Episode 2: Future proof your career

In this episode, we discuss the importance of maths in building your foundation for career success. We also demystify getting into the university course you want, and learn what to do when an unexpected career opportunity arises.

In this episode of The Secret Life of STEM, you’ll hear from creative robotics students at the Los Angeles-based Marlborough School.

Listen in if you’re curious about prerequisites and flexibility in university courses, and discover how university can offer experiences (like volunteering) to fine-tune your communication and leadership skills. These are all assets for future you!

Sure, you can plan a solid career direction, but what about unexpected surprises? Should you guard yourself against them, or throw caution to the wind?

It’s very likely you will work in many different jobs, and have career changes that definitely will not go to waste. Our advice? Be comfortable with the chaos of career development. Oh, and pick up some mentors along the way to help make sense of things!

Also in this episode: Josh Cake, a recent science graduate, explores irrational numbers in Reverse Engineering.

Josh Cake: Hi, my name is Josh Cake. I am a musician and comedian who trained as a maths teacher. This is a story about irrational numbers and murder.

I love pie – the food and the number. Picture a circle: we're going to take two measurements – the distance around the edge, the circumference, and the distance across the middle, the diameter. The circumference of any circle divided by its diameter equals pi. Regardless of the size of the circle, the distance around the edge divided by the distance across the middle is always a little more than three. If you're in high school, it's about 3.14. If you're a nano scientist, it's about 3.14159265. People memorize thousands of digits of pi for competitions because it's a number that goes on forever. It can’t be written as a fraction, that’s what makes it irrational.

Since pi appears wherever there are circles, scientists use it every day. Whether you're studying the structure of the eye or planning a flight path around the globe, pi will be part of your calculations.

One of the earliest users of pi in computing was as a random number generator. A computer doesn't know how to think of a random number the way a human can because computers don't imagine, they follow instructions. So, to get a computer to give you random numbers, you can simply instruct it to keep calculating digits of pi and you'll achieve the same results.

Pi goes on forever and the digits that it creates are random. So, it serves as an endless random number generator. I know you're all waiting for this maths to turn into murder, so I won't keep you any longer. The fact that some numbers are endless is useful to us now, but it was controversial when it was first proposed.

Let's jump back to around the year 500 BC. Pythagoras of Samos was an influential intellectual in ancient Greece. He believed in a rational world where everything could be turned into numbers and written down. His motto was, "All is number." Enter Hippasus of Metapontum: he was a part of Pythagoras' school of rational numbers when he discovered the existence of irrational numbers such as pi – numbers that go on forever. Since irrational numbers are endless, they cannot be written down. This meant that Pythagoras' core tenet, that everything could be quantified and written down, was untrue.

Hippasus showed Pythagoras what he had found and Pythagoras was so very upset that he took Hippasus to a river and drowned him. Podcast production assistant Silvi says: “talk about irrational!”

Despite his death, his idea of irrational numbers gained traction and 200 years later, they were universally accepted.

So the next time that you use a GPS on a map or enjoy a randomly created setting in a video game or use a wheel or a ball or any kind of lens, remember Hippasus of Metapontum, the person who gave us irrational numbers and lost his life for it.

Good luck with your adventures in science, Knowledge of science counts in so many ways when it comes to your career and the future of our world.

Rebecca Vincent: One way to future-proof your career? Study maths.

Buffy Gorrilla: That’s what some of the top talent we spoke with suggested. Math is a gateway subject, the door opener…it’s better to do it now, because it is a lot harder to pick up later. And if you want data from an expert, like the STEM aficionado you are becoming, here’s Dr Maddy Yewers, an ecologist, a bird lover in her spare time, and a member of the In2Science Team at the University of Melbourne.

Dr. Maddy Yewers: We know that by 2030, there will be 77% more time in any job using science and maths. So there's going to be a reduction in routine manual tasks and increasing time with people, problem solving, and creative thinking. Which are all important elements of STEM.

Rebecca: But if I am sitting on the fence about maths, what should I do?

Maddy: Maths. Maths matters. Maths is the language of science. So important for any discipline. It's so important for new areas and new jobs that are coming up. We're living in a data driven world. So we've got to be thinking about how best to navigate that using mathematical language.

