Fulbright Women in STEM

Fulbright Women in STEM:

A November 2016 report from the office of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, concluded that “false perceptions about women’s aptitude, interest and experience in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are holding back progress in science, and society.” The paper addressed four common misconceptions, including the myth that women are generally disinterested in careers in engineering and physics, with research suggesting that, in fact, participation in the sciences actually increases in open and inclusive cultural environments.
We spoke to three talented Fulbright-sponsored scientists to find out about their experiences as women in STEM, and their thoughts on the challenges contributing to gender imbalance in the sciences.

Mary Ajamian | 2015 Postgraduate | Columbia University → Monash University/The Alfred Hospital

I’ve come to the Monash University Department of Gastroenterology in Melbourne, Australia from Columbia University in New York, NY to research the neurological and behavioural effects associated with gluten intolerance and explore the brain-gut connection.

As part of my Fulbright experience, it has been very fulfilling to continue research that I started in my MS program at Columbia University and gain new perspectives from my current mentors and colleagues here in Australia. At one point in my path as a medical researcher, I’ve been in the situation of attempting to leave STEM because of what I thought was a bleak future, especially when it came to perceived work-life balance with a future family as well as job security. I thought I was only being realistic with my decision, but I eventually realized that it was mainly based off of anxiety and fear, and was barring me from a promising future of utilizing my skills and talents. I am very grateful to say that all roads eventually led back to the one that I am currently on.

I realized that fear or anxiety is never a good reason to quit. Even though the road would likely be paved with challenge and sacrifice, I knew that returning to STEM was the right one for me to take. In this respect, I believe that women should not be deterred from entering and progressing in STEM if they know that it is the path for them. Limiting beliefs about themselves or their futures should not influence their decision.

The reality is that there’s a lot to work on from an institutional and individual level to support women in STEM, though positive change cannot occur if women cease to be involved.
It was a great leap of faith to continue my work in STEM, especially in a country where I did not have any close connections upon arrival. However, my time here in Australia has been one of my best experiences to date.

Each step of the way, my current mentors as well as Australian-American Fulbright Commission have been unendingly supportive of my research and professional development.
As part of my Fulbright experience, I’ve found a phenomenal community of supportive mentors, colleagues, and friends, and for this I am truly grateful.

Ursula Salmon | 2016 Professional (ANSTO) | The University of Western Australia → Stanford University

My Fulbright project is about using naturally occurring isotopes to improve groundwater models, in the interests of sustainable resource management.
Groundwater often has multiple, conflicting uses, for example, until recently groundwater was the main water source for drinking water, industry, and agriculture for Perth, but the system also supports groundwater-dependent ecosystems in a region known to be a global biodiversity hotspot. A drying climate is also contributing to dropping water tables.
Numerical models are typically used for managing groundwater resources, however model predictions are often uncertain, due to factors such as the need to estimate the properties of large, inaccessible aquifers (e.g., >100km wide, >4km deep).

Isotopes such as radiocarbon (C14) act as “clocks” that provide information on the age of the groundwater, which helps reduce some of the inherent uncertainty. In an earlier project, I developed a method to incorporate C14 into models, which allows direct comparison with field measurements.
For the Fulbright project, I will incorporate a second isotope (Helium 4) to make the models more reliable. As groundwater recharge depends on climate, the same models may give us new insights into past climate variability. My Fulbright host, Prof. Steven Gorelick at Stanford, was himself a Fulbright scholar; he invited me to his lab to continue the work, and suggested I apply for the scholarship.

I always knew I wanted to work with solving environmental problems; as “Engineers make things happen”, studying (bio)chemical engineering and taking the environmental major seemed like a good start. The undergraduate classes were around 50% girls. I can’t remember ever feeling that being a girl was a disadvantage; I respect people who work hard and are good at what they do, and certainly among people of my generation and younger, I have never felt I couldn’t receive that same respect. However even with no external barriers put in our way, one challenge girls have is ourselves. In my experience, we are often much more cautious than our male counterparts, and less likely to “have a go” if unsure. If you haven’t tried, you aren’t even in the running to succeed. There’s no question that our approach also results in good science, or even better work in some cases, as we are good at listening and incorporating new information, and our caution often makes us very thorough.

Going into research also cured my tendency to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to people speaking with confidence. Hearing “experts” talk with great certainty, when I was sure they had their facts wrong or were bluffing (or in some cases, both!) helped open my eyes to how the world works. This insight has relevance well beyond the sphere of environmental engineering.
I hope that this Fulbright opportunity to tell people about my work will help anyone who is similarly motivated to step up to the plate for environmental engineering. We’re faced with a lot of environmental and resource challenges, and need all the good brains we can get.

Shruti Gujaran | 2016 Postgraduate | University of Maryland → University of Melbourne

Even just one year ago, I would never have imagined myself living and working in Australia. And never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be traveling to Melbourne as a Fulbright scholar, studying antibiotic drug resistance. Just in the last few months, my Fulbright grant has challenged, humbled, and inspired me. Through the confrontation of my personal preconceived notions through research, volunteer activities, and education about Australian culture, my Fulbright grant has allowed me to develop into a better educated and socially aware individual.

During my Fulbright grant year, I am using a bioinformatic approach to understand the mechanisms of resistance in Klebsiella pneumoniae; the bacteria most implicated in deadly hospital-acquired infections. A circulating theory suggests that K. pneumoniae have adapted novel resistance mechanisms through the sharing of bacterial DNA between strains, even without environmental pressures (i.e./e.g. antibiotics). As a result, my research focuses on the physical structures bacteria can take, called biofilms, as well as their effects on their hosts in a hospital setting. By counteracting the bacteria’s ability to take its most deadly form as biofilm, myself and other researchers hope to make such illnesses easier to treat.

In addition to my research, I have been fortunate enough to pursue my own medical aspirations by shadowing infectious disease physicians at the Alfred Hospital, a premier location for the diagnosis and treatment of a multitude of infectious disease patients. The juxtaposition of my time in the research lab and my time at the hospital has allowed me to create a more well-rounded view of medicine, and the ways in which physicians can become more trans-departmental to benefit patients.nMoreover, I have had the opportunity to learn more about Australian culture through my volunteer position at the Indigenous Hospitality House. Here, I’ve met people with ties to the Australian Indigenous culture, as well as people who know about the strife that the aboriginal population has had to endure.

My brief introduction to Australian life and culture has often caused me to reflect on my own place within American culture. As a scientist, I was fortunate enough to go to an incredibly STEM-oriented undergraduate institution, train with experienced researchers, and learn from highly educated professors. However, there has always been a dissonance with my feelings as a scientist of my gender. Within this field, I used to only see men in roles of supervision during my time as a student, with very few women scattered among them. Because I saw so few women in these roles, I believe that a sense of competition with my female peers for these coveted spots was inculcated within me. However, as I continued my education. I saw more and more brilliant women in roles as deans, department chairs, and primary investigators. Women recognized for their talent, and not to fill a quota. Furthermore, my Fulbright grant has connected me with both STEM and non-STEM women all over Melbourne.

As I continue my path to medicine, I remind myself that it is not women I should be competing with, but a system that had historically preferred one gender over another. However, time and education is causing a shift towards a more equal balance. Through organizations like Fulbright, women scientists are better able to learn and adapt within an ever changing global community, and become leaders worldwide.