Tag Archives: women in engineering

role models

The power of non-linear role models

The world around us is undergoing rapid transformation by people finding innovative ways to use information and technology to better serve our needs. At the heart of these disruptive innovations are people with deep groundings in science, technology, engineering and maths – the STEM disciplines.

Critically, the number of kids studying subjects in school that lead to STEM courses is decreasing. According the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 29% of STEM graduates are women, and in the key disciplines of IT and engineering this falls to 14%. Low enrolment numbers for women in STEM have been a consistent factor since I was an undergraduate in engineering.

Today, Australia competes in the global race for innovative ideas with only half the team – the male half. If we are to develop new industries that move us beyond Australia’s traditional industries and allow us to be globally competitive, we have to change.

For a start, we have to help our kids, and in particular our girls, understand the wealth of opportunities open to them with a STEM foundation. We need to address any perceived or real bias in our high school exam systems and marking arrangements that discourage kids from taking up studies in maths and science. With the highly competitive nature of the results from high school assessments, we need to work to change views that taking STEM subjects could lead to any disadvantage.

We also have to recognise – as a positive – the fact that many STEM graduates will work in roles outside of the classical STEM disciplines. These are role models for a future in which interdisciplinary graduates are able to contribute to the transformation of traditional industries such as the finance, automotive and healthcare sectors.

In an effort to stimulate interest in STEM early on in schooling, Macquarie University runs the FIRST Robotics program in Australia for children in years K–12, with key sponsorship by Google and Ford. This program gives all participants a chance to work as teams that bring together mechanics, electronics, information processing, design and software development skills to build robots and compete with them.

This is an example of how we can not only inspire school students’ interest in STEM, but create pathways for them to pursue these fields into further study, careers, and entrepreneurship in a variety of areas. Today the program involves 5000 kids from 600 schools, and the total numbers of participants across Australia is rapidly growing.

Having stimulated interest at school, we need examples at universities and in the workplace that highlight the important roles that women with STEM backgrounds occupy. This is vital to improving the pull of women through universities and into industries where they are able to make meaningful contributions.

At Macquarie University, we are actively focused on building women’s participation in world-leading research programs through the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program. We are able to celebrate the achievements of our world-leading female researchers, including role models such as Macquarie University’s Professor Ewa Goldys (recent winner of a Eureka Award) and Professor Nicki Packer.

Having shining examples of where STEM can take our young women is key to closing the gender gap. We need to expose women to the right kinds of images and messages, which involves having conversations around the non-traditional and non-linear career pathways available to them.

Professor Barbara Ann Messerle

Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University

Read next: Deloitte Partner Elissa Hilliard says raising Australia’s STEM IQ means teaching girls foundational skills in their formative school years.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on role models using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

Why do women leave STEM careers?

Why is the subject of Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so important right now?  To answer this, it might be useful to analyse the issue on two levels: national and personal.

At the national level

Australia needs far more young people taking up careers in STEM. According to our Prime Minister, 75% of our fastest-growing industries require skills in STEM.  But women are greatly underrepresented in this sector. Hence the Australian Government’s new Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grant program, which commits $8 million to encourage women to choose and develop a STEM career.

There are other national programs now running to increase the numbers of women in STEM. For example:

Unfortunately, the engineering profession has been slow to promote the excitement and opportunities for men and women who choose engineering careers. Engineers typically focus on solving problems and improving everyone’s quality of life, rather than promoting their own profession. The catchy video clip Your World. Made by Engineers. sponsored by eight universities and Engineers Australia should be shown to all school students, careers counsellors, teachers and parents.

At the personal level

Women are just as ambitious and competent as men in STEM. Their under-representation in the sector has a number of causes. One obvious one is that too few girls choose science and maths subjects at school, thereby preventing them from later choosing a career in STEM. But the sector also suffers from too many women leaving STEM careers early. Research on this subject shows that women leave for a multiplicity of reasons:

  • hostility in the workplace;
  • isolation associated with being the only woman in a team;
  • difference in work styles between men and women;
  • inflexible and long working hours;
  • lack of career advancement;
  • lack of self-confidence.