Rebecca: In thisepisode of The Secret Life of STEM, we will arm you with ways to set yourself up for STEM success through university and as you transition to the working world. This could be a grab-a-pen type of episode. My name is Rebecca Vincent, I am fourth-year Bachelor of Science student, and I major in Environmental Science. Producer, Buffy Gorrilla, and I, will be taking you through this episode.

ABC Reporter: A report by Engineers Australia has found that Australia is unprepared for an advanced technological economy because of a drastic shortage in students taking up the hard sciences - and the science community is warning that we need to address this now. From Melbourne, Danny Tran reports.

Danny Tran: Australians, it seems, are being set up to fail in a future where science and technology will feature heavily.

Chris Stoltz: The new economy - we’re going to need smarter, more technologically oriented people to compete in the future. We’ve heard the prime minister talk about the role of innovation, but this needs highly trained, skilled engineering schools. And if we don’t have them, then we don’t compete

Danny: Chris Stoltz is from Engineers Australia. A new report from the organisation released today has found the number of secondary school students taking up the hard sciences, like physics and advanced maths, continues to plunge.

Chris: The numbers are still going down in both sectors - male and female. Fewer and fewer people are studying the subjects that are gonna set them up for an engineering career. And we see that, as I said, as devastating and it’s time we did something about it.

Danny: The report comes only a day after the federal government released the National Science Statement, which affirms science as critical to Australia’s growth and economic success. Kylie Walker from Science and Technology Australia believes there’s a solution.

Kylie Walker: There’s an urgent need to invest very strongly in equipping the teachers that are already in our schools to better teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so that when their students graduate high school and move on to university, they’re equipped to do those high level science degrees. It’s not going to wait for us - the innovation economy is not going to wait for Australia. If we don’t do this now, other countries will, and in fact already are, and we will be left behind.

Buffy: This a news report from the ABC’s World Today from the 23 Mar 2017 but the message is even more relevant today. This idea of future-proofing and preparing for a STEM-based world is happening in schools all over. I visited the Marlborough School - an all-girls institution in Los Angeles - for a peek inside.

Arabella: Hi. I'm Arabella, I'm a senior at Marlborough School. This is Curiosity's robot, so this is one of the four teams we have at our school. We have two upper school and two lower school teams for Robotics.

Buffy: And you built this robot?

Arabella: I helped to build this robot. We have about 15 people per team, so we all contribute to building this robot. And what's interesting about our teams is we in fact design a lot of the robot by custom forms, so we use a program called Onshape and we design a lot of the parts. For example, all of the wood has all been custom designed by us and laser cut. We also have two 3D printers, so a lot of our parts are also 3D printed on the robot.

Buffy: How did you come up with the initial design for this robot?

Arabella: We have a quite extensive design process. We work with FTC Robotics which is a robotics company that produces a game every year, and so we watch the game video and then figure out what strategy we wanna do and then design the robot according to that strategy.

Buffy: What is the ultimate goal of the robot? Is it its movement? Is it its design?

Arabella: We want the highest scoring robot we can possibly do. A lot of the scoring is based on an autonomous period, which is a pre coded period that's supposed to do a series of tasks in 30 seconds, and then after that pre coded autonomous period, it's Teleop. We have two drivers controlling the robot. I'm actually one of the drivers for this team, and so this particular game, we're trying to get minerals out of this lander and score them into ... Sorry. The minerals are in the crater, and we're trying to score them in the lander. We're trying to get those over that bump, and then into here.

Buffy: You're trying to get some Wiffle balls and some yellow cubes into like a basket?

Arabella: Yes. We have that challenge of having to get them over the lip of the crater, and then being able to sort them into the correct hole.

Buffy: There it goes! The gold cube is going in. And it went in! That’s fantastic. Thank you.

Arabella: Yeah of course.

Buffy: I leave Arabella to prepare for a field trip she helped organise to the Google Los Angeles campus. It’s part of her role on the Student STEM Committee. Arabella is clearly hooked on STEM. I ask Darren Kessner, one of the co-heads of the STEM+ Program at Marlborough School about their approach to teaching STEM to young women.

