The right elements for STEM success
As society deals with the impacts of climate change and now a devastating global pandemic, there is little doubt the wonders of ‘science’ have come under the microscope.
While the field continues to push boundaries and evolve, Professor Laura Parry, Interim Executive Dean of the Faculty of Sciences, believes now is the perfect time to break down the barriers preventing women from pursing leadership roles in the sciences, or more broadly STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
In what has historically been a male dominated industry, according to Professor Parry the key in enabling women to take their STEM career to the next level is encouraging them to be confident in their abilities and believe in themselves.
“Women often don't think they're ready for particular roles. They hold back, perhaps look at a position that’s being advertised and come up with reasons why they shouldn’t apply as opposed to why they should,” she said.
“I did a women in leadership course when I was a Senior Lecturer – I was the youngest person in the course and it was a game changer because it gave me so much confidence,” said Professor Parry.
Professor Parry’s own journey to science was far from the norm. She fell into the field after being offered a role as a research assistant by a supervisor on her honours project.
“I think I call myself an accidental scientist. I had a fantastic time at university playing sport, doing a little bit of studying,” she said.
“And what happened, I think, is that I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“I applied to go into Teacher Training College, but didn’t get accepted. A supervisor on my honours project on hormones in pregnancy and hypertension offered me a position as research assistant. Because I didn’t have anything else to do, I thought it was a great idea,” she said.
Since then, Professor Parry has never looked back. She has worked on various research projects and in many different parts of the world. An activist for women in STEM, she brings a unique outlook to the Faculty of Sciences after overcoming many gender barriers in the field herself.
As she learnt to do throughout her own career, Professor Parry is driven to inspire women in the field to ‘think big’.
“It is really important to remind women not to talk yourself out of something, but put yourself forward for things because you're actually really capable,” she said.
“I now see myself as a catalyst. A really good Executive Dean of Sciences is someone who inspires and encourages those around them to do the things they really want to do. As a Faculty, we are committed to a diverse workplace where we embrace differences in culture, gender and other under-represented groups.
“We’re also committed to excellence and defining what this means in teaching, research, engagement and how we’re viewed by the community,” Professor Parry said.
While the pandemic has created challenges, uncertainty and forced us all to change the way we operate, Professor Parry is using COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine the way the Faculty’s curriculum is taught.
“I've come into the role at an extraordinary time for the sector and I think there are many opportunities here in the Faculty of Sciences,” she said.
“What I've seen is a lot of innovative teaching and excellent research, but we’re very quiet about it. In fact, we need to be much more visible and showcase our excellence.
“I also see lots of possibilities. And COVID-19 has allowed us to truly explore new opportunities. But, we need to connect better with the other faculties and lead major national and international initiatives,” Professor Parry said.
With an ever-changing planet comes the need for fresh innovation, progression and new ideas. But this won’t just come from today’s leaders. Professor Parry believes it is essential to enable future generations and current undergraduate and postgraduate students to commence their own journey in science and become the next generation of leaders.
“One of my key messages to students as Interim Executive Dean is that science can take you in directions you've never thought. Science has no borders – it’s the gateway to a myriad of careers, you get to solve big global problems and aren’t restricted to a career in academia or research,” she said.
“But STEM also gives you that opportunity to satisfy your curiosity. To change our world, we need to better understand it and I’m proud of the significant discoveries that we have made in sciences that have shaped the health of our planet, animals and people,” she said.
For Professor Parry, attracting future generations to the field goes as far as promoting the power and possibilities of science at the earliest of ages.
“That's why communicating about science is so important, whether it's to primary school, secondary school, the students who are here or to the community, the public at large. This is the important role I can play,” she said.
Story by Sasha Champion.