Episode 1: Where Can STEM Take Me?
In this episode, we talk to Frances Separovic, who dropped out of uni for a while, but retained her curiosity and keenness to learn and is now a professor of a chemistry department.
Like most things in life, careers don’t always have a clear and straightforward path. Meet Frances Separovic, who was from a poor migrant family, dropped out of uni for a while, but retained her curiosity and keenness to learn. Time jump to now, and she’s professor of a chemistry department. You just never really know what you are capable of, and sometimes you have to follow your nose and just take the opportunities as they happen.
Also in this episode: software engineering student Yu Ting Lin explains skin pigments in Reverse Engineering. Maybe one day outer space will be just another workplace destination - but before you reach the stars, you’ll need to STEM up.
Sound effect: A whooshing, billowing Antarctic gale.
Buffy Gorrilla: Hey Josh, can you guess where that sound is coming from?
Josh Cake: A windy bus station?
Josh: An industrial freezer?
Josh: A wind tunnel in a cold country?
Buffy: So close! It’s coming from Antarctica...it’s just one of the places a career in STEM can take you. We’ll hear from some of the scientists and non-scientists who went on an Antarctic adventure in this episode and more in this series.
Josh: Before we go any further I think we should introduce ourselves - so who are you…?
Buffy: Such a good point. I am Buffy Gorrilla - I am a producer on this podcast. But I’m wondering, who are you?
Josh: I am Josh Cake, I am a former science student now turned writer and performer
Buffy: That’s right everyone, we’ll be your tour guides on this around the world and across the spectrum look at where your career can take you - in this episode of The Secret Life of STEM.
Josh: We polled high school students and you voted, and you named this podcast: The Secret Life of STEM.
Buffy: If we can give you one thing during this podcast it’s to plant the seed of your future prospects - you can really work anywhere, maybe even outer space. Think big. I know, that sounds so cheesy.
Josh: It does! But sometimes cheesy works and even cheesy can be solid life advice.
Buffy: I know, it’s true, but what if a trip along the Drake Passage, the waterway between the Southern tip of South America and Antarctica, could be a metaphor for your career path?
Dr Helen Wade: So, we are in the middle of the Drake Passage. We're heading back from Antarctica back up to Ushuaia. We're in the middle of the ocean. It's a little bit stormy. There are some six to eight meter waves, but we just got hit by a big eleven meter wave that knocked us really quite firmly sideways. Everyone fell over. We can hear the wind gusting outside. And actually it's really surprising. We haven't seen very many birds. So I don't know whether they have moved away from the storm, or if they're just sitting tight. But we haven't seen very much wildlife this time, but it's quite choppy. So I think it will be quite difficult to see whales.
INTERVIEWER: How does this compare to the first Drake crossing we did on the way here?
Dr Helen Wade: So, the first Drake crossing on the way here, I was seasick for most of it. So I spent most of it in bed. This is much more enjoyable, because I've managed to get on top of my meds. But I think this is way worse. The spray just flying over the front of the ship. Huge whitecaps, massive waves. And I feel like I'm on a massive, giant surfboard.
Buffy: That’s life for Dr Helen Wade, a participant from Homeward Bound, an organisation whose tagline is “Mother Nature needs her daughters”, and I think that’s pretty clever. Plus Dr Wade’s description of rocky seas and gusting winds…the career parallels write themselves.
Josh: Let’s see where else STEM careers have taken science types. Let’s meet some adventurous souls.
Dr. Sarah Hanieh: My name is Dr. Sarah Hanieh. I'm a early career research fellow working at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. My background is in pediatrics. I was trained as a pediatrician in pediatric infectious diseases. At the moment, I'm working in the area of research, mostly concentrating on child malnutrition, working in indigenous communities, as well as doing some global health.
Buffy: And Dr Hanieh knows for global health, emphasis on the global.
Dr. Sarah Hanieh: When I got into pediatrics and I realized that I was really interested in, I guess global health, or trying to work in more resource poor settings. I set myself a goal of wanting to work for Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF. I knew to be able to do that, I would have to work in aboriginal communities and aboriginal settings to get some more exposure to more challenging work.
So I did that. I went up to Alice Springs, and also to Darwin, and spent some time up there, and then applied to work with MSF. I was really, really excited. It was just like a dream coming true. Of course, my parents weren't so excited, when I told them I'm going to Ethiopia for a year, and I'm going to be working in a tuberculosis program.
