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.

“One of the key things I learnt was how the students’ attitudes and motivation towards science were strongly linked to the person educating them” 

After the class, the kids were so engaged that they wanted to discuss science with me and even life in general. I realised that they were involved because of the story behind the person talking about physics, chemistry and biology. They got the chance to take a peek into an interesting and possible future.

I think it is our responsibility as people in science to become great storytellers.  To make science personal, engaging and encourage curiosity.

Insights for university academics teaching STEM

I took the learnings from my time in these programs and applied them when tutoring undergraduates at the university. The students often prefer to discuss the lecture with the tutor rather than with the course convenor. I could see how the students spoke up more freely with the tutors in their classes.

Students’ questions come more freely when they are trying to understand the subject and not trying to impress their professor.

I frequently find the university cohorts of the lectures too large. The professors maintain the rhythm of the lecture by focusing on the students that pay attention and whose names they know, whilst the rest of the class fade into the landscape. This is where tutors, mentors and role models are so helpful – the more bridges that are available between the educator and the learner, the faster the momentum is to cross them.

Experiences as a woman in STEM

As a woman in STEM, I have been exposed to several challenges. There are issues that are common to many of us, such as gender discrimination at work and a lack of support from loved ones, which can spring from a lack of faith and ignorance.

One of the major challenges I’ve faced in my professional career has been meeting my own expectations, especially when it comes to comparing myself to other women in the industry. It is incredible how the comparison to others with a lesser academic degree or those with less satisfaction in their work make you feel lucky. However, when comparing yourself to others in a better position, it makes you feel like an underachiever.

These thoughts are difficult to openly accept, and what we do instead is justify to ourselves why we are not in that position. Hypothetical situations helped me support the feelings about what could have happened if I had had the ‘adequate circumstances’ to reach my full potential.

” When comparing yourself to others in a better position makes you feel like an underachiever” 

What Paula has learned from her career experiences

What have I learned from my personal experiences?  Choose your goals wisely – be consistent with them and make a plan that matches your own situation. In other words, context matters. For example, I wish to be involved in several groups after my PhD, such as Young Water Professionals (YWP), Young Professional in Mining (YPM), and Young Science Ambassadors (YSA). Maybe you have already recognised the pattern? All of these groups target professionals under the age of 35.

In summary, I believe being open and honest to yourself about the persistent internal challenges in your life. Although it’s not easy, it requires self-analysis to answer critical questions. However, I am part of the STEM culture, where growth and progress come from asking challenging questions of the world around us and in my experience of the world within us.

Take a look at our newest STEM titles for Semester 1 2021!

Materials Science and Engineering, 1st Australian and New Zealand Edition Physics, 1st Australian and New Zealand Edition Fundamentals of Physics, 1st Australian & New Zealand Edition
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