2020 Westpac Future Leaders Scholar Carving a Path for Women in STEM

Olivia Johnson

Photo credit: Flashpoint Labs

University of Adelaide Alumna Olivia Johnson was captivated with genetics from a young age because of her sister’s Cystic Fibrosis.

“Genetics has always been something that’s naturally clicked for me,”Olivia Johnson

Going from a Bachelor of Science to Honours, then a PhD, Olivia’s research topic was clear, she would conduct a study to “develop genome-wide selection scanning technologies to detect genetic selection in ancient and modern genomes.” Her study aspires to obtain a deeper understanding how selection shapes human diversity and disease.

Determined to continue studying and to avoid an unappealing desk job, she considered scholarship opportunities to support her PhD. Most scholarships offered placements abroad, but Olivia was passionate about her life in Adelaide and was relieved to discover the Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship would accommodate this.

“I didn’t want to move away from home, and a lot of the scholarships required moving overseas. Westpac was one where you could stay in Adelaide. It was such a perk, I figured why not go for it?”

Earlier this year, the 22 year old was selected as a Westpac Future Leader Scholar. The scholarship, valued at $120,000 over three years, is designed to develop leadership potential in tomorrow’s leaders, includes a nine-month bespoke Leadership Development Program and the opportunity to spend up to six months abroad to gain global experience.

Prior to commencing the scholarship program, Olivia didn’t consider herself a leader and preferred an introverted lifestyle. It was the five-day intensive Leadership Program, offered with the scholarship, which allowed her to recognise her leadership potential.

“I didn’t ever think I was a leader because I didn’t fit that stereotype of the person with the loudest voice. But it’s ok if I’m not that because there are other ways to be a leader that are just as effective, if not more,” she said.

Incredibly, the gender gap in STEM hasn’t discouraged the scholar, instead it’s ignited her. 

“I’ve been told that women shouldn’t be in science, it’s not rewarding and you won’t get far. I’ve personally tried to use this to spur me on.

“Tell me that I can’t be a woman in STEM and I’ll tell you that I can, and I’ll show you that I can. But this shouldn’t be anyone’s introduction to STEM. We need to see women making their mark,” she continued.

Olivia credits the supportive network of scholars for her new found confidence.

“It’s about having someone believe in you and support you. These people believe that I can be more than how I see myself.”

Now she advocates for others, particularly women in STEM, to believe in themselves even if others don’t.

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do, because people like to do that. Just prove them wrong.”

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