Women in STEM

  Last updated February 1, 2018 at 1:44 pm


About 2.3 million working Australians have qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – but fewer than one in five of them are female. It’s something the University of South Australia is determined to change.

Women make up 47 per cent of STEM teaching staff at the University of South Australia, so at face value, UniSA appears to be doing well in gender equity.

But it’s not the full picture. At UniSA – as with others across the country – women are less well-represented at senior levels. Eighty per cent of senior professors in STEM at Australian universities are men.

Working hard to address that gap, UniSA has joined an Australian pilot program to improve the promotion and retention of women in STEM.

The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program is a partnership between the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and is the first Australian trial modelled on the highly successful UK Athena Swan gender equity accreditation program.

The program rates gender equity policies and helps to develop ways to promote and retain women and gender minorities.

In this feature story, we profile a handful of UniSA’s outstanding female staff and graduates who through their work are really pushing the boundaries and in doing so, delivering significant benefits for society.

Meet the female game changers in STEM.

Professor Yan Zhuge – Re’tyre’ment recipe for concrete good for the environment

The concrete industry is one of the largest producers of carbon dioxide, creating up to five per cent of man-made emissions worldwide. In the meantime, it’s estimated that about 56 million car tyres are discarded every year, with most being sent to landfill, posing a range of environmental and health risks.

What if these two environmental challenges could be tackled at the same time?

UniSA Professor in Structural Engineering Yan Zhuge believes they can – and she is working on technology that uses recycled tyres to make concrete.

“Concrete is a mix of cement, sand, aggregate and other additives,” she says.

“If you add some waste materials to the concrete, it becomes green concrete.”

Prof Zhuge and her team, including Chief Investigator Professor Julie Mills, are using an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant to examine how best to include ground-down recycled tyres to make green concrete.

“Tyres make landfill difficult and it is a huge problem. We aren’t going to be able to throw them into landfill forever.

“The tyre companies are thankfully now shredding them down to a tiny size so we can use them in concrete.”

With industry partners Tyre Stewardship Australia, Tyrecycle, South Australian based companies ResourceCo, FMG Engineering and Ancon Beton, the team is making progress in partially replacing sand in concrete with crumbed rubber from recycled tyres.

They use the green concrete for domestic construction such as house slabs.

“Although slightly weaker than normal concrete, residential houses don’t have high stress requirements and the durability and long term benefits are good – so it works,” Prof Zhuge says.

“Cement is very bad for the environment. During the production process, it releases a lot of greenhouse gas and carbon so I try to partially replace cement with some other waste products with the same bonding stress but which are better for the environment.”

Prof Zhuge’s career was heavily influenced by a childhood experience in her hometown of Beijing.

At 12 years old, she lived through an earthquake with the largest death toll of any in the 20th century. The 1976 disaster killed more than 650,000 people and caused widespread damage.

Prof Zhuge decided she would follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a civil engineer to design stronger structures so people wouldn’t die as easily.

With the profession rare at the time, and her mother being one of the first female civil engineers, she decided to study a bachelor and masters degree in civil engineering, at age 18.

In 1990, aged 25, Prof Zhuge travelled to Australia – her first time on an aeroplane – to study IT in Brisbane. She worked in all sorts of jobs to make a living for herself before finally settling at the Queensland University of Technology as a part-time research assistant.

It was here she started her PhD (earthquake response of masonry structures) on a scholarship before being offered a lecturing role at UniSA with only one other female in engineering (at the time), Professor Julie Mills.

From 1996 to 2008 Prof Zhuge paved the way for female staff and students at UniSA.

“With many staff retiring, we had to find our own way to balance the demands of teaching with a passion to build our research careers,” she says.

Prof Zhuge was promoted twice in a short period of time, and had two children, while continuing her commitment to teaching and research.

She says she received a lot of support from the University with internal and external grants but with earthquakes not being very frequent in Australia, she refocused her research to sustainable concrete.

She briefly went to the University of Southern Queensland and began her research on sustainable green concrete before returning to UniSA as a professor.

She says given that the two major benefits of green concrete are recycling of waste products as part of the concrete mix and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, she hopes to make a big difference to the environment.

With another grant from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), Prof Zhuge is exploring what other people are doing around the world with green concrete, including using other waste products like unused and unwanted mining waste (rocks).

Prof Zhuge is also working on bendable concrete: inserting fibres into the material allows it to bend without cracking.

Dr Miko Yamada – New needle simplifies health tests

At least two in three Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70 and, for a generation of people who spent much of their upbringing in the sun (with little to no protection), monitoring moles and skin is vital in detecting skin cancer early.

Molecular biologist and research fellow at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes Campus, Dr Miko Yamada is working on a small needle device that can collect skin samples much more easily than the traditional biopsy.