Darren Kessner: What I found is different about a classroom full of girls is that they're very interested in the lesson. There's no discipline issues. They're listening to the teacher, and they wanna create something. So we can create this environment where they're supportive of each other and they enjoy it and they have fun, whether it's doing robotics or computer science, and I think that's really what it's about.

We have two big programs in STEM+. We have the Robotics Program, where we have four teams this year. It's been a growing program. We have fifty of our students involved, which is almost 10% of our school. Two of those teams are just seventh and eighth graders.

In addition to the Robotics Program, we have a Computer Science curriculum that we started about five years ago. But really, it's focused on computer graphics and video games and just creating, the creative aspects of it, which our students already ... They have a strong math and science background, so we like to let them have a little fun and just use that strong background to create things that they want to create.

Buffy: You know I heard Julie Feest, the CEO of the Engineering Development Trust in the UK say “to close the STEM skills gap, there is a significant role for businesses and schools to link activities, to give young people an insight into STEM industries.” And that’s what Marlborough and other community organizations around the world are doing.

Rebecca: It’s impressive how STEM and maths is the future.

Buffy: Yes, but some of the stats about STEM jobs and their role in tomorrow’s employment are too important to gloss over.

Rebecca: I heard that in the USA, STEM experts have estimated they need to fill an around 9 million jobs in the industry by 2022. I imagine it is similar across the world.

Buffy: In episode one, we introduced people to the range of career trajectories and some of the off-the-beaten-track places a STEM job may take you. But before you get a STEM job you need a STEM degree, and before you think about a STEM degree you need to think about STEM at school.

Rebecca: There are reports there is a steady decline in participation rates in physics, chemistry and biology at Year 12, particularly females. So STEM jobs will increase but students studying it are decreasing.

Buffy: Governments and future employers are worried. It’s an economic thing, and has social consequences too.

Rebecca: So true. And here’s Steph Wilson, a recruitment officer at the University of Melbourne with some thoughts on what it takes to get into a STEM program at Uni, or at any uni really.

Steph Wilson: It depends on the graduate course that you’re applying for, and where you might be applying to for that course. At the University of Melbourne, you would be applying to one of our undergraduate courses with your ATAR that you achieve in your high school, as well as prerequisite subjects that are necessary for some of our courses. And you’d find that would be the case for a lot of universities in Australia.

Buffy: What are some of those prerequisites that year 10 students should be thinking about, if they want to go into a STEM undergraduate degree?

Steph: Good question. And the big one is Maths Methods, which is a Victorian VCE subject, and there’s equivalents for that interstate as well, and internationally too. But meeting the maths requirement is a big one for our Bachelor of Science, and Biomedicine, and some of our other courses. And if you’re looking at sciences in particular, it’s great to have a science in Year 12. So, a prerequisite for our Bachelor of Science is a Year 12 science subject, so that’s biology, chemistry, or physics.

Buffy: And if you don’t do that maths subject, is there any way around that?

Steph: It is absolutely a must. There are some online subjects you can do, and one is taught by our maths and stats team at the University. So you can do that and use that as a bridging course to get in.

Buffy: And how do you decide which uni you want to apply to? What tips do you have?

Steph: Yeah, it’s so important to go out and check out these places for yourself I think. So coming on campus - and there’s lots of opportunities to do that, all universities have open days and events where you can come on campus. So that’s a really good one, to make sure that the campus feels like somewhere you wanna be, ‘cause you’re signing up for probably three years, maybe even more at this place, and you wanna make sure it’s the kind of environment you can see yourself being in. But, also talking to current students, ‘cause you wanna know that student perspective of what it’s like studying at an institution. So, talking to current students is really helpful too, or anyone you might know that has been to that uni - great source of information.

Buffy: And how about our international listeners who might be interested in coming to UniMelbs – how did they make that application?

Steph: So, it’s an online application, you apply to us directly if you’ve got international results, and you would submit your most current results – whether it’s from your high school in your home country, or if you’ve got a tertiary qualification in your country, you send those through to us and we will assess your application.

