Episode 10: A STEM of advice

We’re back! After a brief hiatus, we’re proud to unleash our series finale: A STEM of Advice. It’s our most jam-packed episode yet, featuring tips and tricks from almost every guest we’ve interviewed so far.

Our guests will take you through their greatest STEM achievements - and their greatest failings - in order to prepare you for your own upcoming adventures. Still unsure about a career in STEM? Feeling worried about your studies? Fear not - these reactions are normal, and will soon pass. If you don’t believe us, just listen to Amy Shepherd, or Grace McKee, or Ellen Sandell...well, you get the picture.

Then, three of our reverse-engineers are back to dish out the FYIs for your future STEM-studying self.

This episode’s reverse engineering is presented by Erin Grant, who will uplift you with her high-flying facts on helium.

Catriona Nguyen-Roberston: Hello? Is anyone here? Andi? Where is she…?

I guess I have to host this episode by myself...how we do these things again?

Hi Secret Life of STEMsters - um, this is Catriona Nguyen Robertson here. Currently I am writing my PhD thesis. In this episode we’re concluding our STEM series with some vital life lessons from some of the pro’s in the field…

Andi Horvath: Catriona! I’m sorry I’m late!

Catriona: Oh, hi Andi. Thank goodness - I was worried I was gonna have to host this thing all by myself!

Andi: Fear not - your science advisor and co-host Dr Andi Horvath is here! But then again, I’m confident you would have been fine taking over the reigns. After all, the pathway to STEM success won’t always work out as planned - sometimes you’ll get thrown in the deep end and forced to find your own way. Just like Chloe Stuart, an In2Science Mentor from the University of Melbourne.

Chloe Stuart: There were a lot of things we were asked to do that, say, in the early days I had never done before. Even simple stuff like use a microscope that I was just totally unsure of, and my initiative to do stuff wasn't amazing either. Like I had spent my life waiting for permission to do stuff from people but then we just go straight into an environment where we have to do all this ourselves, and we have to find the various equipment around the lab. Maybe I should have been better at asking questions to my peers. So maybe that's another piece of advice. Don't be afraid to ask your fellow students what's going on, if you're not sure.

Andi: Catriona, what’s something you wish you had asked when you were starting out in STEM?

Catriona: Andi, I wish I had asked someone how to best find mentors to help me figure out where I’m going in the field and how to get there.

Andi: Catriona that’s a really good one! Today you’ll hear from a selection of mentors - hope one of them resonates for you. This is our last official episode of our STEM podcast journey - I think it’s time to reflect on everything we’ve learnt so far.

Catriona: We’ve talked about what STEM can do for your career, how to turn it into a living, how STEM influences and improves society, and why STEM themes appear again and again in popular culture.

Andi: In this episode listeners, we’re seeing you off into the future with some advice. To get the ball rolling, let’s hear from some of our reverse engineers who’ve featured in this series.

Josh Cake: I think some of the best advice for surviving university can be found in the theme song for the animated film, Zootopia, sung by Shakira: Try Everything. There are many pathways that you can take at university, and the course that you choose at first may not be your favorite thing, and it may not be what you eventually want to do. So go and look at other lectures, other clubs, and societies. Sit in on anything you can if you're curious about it. And you might find that you have more passions and talents than you previously realized.

Erin Grant: I think it's really important to remember to stay open minded to the opinions of others. You never know when you could be learning something really interesting from an unexpected place. And listening to others is also an essential part of solving problems. Constructive conversations don't happen unless both sides are genuinely listening to each other. And I think it's a principle that applies to any situation, whether that be in science, or in your personal relationships, or even in government.

Rebecca Vincent: I like to live by the phrase, keep moving forward, which I first discovered through the Disney film, Meet the Robinsons. There's a scene in the movie where Louis is showing his invention to the Robinson family, but the machine fails and Louis is devastated. The Robinsons, however, respond unexpectedly. They shower Louis with praise and encouragement. Robinsons see failure as an essential step when it comes to learning. They don't let failure stop them and they keep moving forward. We all want things but often don't want to put in the work that's required to get those things. We might not have the discipline, or we fear what others might think of us when we fail, but don't shy away from discomfort. Learn to embrace it and remember that if you stick with it, it's going to get easier because you will be growing stronger.

Andi: Remember Buffy Gorrilla, one of our producers? Well here she is interviewing Amy Shepherd, a recent PhD graduate.

Buffy Gorrilla: Would you have any advice that you would give to your year 10 self?

Amy Shepherd: Chill out. It's gonna be fine. I was very stressed. I was really worried about everything. Like “oh I didn’t do that well on that test”. I wish I had had an appreciation for a good work/life balance. I was actually in a band in high school, and I really loved it, and I was kind of like, "Oh, well this will never lead anywhere," so kind of in my last year of high school, I really backed off that. I was like, "I need to focus on getting a real career." But I really enjoyed it. I should've done more of that in my free time. So, I think maintaining your hobbies and maintaining your friendships are just as important as studying, because having a good work/life balance means that you're in a better state. You can't study for 12 hours a day, because your brain doesn't work. So, you need to go play basketball, or play the guitar, or paint a picture, like those hobbies really help your brain kind of reset, and then you can come back to study. So, having a better work/life balance I think is what I would go with.