“Instead of taking a big biopsy from the skin, involving anaesthetics and a suture, my supervisor, Professor Tarl Prow, came up with a device to avoid unnecessary incision on the face or sensitive areas,” Dr Yamada says.

The microbiopsy device is a small needle that can take 100 to 200 cells to test for skin cancer and other diseases. The device avoids the need to take a 2cm to 3cm piece of tissue which has some resultant scarring.

“The innovation comes from the idea of a diabetic prick. We can take small samples easily so it is great for children and also for taking multiple samples over time to monitor someone’s situation,” she says.

“The standard biopsy includes a significant procedure before looking at the histology and pathology to make a diagnosis. We are not competing with that – we just want to help make it easier. Skin cancer changes over time so this method means we can take multiple samples over a period of time, very easily.”

The device has already proved a possible game changer in underprivileged countries. Doctors from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University have taken 500 units to Africa to use in the field.

“There are a lot of parasitic diseases in Africa and tribes usually can’t reach hospitals,” Dr Yamada says. Researchers at Hebrew University undertook a study on these diseases in northern Ethiopia where they were able to test hundreds of children and adults with the device.

“Researchers used the device to test people for a disease that was causing a lot of problems including ulcers in the skin, mouth and nose and later it presented with fever, low red blood cells and enlarged spleen and liver.

“They were able to take hundreds of samples quickly and easily, then take them back to the lab to find out who tested as positive. It blows my mind how useful it is.”

With skin cancer a more prevalent problem in Australia, doctors can spend up to three to four hours checking a patient’s skin (including moles and possible skin cancers) so Dr Yamada is working on developing cancer biomarkers so the device can take samples and evaluate (and reveal) the results instantly.

“Instead of doing all the skin mapping, you can just click, click, click throughout the body,” she says.

Growing up, Dr Yamada always thought she would be a veterinarian but during high school found an unexpected interest in biology.

“After that I decided I wanted to be in the lab or working with the human body,” she says.

Dr Yamada came to Australia from Japan on a university study exchange program that would help her sharpen her English.

She completed a bachelor (honours) degree in biomedical science, followed by a PhD which looked at the impact of oxygen levels on a baby’s brain in the womb and during delivery. And as fate would have it, she met her husband, married and had children all during that important phase of her career.

With her PhD under her belt, Dr Yamada worked with Queensland University’s Prof Prow who assigned her a clinical trial where she was able to see the real-life, impact of science on people’s lives.

Inspired by basic science applied in reality, she knew this was the area she was meant to be in. With her supervisor’s US connections, a six-month Australian Government Fellowship followed at Harvard Medical School in Boston in 2016.

Researching molecular-based skin cancer during the fellowship, Dr Yamada continued to be inspired to see the applications of her research through her industry partners.

“It was eye-opening,” she says. “I’ve never been so career-focused in my life and at that point, it was something I really wanted to pursue.”

When she returned to Australia, Prof Prow told his team about an opportunity at UniSA with some of them moving into great positions including Dr Yamada’s three-year fellowship.

Dr Yamada is responsible for developing protocols and monitoring research on how well the needle device works and how it can be best used to diagnose patients.

“I want every GP to have one. They can quickly click it and after analysis, tell the patient if they have cancer or not.”

With clinical trials in the final stages, Dr Yamada is monitoring feedback. About 4000 of the devices have already been sold worldwide and it is patented in the US, Australia and Europe.

Dr Yamada is also working with dermatologists and cosmetic companies who can test the effects of their products, before and after, with a simple click.

She says she never thought she would be working on something so important with the potential for global impact.

“I sometimes look and wonder why I am here,” Dr Yamada says. “I really appreciate my boss and have a team of people who are just so passionate about what they do.

“Science is knowledge-based and it’s amazing what we can discover, but not many people know how to use that knowledge to benefit the world. You need lots of money and time. We have a team that can do this from start to finish.”

Dr Yamada says she hopes her team will have significant global impact with the device by the end of her fellowship in 2019.

Dr Shima Taheri – UniSA PHD graduate – Smart concrete could avert disaster

Earlier this year, one of Adelaide’s busiest highways – South Road – had to be closed indefinitely when the tram overpass shifted, throwing debris onto the road below.

Motorists endured four days of peak-hour misery before a temporary fix could be instituted, with a permanent solution to be completed by the end of the year.

But what if the bridge could have told authorities there was a problem months earlier? And even repaired itself temporarily?

Dr Shima TaheriIt’s not science-fiction. UniSA PhD graduate Dr Shima Taheri is working on that very technology.

“By adding sensors to concrete structures like bridges, sewer pipes, tunnels and buildings, we turn them into smart structures capable of sensing, and in some cases, even responding to problems,” Dr Taheri says.