We were providing medical care to people that were semi-nomadic population in the Afar region in northeastern Ethiopia. It was right out in the middle of nowhere, eight hours from Addis Ababa, living in little tents.
I also worked in Liberia. That was also very challenging, because it was just after the civil war, so Liberia was completely destroyed. Just talking to the people - for example, you would ask someone “how are you?”, and they would say “I’m okay. For now.” It was always, you can’t look into the future because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Buffy: That’s dedication to making a difference.
Josh: Let’s meet Dr Theresa Jones, a senior lecturer in the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne.
Dr Theresa Jones: I do research, and I research into the ecological impact of artificial light at night, so I look at what happens when we flood our cities and our environments with light.
Josh: Tell us more, Dr Jones.
Dr Theresa Jones: I work on boring brown insects that live in amazing places. So for my PhD, I was in Brazil for a year studying a little tiny fly. That was fantastic, I got to see the Amazon, I got to stick my hands in the Meeting of the Waters, so for me that was just, it was on my bucket list. I worked in Hawaii, I studied again a little brown fly that lived halfway up a volcano on Maui. And so I've travelled to Sweden, I've travelled to Indonesia. A whole range of different animals are found in the most amazing places, and so I work on animals that live in the most amazing places.
Josh: Wow! That’s some next level adventuring - this certainly may not be for everyone.
And by the way, the Meeting of the Waters is where the dark Rio Negro and the pale sandy-colored Amazon River meet.
Buffy: Thanks Josh, I didn’t know that. Other people we spoke to went on research trips or to conferences in even more places, Japan, Canada, South Africa, Germany, the United States, and the list goes on. But perhaps the opportunity to get out of town just isn’t for you. And that’s okay. Amy Sheppard thought “maybe I should”, but then ...
Amy Sheppard: I was actually originally gonna go over to England, which is where the people who invented this technology were, but the funding fell through and then I kind of was just Googling, looking at other neuroscience projects, and I kind of stumbled across the University of Melbourne and they were using that same technology. And here I am now.
Buffy: Do you ever regret the decision of not going to the UK or abroad?
Amy Sheppard: Not really. I mean, it was...I went to visit my friend, who's at the university now, and he finds it quite hard. He's like, "England is cold and grey," and Melbourne the weather's more like home, but warmer, which is great. I really love it here in Melbourne. And I think in science, it's not necessarily missed opportunities. It's not like, "that one would've been so much better." I'm really happy here and I don't regret missing ... At the time, there was about a month where I was like, "my life is over. Everything is terrible." But now I'm really, really happy and I wouldn't change it for the world.
Josh: That sound means we have come to the reverse engineering portion of this podcast. In this episode Yu Ting Lin, a University of Melbourne student studying software engineering, helps us unpack the science of everyday things . In this case Yu Ting explores the geographical differences in skin pigments.
Yu Ting: Hi everyone. My name is Yu Ting. I'm a first-year software engineering student, and I love coding because I get so much satisfaction from solving bugs in programs.
Today’s topic is skin colour. We humans are all the same species, yet we have different skin colors ranging from very dark brown to extremely fair - why is that?
Our story starts about 1.2 million years ago when the earth experienced a mega drought that wiped out much of the existing vegetation and forced our furry ancestors to live in dry open landscapes directly under the sun.
The sun, as you all know, produces a lot of heat, and our ancestors with their abundance of thick fur had a new problem: heat stroke. Those with an adaptation of less hair and more sweat glands meant they could keep cool while searching for food and water which meant survival! Over time our ancestors shed that fur.
Now, if we look at a branch of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, you might notice that under their fur is actually pale skin, but pale skin brings along another serious problem, which is the damage that UV rays can do to our skin cells. This is probably not a surprise as it well is known that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer.
Here comes our saviour, a brown pigment called melanin made by cells called melanocytes in the skin. It’s a sort of natural sunscreen that acts as a barrier between the sun and our delicate skin cells. It’s the biology of how you get a tan.
Early humans were constantly under the sun’s exposure, so permanently dark skin would have assisted survival. Then comes the question, why are a lot of us actually quite fair?
The clue lies in geography. About 60,000 years ago, humans started venturing out of Africa and over the course of the next 50,000 years spread over many parts of the continent. While in Africa, having dark skin made perfect sense, in areas further away from the equator such as Canada, it started to become a problem. The reason for this is that although overexposure of UV rays is harmful, a sufficient amount is still needed for our bodies to receive vitamin D.
