The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.
Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.
While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!
It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.
“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”
Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.
This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.
While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.
Professor Aidan Byrne
Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)
Director, Centre for Sustainable Materials and Research Technology (SMaRT), UNSW and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Academia and Research category.
PhD (Mat Sc & Eng), University of Michigan (USA)
Professor Veena Sahajwalla has been focusing on turning waste glass and plastic from cars into value-added material. She says that by “mining” rubbish dumps and landfills, you can access “ores” of various materials more concentrated than in greenfield mine sites.
Traditionally, they have been difficult to recycle because the materials are mixed with other materials and require separation. However, Sahajwalla’s innovation is using high temperatures (over 1500 degrees Celsius) that trigger reactions which create new products by releasing the materials’ elements from their original structures, enabling them to reform.
Innovation: Vision through artificial intelligence
Co-Founder, Aipoly and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Young Engineers category.
BE (Mech), University of Melbourne
Aipoly is a smartphone app which helps blind people identify objects. The app and the company developing it are less than a year old. It grew out of a program at Singularity University in California where entrepreneurs and technologists work together on team-based technology solutions for widespread global challenges.
Australian roboticist Marita Cheng was teamed with Italian Alberto Rizzoli and Swede Simon Edwardsson. Their current version can recognise about 1000 objects and the trio are working on the next version of the algorithm, which is able to recognise 5000 objects.
Cheng says the unique thing about the app is that all the computation happens on the phone, meaning it detects objects in real-time rather than having someone take a photo then send it over the internet to a cloud server. “All you have to do is hold your phone, pass it over the various objects, and in real time it recognises chairs, the floor, tables, different colours,” says Cheng. “A blind person would be able to have a much richer experience of the world through this kind of technology.”
Innovation: GPU Models for Rivers
Director, Water Modelling Solutions and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Utilities category.
M.Sc. (Environmental Eng), Technical University of Denmark
Australia is one of the best places to see the advantages of graphics processing unit (GPU) modelling, according to Monika Balicki. A prime example is her work in Toowoomba in 2015 as part of an update to the region’s planning scheme, a massive project covering nearly 13,000 sq km that includes the Condamine River floodplain in Queensland.
The council saw a need to update its model, as new technology only available in the last two years would improve flood-mapping accuracy.
New light detection and ranging (LiDAR) survey data, in addition to advances in GPU technology, made it possible to develop a comprehensive map of flood elevation surfaces, velocities and depths, as well as flood hazard and hydraulic categories for a full set of modelled events.
GPU 1D and 2D flexible mesh modelling allowed Balicki to adjust the resolution to be more detailed in areas of interest, such as towns.
Prof Fariba Dehghani
Innovation: Advanced active food packaging
Professor, University of Sydney and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Academia and Research category.
PhD (ChemEng), University of NSW
Advanced active food packaging is a ‘greener’ approach to food packaging that prolongs the shelf life of foods by offering lower oxygen and water-vapour permeability than other polymers (plastics) currently used.
The existing biodegradable plastic, polypropylene carbonate has properties favourable for use in food packaging, but contains metallic catalysts.
Extracting these impurities results in a ‘greener’ plastic for food packaging and with the additional coating of the surface with a natural extract, creates antibacterial qualities.
Prof Fariba Dehghani is the inventor of the technology and project leader of its development.
Innovation: Women In Mining And Resources WA
National Lead, Mining Performance, KPMG Australia and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Community category.
Western Australian School of Mines (Mining Eng)
Sabina Shugg was the first woman in the state to gain the WA first class mine manager’s certificate of competency, and the first to work as an underground mine manager in WA.
She had a unique and varied career in remote mining communities, but at times found that she was more isolated than her male colleagues. So she established a networking group for women working in the mining industry, Women in Mining and Resources WA (WIMWA).
It gives women mining professionals a forum to share their experiences and extend their networks. The WIMWA Summit and Conference in September 2015 attracted 550 women from the mining industry in WA.
The group recently branched out into mentoring programs and matches pairs of 35 to 40 mentees with mentors.
