Growing the number of women in STEM is a focus in Australia and around the globe. Only 20% of students that complete tertiary STEM education in Australia are female, which results in them being underrepresented in the STEM industry. While bridging the gap is an ongoing priority, it is important to showcase the talented women of STEM today, to inspire the Marie Curie’s and Rosalind Franklin’s of tomorrow.

We spoke with Data Science and Bioinformatics Trainer, Paula Andrea, to hear about her experiences, and the opportunities and challenges she faced while studying and teaching STEM.

We hope this guest post provides you with insights and inspiration, or simply gives you the chance to relate Paula’s experience with your own.

My name is Paula Andrea and I recently achieved my PhD in Bioelectro Chemistry from the University of Queensland. I’m originally from Colombia, where I obtained my Bachelor in Chemical Engineering, and I obtained my Masters in Spain.

A highlight during my PhD was successfully converting carbon dioxide into a precursor for bio-diesel, therefore making waste the future raw material for a chemical that is able to power an airplane! Although an Engineer by profession, I am a science communicator by heart.

Paula Andrea
Data Science and Bioinformatics Trainer

Being a mum while studying a PhD

It’s 3:00 am and I’m outside the university ready to go home after a long night at the lab. I’d like to get home quickly so I can rest before starting another day as a PhD student and a ‘part-time’ mum. After the first year of my PhD, I started to feel guilty about the time spent away from my little girl and it was really getting to me. I started to recognise bad behaviour in my daughter and blamed myself for her tantrums. It must have been because she had an absent mother, I thought.

I decided to take action to benefit us both, so I changed my schedule to better suit my family and my studies. I started leaving university earlier, at 5:00 pm, to spend time with my family. After that quality time, I was able to return the lab at 8:00 pm. Following a period of trial and error and setting the goal, I found that I could be successful as both a student and a mother.

Fast forward to 2020, I have graduated from the University of Queensland with a PhD in Bioelectro Chemistry, and I have a beautiful and very energetic daughter who received everyday passive lessons of passion and perseverance.

“After a period of trial and error and setting a goal to achieve, I found that I could be successful as both a student and a mother” 

Working with STEM programs within schools

While completing my PhD, I was fortunate enough to be involved in programs promoting STEM within schools. I became a guest scientist for Queensland Virtual STEM Academy (QVSA), which is an online school focusing on STEM engagement for rural and remote students in Queensland. I also became – and continue to be – a Science Ambassador for Wonder of Science at the University of Queensland’s STEM program. I found these programs very enjoyable and rewarding, plus I learnt many new things.

I was in their classroom to talk about my research and to give them a snapshot of a science-related topic such as forces and Newton’s laws of motion. One of the key things I learnt was how the students’ attitudes and motivation towards science were strongly linked to the person educating them.