A lack of vitamin D poses many health risks which were especially prevalent in pregnant women as it could cause poor fetal development and the dark skin we had developed didn't allow enough vitamin D to get through.
This caused many of our early ancestors to eventually revert to a lighter skin tone in order to get that necessary vitamin D that results in a diverse range of skin colours we have today.
Now having listened to this, if you compare your skin color to your friends from the other side of the world, can you find a correlation in your difference in skin color and geographic distribution?
Josh: Thanks Yu Ting. We’ll be hearing more from current STEM students - and this could be you in the future.
Buffy: Whether we are talking where can STEM take you as you ‘pack your suitcase and grab your passport’ kind of way, or where it can take you as you ‘map out your dream career trajectory’, the possibilities are seemingly endless. There’s Dr Frances Separovic, a first generation immigrant, who went from uni dropout and young mother to circle back to become a professor and the head of the University of Melbourne’s chemistry department.
Dr Frances Separovic: Yes, that's quite a surprise to me as well. I came from a poor migrant family; my dad went to first grade, my mom went to second grade. So we had no idea what university was. But the teachers kept telling me that there would be people like me at university. So I was kind of looking forward to meeting people like me 'cause I hadn't met many previously. But I really didn't think that I would be going to university and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, a teacher's scholarship, as well as a Commonwealth scholarship. And I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and the teacher's scholarship paid a little bit more so I decided to take that one. I still cannot understand people knowing what they wanted to do when they were little 'cause when I was a child, I didn't think that I would have a career. I didn't have examples of women with careers, my mom cleaned houses. Women in Broken Hill, once they got married, weren't allowed to work. So it didn't seem to be an important thing. So I thought I would grow up and be a princess, if I was lucky.
Josh: Yes, life is bound to throw you surprises and how we prepare or manage the unknowns is something we’ll continue to explore in episode two. But what if you think you already know what you want to do? The path forward may seem ‘easy’, and it becomes a singular focus like Dr Sarah Hanieh’s.
Dr Sarah Hanieh: I always wanted to be a doctor, so even when I was a young girl. I think because I had my father, who was a doctor. He was a neurosurgeon, and I really looked up to him. Yeah, I just wanted to be like him. All throughout school, junior school, high school, I was concentrated and focused on becoming a doctor, because that was dream to be like my dad. I also noticed that there weren't a lot of female surgeons around, so it was a big dream of mine to become a female surgeon.
I really concentrated and focused throughout school on that goal. I had a lot of people saying to me, "What if you don't get into medicine? What if your marks aren't high enough?" I said, "Doesn't matter. I'll just try again. I'll keep going until I get in." I was lucky enough to get in the first time. It's changed a lot now, so it's not just on your marks, but on other things. But my journey to becoming a surgeon, yeah it didn't actually happen. It kind of got derailed. Not derailed, but I took another path, which has made me even happier I think.
Buffy: Open to the unexpected - that is so good to hear! And sometimes you can use your interests to guide you like Dr Amy Shepard.
Dr Amy Sheppard: I started off when I was doing kind of generic medical biology, but in university I really discovered a love for psychology, and neuroscience is the natural intersection between biology and psychology.
Josh: You may also dabble - a little of this, a little of that until you find what fits. But it seems to all come good in the end. Here’s how Dr Theresa Jones mapped out her path:
Dr Theresa Jones: When I completed my undergraduate, I was quite fortunate and I went on an expedition, a three month expedition to Guyana. So I basically ended up in a rainforest living in a small village that we'd made ourselves, so we were sleeping in hammocks, and we had a latrine that we'd dug ourselves, and we were working on the impact of erode basically, not just any erode, like a 20 metre expanse that they'd cut through the forest. So that was kind of my what I did after my undergrad, and at that point I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. So after that, I worked as a research assistant for a year, and then about halfway through that I realised that actually I didn't want to be doing other people's research, I wanted to do my own research, and that's when I decided to start applying for PhDs, and that's when I started looking around and I found this one that was based in London, which was perfect because that's where I lived and it did fieldwork in Brazil which I thought, "Well that's even more perfect." So that was that one.
Then I floundered, then I went travelling, I just figured, "What do you do?" I did a few science communication jobs after that, so I took some time off and out, and I actually ended up taking two years away, one year because I wanted to and one year because that's how much longer it took me to get a position.
So the science communication was fantastic, it meant that I really got to translate my science into something that I could talk to the general public about, there were science fairs and all, that was really fun.
Buffy: Taking time off - is that really an option?