Buffy: Thanks Steph. Great stuff. Now you’ve landed that coveted spot, hopefully at one of your top uni choices. Unis are packed with resources, but how do you help yourself narrow it down?

Dr Georgia Aitken Smith: When I finished year 12, I knew that I loved science. I really had a passion for it. I was really interesting, but I didn't necessarily know what careers you could have in science, so when I first started my degree at Latrobe University, I did a Bachelor of Biotechnology and Cell Biology, so it was basically a Bachelor of Biology Sciences, and I started that degree just knowing that I like science, and not necessarily with a strong career trajectory or anything like that, so I kind of just pursued that pathway and ended up in research.

Rebecca: That’s Dr Georgia Aitken-Smith, a.k.a Some Blonde Scientist where she posts life-in-the-lab pictures on Instagram. She’s using her influencer status to showcase being a blonde female, wearing a lab coat and being a powerhouse researcher.

Buffy: Alright, so you know you like science. How do you narrow down which course to actually do? At the University of Melbourne, it says: 1 degree, 40 majors - what does that mean, and how do you even choose? Here’s Steph Wilson again.

Steph: Yeah it can be a daunting number to look at, can’t it? So, one degree - that one in particular, referring to the Bachelor of Science, that means when you graduate you’ll have a Bachelor of Science if you’re in that degree. But as part of that bachelor’s degree you’ll have a major, which is what you complete, and that is an area of specialisation that you have developed in your undergraduate degree. And that means you’ve taken a certain number of subjects that are focused in a particular area. So, you’ve got a level of expertise in your major, but also through the Bachelor of Science you’ve got a lot of flexibility to explore your options and that sort of thing before you settle on that major.

Buffy: And how do the students go about exploring those options?

Steph: Yeah, so the way that our degrees are structured are so that when you come in, in your first year, it’s a Bachelor of Science for example, it helps if you’ve got a rough idea of which areas of science you’re interested in, but if you don’t that’s completely fine. So, in your first year you’ll take some subjects that could lead to a number of different majors in the degree. So, if you’re interested in physical sciences, or if it’s biological sciences, your first year subjects will lead to majors within that area.

Buffy: With the Melbourne curriculum, does that allow a ‘try before you buy’ scenario?

Steph: Yeah, in a way. So, the way the degree is structured is to be quite flexible so that you don’t commit to your major from the get-go. So, you don’t need to have that set in your mind. It means that you get to ease into that area and field of study in your first year subjects and first year studies – and if you don’t like them, then that’s your opportunity to change directions within your degree. So, you don’t have to drop out or re-enrol in another degree, you can change that direction once you’re here.

Rebecca: Congrats - you now have a better idea how to get into STEM at Uni and you have landed on a curriculum that suits your interests and career aspirations. So when you think about your career prospect, there’s Warren Frehse - he’s the Senior Advisor in Careers and Employability, here at the University of Melbourne. But Warren, what does that actually mean?

Warren Frehse: It means a lot of things. It means mainly helping students or guiding students towards picking up employability skills while they're studying and when they're finished their degree, help them navigate the big wide world of work.

Buffy: Did you realise you can start thinking about exploring your career options now?

Warren: As a year 10 student, what I used to do, and I think it was very helpful, is just have a look at the university open days. Because they come up once a year and the universities spend a lot of time and effort putting all their resources and students there. That way you can talk to academics, you can talk to people in the student clubs, and understand what campus life is all about – but also be very curious about what's going on around you. Read extensively, look at the media. What are the things that are coming up all the time? We hear about SpaceX, going to Mars. Well, a one way trip I believe.

Buffy: And once you are on campus, here are some solid ways to start adding to your experience.

Warren: Volunteering is very important. A lot of volunteering opportunities on campus. With a volunteer, you can actually become part of a group that you can get involved in. There are interest groups, for example. If you're interested in astronomy, if you're interested in biomedicine, there are clubs and student associations that you can get involved in. Once you're part of that, you might decide to become part of the committee, so you can get on there and become a treasurer or a secretary, or a president. You're actually playing those roles and with those roles you gather leadership skills. You gather the ability to be able to talk to other people in different areas, and different cultures. They're things employers love, and once you capture those skills and put them on a resume later, that's fantastic.

