the wombats in their anatomy.
I then became really interested in how we can use natural products as potential medicines and biotechnologies. Venoms are the greatest source of natural products, having evolved over millions of years to become cocktails of fast-acting, potent, selective molecules which makes them perfect as drug candidates. As far as I know, I’m the first person using venoms against parasitic worms, which I think is really exciting.
YEN-RONG: Tell us some more about your trip to Antarctica – when is it happening, how long are you going for, who are you going with, and what will you be doing?
SAMANTHA: I’m heading to Antarctica as part of Homeward Bound. Less than 1 in 5 leadership positions in science are occupied by women, despite the rising number of women graduates.
To address this, myself and 70 other women from around the world are undertaking training to improve our visibility, policy experience and leadership skills so that we can really take a seat at the table. The course itself is 12 months long and culminates in a 3-week voyage to Antarctica in 2018. While we’re in Antarctica we’ll be receiving on-board mentorship from world-class leadership coaches as well as using our STEM skills to collaboratively solve challenges related to Antarctica and the world in the face of climate change. The goal of Homeward Bound is to build the capacity and increase the influence of 1000 women within 10 years, so that we can actively shape the future of the planet.
YEN-RONG: What are you most excited about regarding the Antarctica trip and what are you dreading?
SAMANTHA: I’ve always dreamed of visiting Antarctica. Antarctica remains one of the last ‘pristine’ landscapes, with such unique and special wildlife that I’m passionate about protecting. I think I was six when I presented this talk, “WHALES ARE PRECIOUS CREATURES WE MUST PROTECT”. Yes, it was in all capitals.
Regions of Antarctica are also showing some of the fastest responses to climate change. I think it will be a really powerful and emotional experience to have that visual evidence of the effects of global warming, and then be in a group of committed and powerful women who are ready to engage with these problems and work together to have global impact on the solutions.
On a personal note, I’ve grown up in sunny Brisbane, so I’m not looking forward to the cold!
YEN-RONG: What are three things about your field of research that people would not otherwise know about?
1. Parasites are actually a major problem for both human and veterinary medicine worldwide, but do not get the funding, attention or support that diseases like cancer or dementia receive. Over a billion people are at risk of lymphatic filariasis for example, all requiring preventative chemotherapy, but because it affects lower socioeconomic regions of the world, most people here in Australia haven’t even heard of it.
2. Most people have heard of antibiotic resistance but don’t realise that drug resistance is actually a huge problem in parasitic diseases, particularly for livestock parasites. We only have three main classes of drugs available to treat parasitic worms. Here in Australia for example, the sheep industry is crippled by drug-resistant gastrointestinal nematodes – as many as 90% of Australian sheep properties have drug resistant worms.
3. Spider venoms have already been shown to be useful in a broad-range of applications, such as bioinsecticides and even against stroke and epilepsy. There is actually significant overlap between insecticide and anti-parasite drug targets. As spiders are the greatest insect predators, we are hoping that we can use these natural insecticides against parasites as well to overcome the lack of effective treatments for these diseases.
YEN-RONG: Are there any misconceptions about your field that you really want to combat? If so, which ones?
SAMANTHA: A lot of people ask if I’m making anti-venom. Anti-venom is what we use to treat dangerous venomous animal bites, like from snakes and spiders, and is made from antibodies against the venom. What I’m doing is trying to take advantage of the natural compounds within spider venoms and turn these into drugs against parasitic diseases, which is quite different.
The other thing I would like people to realise is that spiders actually play a really important role in the ecosystem and aren’t really dangerous to humans. If we didn’t have spiders, we would be completely overrun by insects! There are over 45,000 species of spider worldwide, and only a handful (about 0.5%) of those are dangerous – here in Australia that’s things like funnel-webs and redbacks which we’re well aware of and keep away from. In fact, there haven’t been any spider bite deaths in Australia since the introduction of anti-venom! So, next time you see a huntsman in your house, try gently encouraging him outside rather than squishing him!
YEN-RONG: Is there anything you wish you knew before you started in your particular field?
SAMANTHA: I was completely terrified of spiders when I started working in the lab. Part of the reason I was interested in the work was because I wanted to challenge myself to get over my fear. Through exposure therapy I’ve come to appreciate their role in the ecosystem, their unique and powerful venoms and realised that they’re mostly harmless – even kind of cute. I think it would have been helpful if I’d known that spiders rarely bite – they want to conserve their venoms – before I’d started. Now I’ve learnt that the real ones to watch are the centipedes.
YEN-RONG: Have you personally experienced any kind of discrimination in the lab or at conferences that you’ve been to?
SAMANTHA: Absolutely. I attended a conference when I was 19 where a more senior academic made some inappropriate comments that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, but because of the power imbalance I felt completely unable to do anything about it. I’ve also had an academic ask me where my supervisor was so that they could ‘properly discuss the research’, despite the fact that I was presenting my own work. I’ve been specifically invited to meetings to increase the number of women in the group, and then been ignored and spoken over. These are just a few example experiences that I know are not unique to me from discussions with other women students – but are often overlooked because they are not perceived as ‘direct sexism’.
My current lab is excellent and highly values diversity, something I am very grateful for and would like to see more of in STEM.
YEN-RONG: What kind of strategies would you like to see implemented in science oriented workplaces to combat gender discrimination?
SAMANTHA: I think we need more affirmative action at the senior levels of management. It’s very powerful to see women in senior leadership positions and it definitely helps to shape your view of your own potential as your career is progressing. I think organisations should be embracing initiatives like Homeward Bound that have identified the issues faced by women in STEM and have come up with tangible solutions to empower these women. Something I would like to see a lot more of is training regarding unconscious bias and use of language, which I think would greatly improve workplace culture and improve diversity within STEM. I’m also intrigued to see what suggestions and solutions come out of the work by SAGE as well and how these are implemented over the next few years.
YEN-RONG: What is a recent scientific discovery or advancement that you’re most excited about?
SAMANTHA: I’m constantly amazed by the discoveries around the world. One of my personal favourites as a Harry Potter fan and spider nerd was the discovery of Eriovixia gryffindori: a spider named such because it looks like the sorting hat from Harry Potter.
YEN-RONG: What do you think you’d like to do after you finish your PhD? What would be your dream job?
SAMANTHA: I really want to be a voice for those affected by parasitic diseases and to draw attention and support to these desperately underfunded areas. I want to be a research group leader who works closely with government, industry, major public health organisations (like WHO) and those affected by the diseases (farmers and patients) to develop effective drug-resistance management plans, and to ensure that solutions are fair and sustainable.
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.