A current topic in the gender space is unconscious bias. This is a less obvious reason for too few women in STEM and women leaving STEM careers. There is no doubt that women in academia and business suffer from people with both unintentional (unconscious) and deliberate (conscious) gender bias, and the common misunderstanding that unconscious bias training eliminates this bias is unfortunate. The reality is that such training is useful, but is only the first step to managers and staff members making less biased decisions about their people.

Read more about why we need to come to terms with unconscious bias here.

Dr Mark Toner

Chair of ATSE’s Gender Equality Working Group and Consultant at Gender Matters

Read next: Gemaker’s Dr Julie Wheway explains why you’re biased but don’t know it (and how to fix it).

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on women leaving STEm careers using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

directed evolution

First woman wins Millenium Technology Prize

Featured image above: Frances Arnold. Credit: Caltech

Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize for her “directed evolution” method, which creates new and better proteins in the laboratory using principles of evolution. The Millennium Technology Prize, worth one million euros (approximately A$1.5 million), is the world’s most prominent award for technological innovations that enhance the quality of people’s lives.

Directed evolution, first pioneered in the early 1990s, is a key factor in green technologies for a wide range of products, from biofuels to pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, paper products, and more.

The technique enlists the help of nature’s design process — evolution — to come up with better enzymes, which are molecules that catalyse, or facilitate, chemical reactions. In the same way that breeders mate cats or dogs to bring out desired traits, scientists use directed evolution to create desired enzymes.

“We can do what nature takes millions of years to do in a matter of weeks,” says Arnold, who is also director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Centre at Caltech. “The most beautiful, complex, and functional objects on the planet have been made by evolution. We can now use evolution to make things that no human knows how to design. Evolution is the most powerful engineering method in the world, and we should make use of it to find new biological solutions to problems.”

Directed evolution works by inducing mutations to the DNA, or gene, that encodes a particular enzyme. An array of thousands of mutated enzymes is produced, and then tested for a desired trait. The top-performing enzymes are selected and the process is repeated to further enhance the enzyme’s performance. For instance, in 2009, Arnold and her team engineered enzymes that break down cellulose, the main component of plant-cell walls, creating better catalysts for turning agricultural wastes into fuels and chemicals.

“It’s redesign by evolution,” says Arnold. “This method can be used to improve any enzyme, and make it do something new it doesn’t do in nature.”

Today, directed evolution is at work in hundreds of laboratories and companies that make everything from laundry detergent to medicines, including a drug for treating type 2 diabetes. Enzymes created using the technique have replaced toxic chemicals in many industrial processes.

“My entire career I have been concerned about the damage we are doing to the planet and each other,” says Arnold. “Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment. Changing behavior is even more important. However, I feel that change is easier when there are good, economically viable alternatives to harmful habits.”

“Frances is a distinguished engineer, a pioneering researcher, a great role model for young men and women, and a successful entrepreneur who has had a profound impact on the way we think about protein engineering and the biotechnology industry,” says David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. “The Millenium Technology Prize provides wonderful recognition of her extraordinary contributions to science, technology, and society.”

Arnold received her undergraduate degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University in 1979. She earned her graduate degree in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1985. She arrived at Caltech as a visiting associate in 1986 and became an assistant professor in 1987, associate professor in 1992, professor in 1996, and Dickinson Professor in 2000.

She is the recipient of numerous awards, including in 2011 both the Charles Stark Draper Prize, the engineering profession’s highest honor, and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Arnold is one of a very small number of individuals to be elected to all three branches of the National Academies—the National Academy of Engineering (2000), the Institute of Medicine (2004), and the National Academy of Sciences (2008)—and the first woman elected to all three branches.

“I certainly hope that young women can see themselves in my position someday. I hope that my getting this prize will highlight the fact that yes, women can do this, they can do it well, and that they can make a contribution to the world and be recognised for it,” says Arnold.

The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded every two years by Technology Academy Finland (TAF) to “groundbreaking technological innovations that enhance the quality of people’s lives in a sustainable manner,” according to the prize website. The prize was first awarded in 2004. Past recipients include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web; Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of bright blue and white LEDs; and ethical stem cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka. Arnold is the first woman to win the prize.

– Whitney Clavin

This article was first published by Caltech on 24 May 2016. Read the original article here.