Rebecca: Getting involved in campus life leads to wonderful networking opportunities which brings us to this concept of happenstance, a.k.a serendipity, random surprises or chance events. Happenstance is a concept popularised by Professor Krumboltz from Stanford University.

Warren: What it means is that you control the situation to the extent that you would like to attend something, or go to a meeting, or networking function, but not really know what the outcome is going to be. To be comfortable with ambiguity, and to be comfortable with uncertainty, so what happenstance provides is that you may go to that function and meet somebody who has a connection with somebody who could lead you into a job that you really like. The idea of happenstance is it's not fully planned, but things happen as a result of you being in particular areas.

In some ways, it's been called a chaos theory of career development, because in many ways, careers are in this chaos zone. It's very difficult to plan things, with a future that's quite uncertain. To be comfortable with that, but understand that every job you do, every step of the way, you're picking up skills you can take into your next role and that's what's really important about happenstance and being able to look for those opportunities.

Rebecca: Thank you Warren…And for an example of happenstance in action, look no further than Dr Amy Sheppard who had some self confessed chaotic career development that led to her pursuing a PhD.

Amy: I kind of just followed my nose, so I really enjoyed undergraduate. I ended up doing an honours degree. And then after my honours degree, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do a PhD and I ended up falling into a scientific job. It was meant to be a three month part time summer internship, and it turned into a two year full time job. And while I was there, I was working with PhD students and it really became pretty clear to me that I wanted to lead my own projects in science, and the way to do that is by a PhD.

Buffy: One way to prepare for your career is getting yourself a mentor. Dr Georgia Aitkin Smith, of Some Blonde Scientist fame, is a fan of finding mentors. Here’s how she made the approach.

Dr Georgia Aitken-Smith: whenI was at a conference one time, I was very inspired by this woman's talk. Her name is Misty Jenkins, a very incredible woman she is. Yeah, so I just approached her after the talk. Every conference I go to, I always make sure I try to connect and speak to one professional, one leading scientist, and I spoke to her, and we just kind of clicked. So, I tried to email her, and organized another one on one catch up, and just from then our relationship has really developed, and now it's gone from someone who I really look up to, and who was quite unfamiliar, to a really solid mentor, and now we've gone from a mentor to a more friendship, which has been really good.

Buffy: What do you think the purpose of having a mentor in science is?

Georgia: You need to have a mentor. No matter how old or how young people are, you need to have a mentor. You just need that because you need someone to support you, to give you advice, and guidance, and be able to reflect on your experiences with you, so I find it really important that my supervisors, even though they may be 30, and 40, and 50 years old, they all have mentors, and some of them are older than them. Some of them are younger than them as well, and it's also good to have adversity. For example, male mentors, and female mentors, and things like that, 'cause everybody will provide you a different perspective.

Rebecca: STEM success can come in so many different forms, sure there are the Nobel Prize winners, TV scientists, Professor X , award winning Dr. Y, but there are also people like...

Dale Baum: My name's Dale Baum. My job title is a laboratory manager and I come from the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne and I'm public schooled.

Buffy: That’s right, a lab manager. And Dale has a special set of skills that most likely mean he will always have a job - he’s future-proofed himself!

Dale: The lab manager does all the boring, tedious stuff that other people shouldn't have to bother about. We do a lot of the licensing, so for example, we're working in high level containment laboratories, so we have to do government licensing and registration for those spaces. Some of those licenses last long term. You only have to apply once.

For example, the group I'm working with at the moment, they're working a PC2 laboratory, which stands for physical containment laboratory, and that means they can only use particular microbes, which need to be behind closed doors, basically. Their licensing lasts for about five years. They're working on genetically modified organisms to use in the oral environment, so in someone's mouth, to help treat dental cavities, holes in your teeth.

Rebecca: With his STEM background and his experience, Dale has built on his skill set, reinvented himself and always found a new job when he was ready for his next career adventure.

Dale: For me, I always like a challenge, and I guess that goes back to once I finished high school ‘what do I want to do and how am I going to be entertained long term? I don't want to be washing dishes till I'm 65’. For me, I get to a point in a role, after about two or three years, where I understand it, I know most of what's going on, and I enjoy it. I've improved things as much as I can within that particular area or the type of work I do, and then I just start getting a bit restless and I want to look for another, bigger challenge and something else to improve.