Catriona: Next up is Grace McKee, Founder of Sisters in Science - you heard her speak in episode 5.

Grace McKee: Trust your gut a lot more. If something feels off, it is. If that's a boy that you have a crush on, if something doesn't feel right, if you feel like he makes you feel bad, he is making you feel bad. Or if your parents are putting too much pressure on you, if you feel like that, that's what's happening. The same with friendships, if something doesn't feel right in your gut, trust it. Because you're the person narrating and creating your own pathway, not the people around you.

Andi: Here’s Ellen Sandell, who is the scientist politician from episode 3.

Buffy: And what advice would you give your year ten self?

Ellen Sandell: Just stick at it and follow where your curiosity takes you and don't worry if you don't know the end point. I think that's the best advice I can give people. My careers advisor in year 10 gave me some very good advice and she said, "Look, you can always pick up other interests later on, if you want to study history or society, but actually, you need a formal training in science if you're going to keep that door open to you." So she very much encouraged me to stay with science and maths because her view was that if you drop it in year 10, 11, 12, it's very hard to get back into and you need that formal training each year for the next year. You're always building year on year.

And so she said, "Whatever you do, yes go and do other interests, but always keep that stream of science and maths in your formal education because it opens so many doors to you and even if you don't know ... if you don't want to be a mathematician, even if you don't want to be a physicist or a chemist or a biologist, just having that scientific knowledge will open so many doors to you." And that's exactly what it did and I'm really glad that I took her advice and stuck with it.

Georgia Aitken-Smith: Myself, I would say continue doing what you're doing, and just to follow where your passion is. I think that's a really important thing, a lot of people get very worked up about trying to pick a career, which is the best career. It might pay them well, or it might be what their parents want them to do, and things like that, but I generally say that you should pick a career because that's what you want to do, and that's what you love. I think that I'm very fortunate to be in a position where I wake up most mornings, and actually want to be in a lab every day, and I'm excited about those experiments that I'm going to do, so definitely what I would say to younger people, just do what you love.

Catriona: That was Georgia Aitken-Smith, otherwise known as Some Blonde Scientist - you heard her in episode 2.

Andi: Catriona, have you heard this famous Mark Twain quote: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” - Is that you too ?

Catriona: Absolutely. Like Georgia, I love going into the lab every day - it’s hands on, it’s fun and I get to work with people I like.

Andi : That’s so great that you like the hands on thing … like all things we like doing, including jobs, it doesn’t mean it’s not still hard work and challenging - and this is a good thing!

Catriona: Yes, and it’s time for some more advice to our year 10 selves. You’re about to hear Sarah Hanieh and Mary Mathias, from episodes 1 and 4 respectively.

Sarah Hanieh: I would say, "Believe in yourself." I didn't have much confidence back then. I was a very shy girl, and didn't believe in myself a lot. I would tell myself that everything is going to be okay. Everything is how it's meant to be, so just enjoy life, give it everything you have, and everything's going to work out.

Mary Mathias: I think it's important to remember that things are going to be hard, but you know, with hard work, you can get through it. And if you're interested in something, just run with it, you know? See what's out there.

Buffy: That is excellent life advice for everyone, not just year 10s.

Andi: Remember Leah Heiss from episode 4? Here’s her nugget of wisdom for you.

Dr. Leah Heiss: So, when I talk to year 10s, I think what's really important, is to question what you might like to do long-term, but not necessarily so focused, as in, "I want to do this course, or that course." It's really kind touching base with your values, and the kind of person that you want to be. You might want to work on human health projects, and think in order to do that you need to go and do a public health degree or become a nurse. But I work on human healthcare projects every day, and I'm a designer. So if you are interested in a bigger area, which might be human health, or it could be anything really. Then start to look at the broader perspectives, and the broader ways that you can do that, particularly if you're a creative person. You don't want to park your creativity at the door.

Andi: Creativity is just as important in Science, as it is in the Arts. Creativity leads to innovation and new ideas that become possible solutions.

Catriona: What an amazing array of perspectives. Hey audience - what was your favourite piece of advice? Are you following any of that advice right now?

Andi: I sure could have used the advice “career re-invention will be the norm” ...Let’s hear from some of our young reverse engineering scholars, Rebecca Vincent, Josh Cake, and Erin Grant.

Rebecca: The best advice I would like to give for surviving uni is...explore what's outside of your degree. Focusing just on your degree is okay, but the truth is your degree alone does not really prepare you for the rest of the world. To do that, you need to go beyond your degree. So get involved with as much as possible. Universities offer clubs, societies, festivals, symposiums, and as a union student, you often get access to all of these for free. By getting involved, not only is it a fantastic way to make friends, which can be difficult to do in a uni, but it's also a way to get out and explore, discover your passions, which will help you immensely with career decision making. It will shape you into a well-rounded person and make your university experience much more fulfilling.

