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 Kelly Wong. Kelly holds a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, and is currently an online producer at Australia’s Science Channel.
Pictured: Kelly and some of her colleagues at the Australian Science Channel.
Just introduce yourself a little – what’s your background, what have you been involved in, and what are you doing now?
I’m a 26-year-old woman who lives in Adelaide. I was born and grew up in Brisbane, and my parents are Singaporean so naturally I love to eat food.
I have a very bizarre career trajectory. I studied a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, got through Honours and even found myself studying a PhD. I got about halfway through it before I realised it wasn’t for me. After dropping out, I found myself working in retail while I figured out what to do. I also took up some freelancing as a social media assistant manager.
While I was studying, I was a pretty full-on food blogger. I also dipped my toe into a Twitter side project - I created @WeAreBrisbane, which is a rotation curation Twitter account for people in Brisbane. After some time in retail, I got accepted for a job for an online producer at Australia’s Science Channel in Adelaide. And that’s how I ended up where I am now.
My job as an online producer sees me running all our social media accounts, I’m also the News & Events editor so I do a lot of editing and writing about science. Oh, and I’m also a presenter in our videos. That part I never thought I would end up doing!
What’s the most exciting thing that you’ve done during your time at RiAus? (Australia’s Science Channel)
I think meeting Brian Cox is technically the most exciting thing I’ve come across at work! But I think I’m quite fortunate to read and write about lots of new discoveries – like the confirmation of gravitational waves, which sent literal waves of shock throughout the scientific community. And also when SpaceX landed their rocket for the first time. It’s pretty mind blowing, what we’re achieving.
What is a recent scientific discovery or advancement that you’re most excited about?
I think the whole gravitational waves confirmation was ‘UUUUUGE. I mean, just the LIGO facility/experiment itself is amazing. It’s basically a laser split into two several-km long perpendicular angles to detect ripples in space-time, as an indication of gravitational waves. It exists to prove literal out-of-this-world theories about the universe.
Also, the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic modification tool. By tool, I mean it’s a pre-existing system from bacteria that researchers can take advantage of to quickly, precisely and accurately add or remove genes. Its applications have been so widespread and adopted, it’s been easily recognised as one of the biggest breakthroughs in science in last 5 years.
Which misconceptions about science do you really want to combat?
I want people to see science as entertaining. For a lot of people, the word ‘science’ is enough to turn them off. I think that people either haven’t found an area of science that they’re interested in - or simply that they don’t even realise an interest of theirs is actually science-based.
For me, it’s less about people seeing that science is everywhere. People should be able to appreciate things with whatever view they want. But I really want people to be excited by what is happening in science (and technology and engineering and all the facets in and around science).
There’s lots of systemic issues within science, academia and industry that I would like to combat as well.
Why is science communication so important, and what attracted you to this field?
Science communication is important to normalise science. Science scares so many people and it can be such a barrier. It’s unfortunate because science can be exciting and complex and interesting. Science communication is the bridge between science and the non-scientific public.
I really enjoy the storytelling behind science communication. What does it take to get people to see how amazing science is? How can you slip in science in a way that people don’t even realise?
I fell into science communication by accident - it was never something I actively pursued or even considered. In retrospect, it seemed such a natural fit of my science and social media background. I really would like to see science communication keep up with modern communication – at the moment, it can be very traditional and archaic.
What are your thoughts on how society as a whole sees the hard sciences as opposed to the social (or as some people call them, “softer” sciences), and the arts?
I think this is interesting because “society” is still quite dependent on who you ask. I think people would be a whole lot less scared by science if they didn’t see it as hardcore disciplines.
Science should be a loose definition. I think the social sciences and the arts are important. I think they need to be part of the equation. If science is really about understanding the world we live in, that means looking at the world from all sorts of angles.
On principle, I find acronyms quite unnecessary because not everything needs to be spelled out, especially when it should be just be embedded through it. But there’s a reason people try to sneak the A for arts into STEM to make STEAM.
Do you think your race/ethnicity has had an effect on the way in which your work has been received in the field of science communication?
As an on-screen presenter in science communication, I always fear backlash based on my ethnicity. Like, call me out on my science, my bad jokes, pop culture references - that I can deal with. I suffer greatly from imposter syndrome. I still struggle to see myself as a science communicator.
Talking more broadly about race and ethnicity, one thing that’s always bothered me is that Asians are often stereotyped as math and/or science nerds and being intelligent. But name me one famous Asian scientist. Where is this stereotype in reality?
What kind of strategies would you like to see implemented in science oriented workplaces to combat gender discrimination?
Actively looking for people and giving them a platform is the only way to combat gender discrimination. And on that, understanding that it can be exhausting to be an activist for gender discrimination. It’s why it’s important to make it a team effort to share the burden and provide support.
Everyone should be working towards combating gender discrimination, not just a few members dedicated it as a task. It needs to be dealt with systematically.
I think we can all stop talking about it now. Actioning on words and making changes needs to happen already.
I’d like to see discrimination tackled in a way that represents diversity through intersectionality. Dealing with one singular facet of diversity is ironic. Advocating diversity without fair representation is such an oversight that speaks to the privilege some have over others.
What suggestions do you have to get people (and in particular, women) more interested and invested in science education in Australia?
If you want to talk policy, it’s about showing the dollar value. The government is sort of finally catching on that there’s a big future in STEM, especially once we deplete all our mining resources. They can finally see that investing in STEM education now will ensure that there’s people who can make money in the future.
But it’s up to people, the public, to keep this pressure on the government and making it an important agenda. So get talking about it. Normalise it. Show the government that people are interested in science.
As for getting more women in science, I think it’s about creating opportunities and support for them in their careers. Ensuring professional development, clear pathways for women to advance in the field, reach seniority in academia. I’d like to see a focus retaining women in science.
If we really want to address getting young girls to be interested in science, it comes back to normalising science, and having visible women role models from who’ve been successful in STEM fields. If we keep doing that, I think the shift will occur organically.
I think showing the humanity and practical applications of science makes a big difference in seeing science in a different light too. I think the media can play a big part of ensuring these kind of stories get out too.
Go follow Australia’s Science Channel ;)
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.