Buffy: And what does Dale have to say to people whose aspirations are different to those of Nobel Prize winners?

Dale: The people who get Nobel Prizes don't go out to get Nobel Prizes. They're just really passionate about what they want to do and why, and mostly they just want to improve the world or the environment or people's health, and they just really love doing what they're doing. They've consistently got good, new, creative ideas, so that's adding the A for Arts into STEM, so you call that STEAM. For anyone who's getting or interested in science or wants to pursue a career in science, it's always a challenge but there's always something new and it's always the cutting edge. It's always different to an office job, whether you're in business ... you can still be in business and do science, but it's always evolving and always changing and it's hard to keep up sometimes, but there's never a dull moment. It's always interesting.

Rebecca: People have also said we need our educational system to engage students with issues of ethics and responsibility in science and technology. STEM learning centred on the humanities and arts is really useful. After all, technology is about meaningful services to humanity

Buffy: So true, Rebecca. And just because you’re passionate about a subject in high school does not necessarily mean you need to stick with that passion to the exclusion of everything else. Here are some more wise words from Warren Frehse.

Warren Frehse: You can come into a university course, and you can study a particular area like science or arts, whatever it might be, and those interests can change. By the time you finish first or second year, you might say, "Oh, look I really don't want to do that anymore. I'm sick of art history, I want to do something more science, or I'm even thinking of medicine."

The university allows that idea of making changes, maybe from about second year onwards, to change into different graduate courses later. I guess The idea of what I'm trying to get across here is don't be so rigid or feel that it has to be all very planned. Because when you talk to people in the industry, they look back and say, "Look, I had lots of different changes in my life" and that's likely to happen to students today, and very much so because the foundation for young Australians is predicting that a 15 year old today will potentially have 17 different jobs over five careers.

Buffy Gorrilla: Wow. What a statistic. Do you think it's possible to over plan your career trajectory?

Warren: I think so, yes. I think you can get very hung up on that. I remember when I was a student, I was trying to work that out, too. It can be quite frustrating, and it can be a little bit daunting to not know exactly what you want to do. But that comes in time, and through the experiences I just talked about, that clarifies what you like doing, and what you don't like doing.

If you join a committee and you didn't like it, it's not a tragedy. You just move on and say, "What did I learn from that experience? What can I take into my next experience?"

Rebecca: Thanks Warren - that’s a perfect throw to the next episode!It’s doesn’t matter what you choose because all your STEM experience is valuable and can be the launching pad for your next amazing career - think journalist, patent attorney and even a politician!

Buffy: Thanks for listening to the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne.

Rebecca: Time for some credits! Thanks to everyone who shared their stories.

Buffy: My co-host for this episode was Rebecca Vincent - many thanks Rebecca

Rebecca: You’re welcome! Reverse engineering segment on irrational numbers was from Josh Cake with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall

Buffy: This podcast is produced and edited by me, Buffy Gorrilla

Rebecca: The supervising co-producer and scientific advisor is Dr Andi Horvath

Buffy: Additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson and Chris Hatzis. Thanks everyone!

Buffy: Yep

Rebecca: Oh ok yep

Buffy: Great! I think we’re good!


  • Staff and students from the Marlborough School in Los Angeles
  • Dr Maddy Yewers, Ecologist and member of the In2Science Team at the University of Melbourne
  • Steph Wilson,  recruitment officer at the University of Melbourne
  • Warren Frehse, Senior Advisor in Careers and Employability at the University of Melbourne
  • Amy Shepherd, Neuroscientist
  • Dale Baum, Laboratory manager
  • Dr Georgia Atkin-Smith, a.k.a Some Blonde Scientist, science communicator

Links to supplement this podcast


  • Host and producer: Buffy Gorrilla
  • Guest Host: Rebecca Vincent
  • Supervising Co-producer: Dr Andi Horvath
  • Assistant producer: Silvi Vann-Wall
  • Additional editing support: Arch Cuthbertson



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