In partnership with the University of Melbourne, we meet two of today’s pioneering women in STEM and discover how they’re leading the way for change.
Women make up just 16% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce in Australia, meaning not much has changed since Rosalind Franklin conducted her groundbreaking research in the 1950s. Ahead of Photograph 51 opening, we spoke with two women from the University of Melbourne who, like Franklin, have made significant scientific achievements in their fields, paving the way for future female scientists.
The University of Melbourne’s first-ever female Head of Engineering
Professor Doreen Thomas is the inaugural Head of School of Electrical, Mechanical and Infrastructure Engineering. Her budding love affair with numbers started at age 11. ‘I had a wonderful maths teacher who rolled out Euclidian geometry theories on the blackboard and I was absolutely hooked,’ she says. ‘Her knowledge impressed me so much.’
Despite her infatuation with geometry, algebra and the theory of numbers, Thomas’s pursuit of a career in mathematics required significant perseverance in the face of blatant dissuasion. ‘I remember arriving [at Cape Town University] on enrolment day. I went up to this lecturer outside the maths department and said “I would like to study mathematics as my major.” And he said “I don’t think you should; it’s really, really hard.” To this day I remember how that felt. It was such a negative statement on my very first day of university. Nevertheless I decided to major in mathematics and he subsequently became one of my lecturers.’
Now in her 70s, Thomas has overcome enough gender prejudice to laugh off the men who doubted her along the way. But she believes this kind of disincentive is still prevalent and damaging, ‘particularly for girls’. The lasting impression of comments like her lecturer’s can be the difference between someone choosing to work in STEM or not, she believes.
Thomas proved her male teachers wrong when she finished her Bachelor of Science with honours at the top of her class. At age 20, she returned home to Johannesburg to complete her Honours year. There were nine students in the program, and eight of them were girls. ‘It was an unbelievably unusual situation,’ she explains. ‘It was 1971. Our teachers were all men, but we formed a really strong cohort of women supporting each other.’
‘I went up to this lecturer outside the maths department and said “I would like to study mathematics as my major.” And he said “I don’t think you should; it’s really, really hard.” To this day I remember how that felt.’
In those 12 months – while the political climate of South Africa spiralled into greater and greater dissent – something special happened to Thomas. ‘One of my professors said “Doreen, if you work really hard, you might get a scholarship to Oxford. You should consider doing your PHD.” So I ended up working night and day and topping my year. I was given a gold medal, which was sponsored by the CSIRO, and a scholarship to Oxford. It was the most amazing thing. I wasn’t the best or brightest, but I was the one who continued on. There was a deep love, a willingness to learn and to work really, really hard.’
At Oxford, Thomas found her calling with the brightest mathematical minds from around the world. In her first year she met her husband; upon their graduation in 1977, he was offered a position at the Alfred Hospital and she accompanied him to Australia. Thomas has now spent four decades at the University of Melbourne, where she has climbed the ranks to become the first-ever female Head of Engineering.
Unlike Rosalind Franklin, the protagonist in Photograph 51, Thomas has lived to witness many of her breakthroughs and successes, including the creation of a fellowship in her name, exclusively for women in STEM. She also chairs the STEM Education Forum at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
Answering the unanswerable with physics
For Suzie Sheehy, Senior Lecturer in Medical Accelerator Physics, the quest to find answers to unanswerable questions inspired her career as a pioneering researcher. As a young student ‘in physics, I started asking questions like “how does that work?” and when I found the answer was “no one knows”, that really hooked my interest.’
A quote from Leonardo Da Vinci – ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ – reminded Sheehy of why she should keep going. ‘I see physics as the most basic of the sciences: using mathematics and physical concepts to build up our understanding of the world. For example, the concept of resonance crops up everywhere, from building bridges to the sound a wine glass makes when you clink it to the stability of particle beams in particle accelerators.’ In other words, physics is all around us, and for those prepared to break down its mystique, it offers simple, sophisticated answers to why things are the way they are.
Like Thomas, Sheehy had educators who inspired her interest in STEM. ‘I had a wonderful science teacher [in primary school] who would run little weekly competitions to build and engineer or design things.’ The challenge captivated a young Sheehy and in her final year of primary school, alongside her identical twin sister, she won a scholarship to grammar school for her secondary education. ‘My school was right on the beachfront and as I grew up with so much sunshine, I became interested in solar energy. For years, I took part in a competition to design and race miniature solar-powered cars.’ This inspired Sheehy to understand basic electronics and to start thinking about a future in science.
Scientific solutions to real-world problems
Sheehy’s experience at university differed from Thomas’s (and Franklin’s). She joined the Physics Students’ Society and ‘definitely felt welcomed and encouraged’, she says. ‘I felt at home.’ What compelled Sheehy to keep going, however, was the application of her solutions to real-world problems. ‘My job involves understanding and designing particle accelerators – enormous machines designed to manipulate subatomic particles. This field brings my love of basic physics together with the capability for real-world applications: I’ve been involved in designing accelerators for cancer treatment, for next-generation energy sources and for new scientific facilities.’
Amongst Sheehy’s career highlights, apart from the completion of her PhD in physics at Oxford University, was winning a Royal Society University Research Fellowship that allowed her to build an independent research group, and ultimately a new lab. ‘Feeling like I finally had a lab of my own was definitely the moment where I felt I’d “made it” in science.’
‘Biological differences, lack of interest or the fact that women have children – none of those reasons explain the enormous differences. We have to do some serious self-reflection about the culture that creates this imbalance.’
Despite feeling she had access to all the same opportunities as her male peers, Sheehy acknowledges the massive inequity when it comes to women and men in STEM. ‘Unfortunately this really is a hangover from history,’ she says, ‘coupled with persistent social and cultural biases. I’m not an expert, but it is not a simple answer. I can tell you what it isn’t, though: biological differences, lack of interest or the fact that women have children – none of those reasons explain the enormous differences. We have to do some serious self-reflection about the culture that creates this imbalance.’
At the end of the day, Sheehy says, if something really fascinates you, you should go for it regardless of ‘pressure from people’s biases and stereotypes; that is their problem, not yours.’ It was Rosalind Franklin who pioneered the technique of crystallography, Sheehy continues, and by doing so helped us discover the structure of DNA. Today we use particle accelerators to generate very intense high-energy X-ray beams to do crystallography. ‘As a designer of particle accelerators, there’s a nice link there between her pioneering work and my own.’
Like Thomas, Sheehy believes role models inspire change and a future in which more women are graduating with degrees in Science and Mathematics as well as finding and keeping jobs in the STEM sector. ‘There are so many careers you can have in STEM,’ Professor Thomas says, ‘you can work in medicine, banking, finance, superannuation, engineering … the opportunities are endless.’
In the same way Rosalind Franklin did before them, Doreen Thomas and Suzie Sheehy will continue to pave the way for all future women scientists.
See Photograph 51 at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, until 14 December.
Published on 12 November 2019