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
Since successful genome sequencing was first announced in 2000 by geneticists Craig Venter and Francis Collins, the cost of mapping DNA’s roughly three billion base pairs has fallen exponentially. Venter’s effort to sequence his genome cost a reported US$100 million and took nine months. In March, Veritas Genetics announced pre-orders for whole genome sequencing, plus interpretation and counselling, for US$999.
Another genetics-based start-up, Human Longevity Inc (HLI), believes abundant, relatively affordable sequencing and collecting other biological data will revolutionise healthcare delivery. Founded by Venter, stem cell specialist Robert Hariri and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, it claims to have sequenced more human genomes than the rest of the world combined, with 20,000 last year, a goal of reaching 100,000 this year and over a million by 2020.
HLI offers to “fully digitise” a patient’s body – including genotypic and phenotypic data collection, and MRI, brain vascular system scans – under its US$25,000 Health Nucleus service. Large-scale machine learning is applied to genomes and phenotypic data, following the efforts at what Venter has called “digitising biology”.
The claim is that artificial intelligence (AI) can predict maladies before they emerge, with “many” successes in saving lives seen in the first year alone. The company’s business includes an FDA-approved stem cell therapy line and individualised medicines. The slogan “make 100 the new 60” is sometimes mentioned in interviews with founders. Their optimism is not isolated. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel admits he takes human growth hormone to maintain muscle mass, confident the heightened risk of cancer will be dealt with completely by a cancer cure, and plans to live to 120.
“We understand what the surgeon needs and we embed that in an algorithm so it’s full automated.”
Bill Maris, CEO of GV (formerly Google Ventures), provocatively said last year that he thinks it’s possible to live to 500. An anit-ageing crusader, biological gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder and chief science officer of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS, whose backers include Thiel), has claimed that people alive today might live to 1000.
Longevity expectations are constantly being updated. Consider that, in 1928, American demographer Louis Dublin put the upper limit of the average human lifespan at 64.8. How long a life might possibly last is a complex topic and there’s “some debate”, says Professor of Actuarial Studies at UNSW Michael Sherris.
He says there have been studies examining how long a life could be extended if certain types of mortality, such as cancer, were eliminated, points out Sherris.
“However, humans will still die of something else,” he adds. “The reality is that the oldest person lived to 122.”
Will we see a 1000-year-old human? It isn’t known. What is clear, though, is that efforts to extend health and improve lives have gotten increasingly sophisticated.
The definition of bioengineering has also grown and changed over the years. Now concerning fields including biomaterials, bioinformatics and computational biology, it has expanded with the ability to apply engineering principles at the cellular and molecular level.
Editing out problems to reverse ageing
What if, further than reading and comprehending the code life is written in, it could also be rewritten as desired? A technique enabling this with better productivity and accuracy than any before it, has gotten many excited about this possibility.
“In terms of speed, it’s probably 10 times as quick as the old technology and is five to 10 times as cheap,” says Professor Robert Brink, Chief Scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s MEGA Genome Engineering Facility.
The facility uses the CRISPR/Cas9 process to make genetically-engineered mice for academic and research institute clients. Like many labs, Brink’s facility has embraced CRISPR/Cas9, which has made editing plant and animal DNA so accessible even amateurs are dabbling.
First described in a June 2012 paper in Science, CRISPR/Cas9 is an adaptation of bacteria’s defences against viruses. Using a guide RNA matching a target’s DNA, the Cas9 in the title is an endonuclease that makes a precise cut at the site matching the RNA guide. Used against a virus, the cut degrades and kills it. The triumphant bacteria cell then keeps a piece of viral DNA for later use and identification (described sometimes as like an immunisation card). This is assimilated at a locus in a chromosome known as CRISPR (short for clustered regularly spaced short palindromic repeats).
In DNA more complicated than a virus’s, the cut DNA is able to repair itself, and incorporates specific bits of the new material into its sequence before joining the cut back up. Though ‘off-target’ gene edits are an issue being addressed, the technique has grabbed lots of attention. Some claim it could earn a Nobel prize this year. There is hope it can be used to eventually address gene disorders, such as Beta thalassemias and Huntington’s disease.
“Probably the obvious ones are gene therapy, for humans, and agricultural applications in plants and animals,” says Dr George Church of Harvard Medical School.
Among numerous appointments, Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and founding core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Last year, a team led by Dr Church used CRISPR to remove one of the major barriers to pig-human organ transplants – retroviral DNA – in pig embryos.
You can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making cells that fight cancer.
“We’re now at the point where it used to be that you would have to have a perfect match between donor and recipient of human cells, but that was because you couldn’t engineer either one of them genetically,” he says. “You can engineer the donor so that it doesn’t cause an immune reaction. Now, you can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making T cells that fight cancer – what some of us call CAR-T cells. You can use CRISPR to engineer them so that they’re not only effective against your cancer, but they don’t cause immune complications.”
Uncertainty exists in a number of areas regarding CRISPR (including patent disputes, as well as ethical concerns). However, there is no doubt it has promise.
“I think it will eventually have a great impact on medicine,” believes Brink. “It’s come so far, so quickly already that it’s almost hard to predict… Being able to do things and also being able to ensure everyone it’s safe is another thing, but that will happen.”
And as far as acceptance by the general public? Everything that works to overcome nature seems, well, unnatural, at least at first. Then it’s easier to accept once the benefits of are apparent. Church – who believes we could reverse ageing in five or six years – is hopeful about the future. He also feels the world needs people leery about progress, and who might even throw up a “playing God” argument or two.
“I mean it’s good to have people who don’t drive cars and don’t wear clothes and things like that, [and] it’s good to have people who are anti-technology because they give us an alternative way of thinking about things,” he says.