David: Well my first name's David and last name's Gonsalvez. I'm not really fussed about my title, but I guess it's Doctor, but my job here is, I'm an Early Career Research Fellow at the NH & MRC, so the National Health and Medical Research Council. I'm one of the early career research fellows.
I wasn't one of those people who knew what I was gonna do when I was finishing school. In fact I was thinking about all sorts of different things.
Buffy: What were they?
Dr David Gonsalvez: Thought about taking some time off. Hanging out. Playing some music. Which I kind of ended up doing anyway. My first couple of years at uni were not the way you would classically want uni to go. I was really into music. I played cricket. I was really into playing cricket. I sort of played at the uni for a little bit. What ended up happening was, at uni if you want to do certain things later, there are prerequisite subjects that you have to do. I did biology in first year. I actually didn't like it the first time. I really didn't, it didn't gel with me at the time. I actually left uni after two years of doing uni. I think the first couple of years, I wasn't really quite prepared for everything that was going on. I was really fortunate after taking some time away and actually working and doing full time work and things like that. I moved in with an uncle of mine who was living pretty close to Melbourne, and he actually had a bad car accident. So he's a doctor, a surgeon. He had a car accident that left him quadriplegic, which is really sad and unfortunate. So this is a situation where you damage your spinal cord and then the signals that go up and down the spinal cord are stopped.
And I moved in with him. I was supposed to be helping him a bit, but in the end he was probably helping me more than anything else. He's just a really fantastic person and we got to talking about just science and biology and things like that. I got really interested. It ignited a bit of a passion about how the nervous system works. I hadn't really encountered that in first year biology, because you're learning about all sorts of things in biology, or in physics or chemistry. There was a little bit of neuroscience in year 12, but nothing really. I got really interested, and I managed somehow to get myself back into uni.
Buffy: Once you have lived out of a suitcase and explored the world, it’s nice to know that you can stay home and let the world of STEM possibilities come to you. Here’s Dr Sarah Hanieh.
Dr Sarah Hanieh: Now I feel like I want to settle. I've been trekking around the world for a long time, and for a long time even when I came back to Melbourne, I lived out of a suitcase, because I just felt like I was about to take off somewhere again. That was a really big step for me, to actually take my clothes out, put them into my drawers and feel like, "no, you're home now. You need to put your roots down." Yeah, I never thought I'd find somewhere I want to live for the rest of my life. I discovered Melbourne, and I love Melbourne.
I met my fiancé, and yeah, it's just wonderful to be thinking of planning a life together, and to get to be that team. To have someone there by you. I did all this stuff by myself. I was always the single independent woman, and now I'm going to have someone, yeah, my soulmate, my team partner. It's just nice to feel that.
Buffy: Thanks for listening to the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Time for some credits!
Josh: Thanks to everyone who shared their stories today.
Buffy: My co-host for this episode was Josh Cake - thank you Josh!
Josh: Thank you Buffy! This podcast is produced, edited and hosted by Buffy Gorrilla
Buffy: Well, just this episode. We get some more people in later on. We heard a reverse engineering segment from Yu Ting Lin.
Josh: The supervising co-producer and scientific advisor is Dr Andi Horvath
Buffy: She’s a real doctor!
Josh: A real doctor.
Buffy: Additional production and editing support from Silvi Vann-Wall and Arch Cuthbertson
Buffy: Life of STEM, episode 1, take 1. This is exciting!
Josh: It’s fun. I’m keen.
Buffy: Are we recording?
Guests that appear in this episode, include:
- Dr Helen Wade, Marine ecologist and Homeward Bound participant
- Dr Sarah Hanieh, Paediatrician working in global health and for Médecins Sans Frontières
- Dr Theresa Jones, Ecologist who studies insects in exotic places around the world
- Professor Frances Separovic, Deputy Director Bio21 Institute, and past Head of School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne
- Dr Amy Shepherd, Neuroscientist, works with WISE
- Dr David Gonsalvez, Early Career Research Fellow at the NHMRC
- Yu Ting Lin, Software engineering student
Links to supplement this podcast
- Homeward Bound
- The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity
- Médecins Sans Frontières
- School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne
- School of Chemistry at the University or Melbourne
- National Health and Medical Research Council
- Host and Producer: Buffy Gorrilla
- Guest Host: Josh Cake
- Supervising Co-producer: Dr Andi Horvath
- Assistant producer: Silvi Vann-Wall
- Additional editing support: Arch Cuthbertson
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