Innovation: A Bit of Engenuity for Tourism
Director, UNO Management Services and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Community category.
BE (Env), University of Western Australia
The Northern Territory Adventure Park decided to use a bit of engineering and innovation (what they termed engenuity), and in the process recycle materials to build new projects and reduce waste to landfills.
Kirsty McInnes was project manager, builder and engineer on the project. “The innovation was all in the design,” she said. “Construction items needed to be envisaged and designed before the materials had been sourced. For example, we recognised we needed to build an event space but did not realise this would be transformed from trampolines and truck jibs.”
She said designs had to be ‘fluid’ and ‘adaptable’ with an image of the constructed form, but not the key materials.
Through innovative design processes and careful project management, the result is an award-winning tourism business created with 52 t of waste and saving almost $500,000. It demonstrated that materials can be ‘repurposed’ rather than disposed to landfill at the end of their life, and challenges engineers to take another look at the materials they could use.
Dr Marianne Foley
Innovation: 50 Martin Place Fire Design
Principal, Arup and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Consulting category.
PhD (Fire Safety), University of Leeds and University of Edinburgh
Fifty Martin Place is a landmark heritage building in the heart of Sydney’s financial district. Recently transformed as the new global headquarters of Macquarie Group, it is the largest heritage property to achieve the Green Building Council of Australia’s 6 Star Green Star rating, and to date the only building in Australia registered for WELL Building Standard.
Dr Marianne Foley devised a performance-based fire engineering design, which enabled the preservation and revitalisation of the building’s original heritage aesthetic, the creation of new spaces and features, and ensured the highest levels of occupant safety.
Innovation: Perth’s daily population
Associate Principal, Arup and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Consulting category.
BE (Civil), University of Melbourne
The City of Perth has been undergoing a rapid transformation over recent years. The impacts of these changes are difficult to pinpoint without understanding the baseline population of people using the City on a daily basis for various purposes.
Very little information exists on how many people are in the City typically, which makes it increasingly difficult to plan the City, new transport infrastructure and develop business cases to support new projects. Danya Mullins managed the project for Arup. One of the key challenges to overcome was the fact that no new data was to be collected to inform the calculations. This meant that the approach needed to be tailored to available datasets, but also to make sure that secondary data sources could be kept independent to allow validation of the population calculation.
This required innovative thinking, as many of the datasets were collected for entirely different purposes. For instance, the number of cyclists using shared paths into the City, or needed to be sensibly adapted as they were old (eg 2011 Census statistics).
Captain Mona Shindy
Innovation: Rethinking defence leadership
Head, Guided Missile Frigate System Program Office, Royal Australian Navy and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the General Industry category.
BE (Elec), University of NSW
Captain Mona Shindy was last year named the Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, largely in recognition of her work in charge of the availability, maintenance and upkeep of front-line warships, associated logistics and engineering enhancements.
“Effecting necessary change, in business practice or community attitudes, requires strong leadership by example,” says Shindy.
“It requires creating environments where people are encouraged to collaborate and innovate, where all contributions are respected and valued, where there is a strong sense of belonging and personal responsibility, then people and organisations are empowered to be their best and to give their best.”
Innovation: 3D Nanostructured Materials
CEO, Nano-Nouvelle and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Manufacturing category.
Engineering Physics, University of British Columbia
Stephanie Moroz is working on tin-based anodes for lithium-ion batteries. Nano-Nouvelle has developed a 3D nano-porous conductive membrane that can boost the energy storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries by as much as 50%. Most of the current work is focusing on changing the active particles and trying to get them to bind better to the foil. Moroz is attacking the problem from a different angle.
“Our material, coated with copper, replaces the foil,” she says. “Instead of having the flat foil we have this porous, high surface area.” Rather than having the current collector placed next to the active material, the Tin Nanode is throughout the active material. The current collector has far greater surface-area contact with the active material, offering new efficiencies. The company was selected as one of the 2016 Top 50 Tech Pioneers in Australia and New Zealand.