“[Genetic modification] is now broadly accepted in the sense that in many countries people eat genetically-modified foods and almost all countries, they use genetically-modified bacteria to make drugs like Insulin. I think there are very few people who would refuse to take Insulin just because it’s made in bacteria.”
A complete mindshift
Extended, healthier lives are all well and good. However, humans are constrained by the upper limits of what our cells are capable of, believes Dr Randal Koene.
For that and other reasons, the Dutch neuroscientist and founder of Carbon Copies is advancing the goal of Substrate Independent Minds (SIM). The most conservative form (relatively speaking) of SIM is Whole Brain Emulation, a reverse-engineering of our grey matter.
“In system identification, you pick something as your black box, a piece of the puzzle small enough to describe by using the information you can glean about signals going in and signals going out,” he explains, adding that the approach is that of mainstream neuroscience. “The system identification approach is used in neuroscience explicitly both in brain-machine interfaces, and in the work on prostheses.”
No brain much more complicated than a roundworm’s has been emulated yet. Its 302 neurons are a fraction of the human brain’s roughly 100 billion.
Koene believes that a drosophila fly, with a connectome of 100,000 or so neurons, could be emulated within the next decade. He is reluctant to predict when this might be achieved for people.
Featured video above: NERVO’s engineering music video aims to get girls switched onto careers in engineering.
Eight top universities – led by the University of New South Wales – have launched a song and music video by Australia’s twin-sister DJ duo NERVO to highlight engineering as an attractive career for young women.
NERVO, made up of 29-year-old singer-songwriters and sound engineers Miriam Nervo and Olivia Nervo, launched the video clip for People Grinnin’ worldwide on Friday 15 July.
In the futuristic video clip, a group of female engineers create android versions of NERVO in a high-tech lab, using glass touchscreens and a range of other technologies that rely on engineering, highlighting how it is embedded in every facet of modern life.
The song and video clip are part of Made By Me, a national collaboration between UNSW, the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Australia, the University of Queensland, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and the University of Adelaide together with Engineers Australia, which launched on the same day across the country.
It aims to challenge stereotypes and shows how engineering is relevant to many aspects of our lives, in an effort to to change the way young people, particularly girls, see engineering. Although a rewarding and varied discipline, it has for decades suffered gender disparity and chronic skills shortage.
NERVO, the Melbourne-born electronic dance music duo, pack dancefloors from Ibiza to India and, according to Forbes, are one of the world’s highest-earning acts in the male-dominated genre. They said the Made by Me project immediately appealed to them.
“When we did engineering, we were the only girls in the class. So when we were approached to get behind this project it just made sense,” they said.
“We loved the chance to show the world that there is engineering in every aspect of our lives,” they said. “We’re sound engineers, but our whole show is only made possible through expert engineering: the makeup we wear, the lights and the stage we perform on.”
“Engineering makes it all possible, including the music that we make.”
Alexandra Bannigan, UNSW Women in Engineering Manager and Made By Me spokesperson, said the project highlights the varied careers of engineers, and the ways in which engineers can make a real difference in the world.
“When people think engineering, they often picture construction sites and hard hats, and that perception puts a lot of people off,” she said. “Engineering is more than that, and this campaign shows how engineering is actually a really diverse and creative career option that offers strong employment prospects in an otherwise tough job market.”
She noted that the partner universities, which often compete for the best students, see the issue as important enough to work together.
“We normally compete for students with rival universities, but this is such an important issue that we’re working together to break down those perceptions,” she said.
Made By Me includes online advertising across desktop and mobiles, a strong social media push, a website telling engineering stories behind the video, links to career sites, as well as the song and video, to be released by Sony globally on the same day. Developed by advertising agency Whybin/TBWA, the campaign endeavours to change the way young people, particularly girls, see engineering.
“We needed to find a way to meet teenagers on home turf and surprise them with an insight into engineering that would open their minds to its possibilities,” said Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s Dean of Engineering. “This is what led to the idea of producing an interactive music video, sprinkled with gems of information to pique the audience’s interest in engineering.”
UNSW has recently accelerated efforts to attract more women into engineering, more than tripling attendance at its annual Women in Engineering Camp, in which 90 bright young women in Years 11 and 12 came to UNSW from around Australia for a week this year to explore engineering as a career and visiting major companies like Google, Resmed and Sydney Water. It has also tripled the number of Women in Engineering scholarships to 15, valued at more than $150,000 annually.
Hoffman, who became Dean of Engineering in 2015, has set a goal to raise female representation among students, staff and researchers to 30% by 2020. Currently, 23% of UNSW engineering students are female (versus the Australian average of 17%), which is up from 21% in 2015. In industry, only about 13% of engineers are female, a ratio that has been growing slowly for decades.
“Engineering has one of the highest starting salaries, and the average starting salary for engineering graduates has been actually higher for women than for men,” said Hoffman. “Name another profession where that’s happening.”
Australia is frantically short of engineers: for more than a decade, the country has annually imported more than double the number who graduate from Australian universities.
Some 18,000 engineering positions need to be filled annually, and almost 6,000 come from engineering students who graduate from universities in Australia, of whom the largest proportion come from UNSW in Sydney, which has by far the country’s biggest engineering faculty. The other 12,000 engineers arrive in Australia to take up jobs – 25% on temporary work visas to alleviate chronic job shortages.
“Demand from industry has completely outstripped supply, and that demand doubled in the past decade,” said Hoffman. “In a knowledge driven economy, the best innovation comes from diverse teams who bring together different perspectives. This isn’t just about plugging the chronic skills gap – it’s also a social good to bring diversity to our technical workforce, which will help stimulate more innovation. We can’t win at the innovation game if half of our potential engineers are not taking part in the race.”
UNSW has also created a new national award, the Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer, to highlight the significant contributions to Australia made by female engineers.