She says it’s like the human pain and healing process.

“When you have a headache, you might need to drink more water or check your blood pressure.

“When you have a wound on your skin, it disappears in a few days without you noticing anything.”

Because concrete is the second most used material on earth after water, and the primary construction material, Dr Taheri wants to give similar healing and ‘pain feeling’ capabilities to such ‘dead structures’.

“I want to add sensors to concrete structures so they can send signals when something is unusual and eventually software that can tell which part of a structure needs urgent attention.”

Born in Tehran, Iran, Dr Taheri now 28, was always interested in experimenting, asking questions and finding answers. Fascinated by science and hoping to become a scientist or doctor, she says always knew she wanted to explore the world of STEM.

She completed a master’s degree in chemistry in Iran before working for a short period on underbody coatings, adhesives and sealants for the automotive industry.

With a hunger for further study in engineering, the government sponsored Dr Taheri’s move to South Australia in 2010. She worked for 19 months before applying to do her PhD at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes campus.

On a mission to combine nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing to combat infections on medical device surfaces, Dr Taheri created a coating containing nanoparticles that could be applied to any type of material surface (metal, plastic or glass, for example).

When the nanoparticles were released from the surface, they lowered the risk or completely eliminated the infection.

“Infections on the surfaces of medical devices can cost money and lives, especially when some people develop antibiotic resistance,” Dr Taheri says.

“Infections arise from bacterial adhesion and colonisation on medical surfaces such as implants, and are a significant healthcare problem. And disinfecting those medical devices or delivering antibiotics to an infected site is also challenging.”

During her PhD study, Dr Taheri successfully developed several innovative procedures, published 11 papers in leading scientific journals and was recently awarded the ‘Best PhD Award’ from the School of Engineering.

Keen to find an opportunity to work again with industry, Dr Taheri secured work in Sydney where she developed a range of tile and joint adhesives and a grout sealer for the construction industry that is now available nationally at Bunnings.

While developing those products, she noticed cracks in concrete with nothing on the market to prevent or heal them so began research to invent a microcapsule system that carries self-healing components similar to the structures in her PhD. Now a Research Associate in Photonics at Macquarie University, she was able to progress her research in this area and is working on new ‘smart structures’, including smart concrete.

She’s currently developing a dashboard to detect abnormalities in underground pipes and eventually hopes to give pipes the ability to self-repair.

Dr Taheri says she also wants to safeguard the integrity of concrete. This would, for example, give a bridge the ability to hold itself when damaged, even for a few minutes, until people can be evacuated out of harm’s way.

“We can rebuild the bridge but a life lost, is lost forever. My aim is to save lives.”

Dr Taheri says she will continue to ask “why not?”.

“We have smart phones, smart homes and smart cars, why not smart concrete?” she says.

Growing up, Dr Taheri wanted to be a Nobel Prize winner.

“I still believe – I mean, why not?”

How to succeed in STEM

Being able to balance work and family commitments and working in a male dominated field, are considerable hurdles for women who choose careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The researchers profiled for this feature story say keeping up with male colleagues, who don’t have to put their career on hold when they have children, is a challenge.

Dr Yan Zhuge says having employers with family-friendly workplace policies, allowing for flexible working arrangements, has been the biggest help in her career.

“Be confident, never give up – you can do it and have the most rewarding career,” Dr Yan Zhuge says.

Dr Shima Taheri says there needs to be a cultural change to encourage more women to work in STEM.

“A female decides to study a subject she thinks she will be more welcomed in when she graduates. When many STEM fields are so male dominated, you can’t expect women to be interested, involved and engaged.”

But she’s confident this will change.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to encourage your children to consider science and maths, all you need to do is support them and find mentors and advisors who can show them the right career path.

“Women need to be brave, curious and do things differently – be open minded. Only compare yourself to you in STEM. You only need to believe in yourself.

“And remember – nothing is gained easily in life and it is never too late to enter a STEM field.”

All three women support female-specific fellowships and mentoring and leadership programs to help female staff present themselves to the best of their abilities and with the greatest chance of progressing in their careers.

They say the most important support for their careers has been family and supervisors who have cared for them and challenged them to dream big.

Dr Miko Yamada says it’s important to choose your boss carefully and make sure he or she has good work ethics that suit you and your needs.

“My boss always asks people, what is your superpower? Everyone has one. Please find your superpower, polish it and grow it,” Dr Yamada says.

About the Author

Georgia Aish

Published By

The University of South Australia is Australia’s University of Enterprise. Our culture of innovation is anchored around global and national links to academic, research and industry partners. Our graduates are the new urban professionals, global citizens at ease with the world and ready to create and respond to change. Our research is inventive and adventurous and we create new knowledge that is central to global economic and social prosperity.

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