Josh: I like the advice ‘seek help when things get too much’. There's a lot of stigma around seeking help, whether that's seeing a GP for a mental health plan and going to a therapist, or seeking financial aid, or attending academic support sessions. However, all these systems and opportunities for help were put in place because someone realized that they were necessary. There's no shame in seeking help. In fact, you're making the world a better place when you make yourself better by seeking out help.

Erin: I think an important thing to remember is that you're not the only person who's anxious. Leaving high school and becoming an adult is a huge change in everyone's life, and it opens you up to lots of new things which are really exciting, but they can also be quite scary. So chances are you'll have periods where you experience anxiety. And one way to stop it from becoming too overwhelming is to remember that everyone else is probably feeling really similarly to you. Everyone sort of just makes things up as they go along, and it's okay to be a bit anxious. However, I would also say that there's a difference between being a bit anxious sometimes, and anxious all the time. And if you're finding that you're anxious all the time, then don't try and deal with it on your own. Unis have psychological services and you should definitely take advantage of them if you need you. Just having someone to talk things over with who doesn't know you can make a really big difference.

Catriona: Thanks Josh, Erin, and Rebecca!

Andi: Catriona, as mentioned this is our last official episode to the Secret life of STEM series...

Catriona: A little bird told me you are planning at least one bonus episode.

Andi: Ah you’re on to me, it's true! The team have been following around some Engineering and maths students. You will love this bonus episode.

Catriona: So let’s party, we have delved into the Secret life of STEM and it's not a secret anymore! Nor should it be.

Andi: Yes let's part-ay! I’ll start blowing up the sustainable biodegradable balloons...

Erin: Hi my name is Erin Grant, and I’m about to start my first year of a PhD in biosensing with The School of Physics at the University of Melbourne. My favourite science questions exist at the intersection of different types of science, like physics and biology, because I think that’s where the most interesting, messy stuff happens. For example, here’s a fun question: why does inhaling helium make us sound like a cartoon chipmunk?

Everyone has heard the funny change that occurs when you breathe in some helium from a party balloon. And please don’t try this at home it's actually quite dangerous. But have you ever stopped to wonder why exactly it has this effect?

The first step to understanding how it works is to explain why our voice sounds the way it does. Essentially our vocal cords cause air to vibrate in our throat. All sound is a vibration, where the particles in the material through which the sound is moving, travel backwards and forwards.

If we think about our throats, they’re essentially a tube right? A tube filled with air. To simplify the scenario, imagine we have a vibration where the air particles move from one end of the tube to the other, in a certain amount of time. The particles can’t leave the ends of the tube, but they can make the trip more or less quickly. If they’re fast then we hear it as high-pitched, and if they’re slow, then the sound is low-pitched.

There are two ways you can change the pitch of the sound. Firstly, you could vary the length of the tube. For example, making it longer means the particles have further to travel in each vibration. This means that the vibrations happen over a longer time so the sound is lower pitched. This is actually why instruments such as a trombone and flute sound so different.

The second way you can vary the pitch is to swap out good old air for something more exotic. Here is where helium comes in. Sound travels through a gas at a characteristic speed that is related to its weight. Air is made of mostly nitrogen and oxygen, which sound can move through at roughly 340 m/s. Helium, on the other hand, is light so it can vibrate more easily. In fact, sound can actually travel at 927 m/s through helium!

So, if we breathe in helium particles, hypothetically, they can now complete their vibrational journey in roughly one third of the time it took air particles. Meaning suddenly, the pitch of our voice has increased a lot! We’ve gone from a normal sounding human, to a squeaky chipmunk in a single breath.

If we could breathe in a gas that was very heavy, such as Krypton, the vibrations would move more slowly, and we’d sound a bit like a whale. But! It is very important that we do not do that. Breathing any gas that isn’t air can be dangerous because it’s like holding your breath. The human body runs on oxygen, but if we’re filling our lungs with helium, we can’t take in the fuel we need. So, while it may sound fun, we should probably just stick to mobile apps for all cartoon transformations.

Good luck with your science adventures… I love this app, it makes me sound like a chipmunk. He he he heh! Did that laugh sound silly at the end?

Andi: Well, we certainly hope you listeners will keep sailing onwards and upwards in your STEM studies.

Catriona: And if things ever get tough, don’t forget to breathe!

Andi: Just don’t breathe in helium…

Catriona: Here’s the TL:DR on the advice featured in this episode.

Andi: Wait, what’s TL:DR??

Catriona: Oh Andi, you’re just like my mum...TL:DR stands for Too Long, Didn’t Read!

Andi: Oh I get it! But shouldn’t it be Too Long, Didn’t Listen?

Catriona: Let’s not split atoms over it…

Amy Shepherd: Chill out. It's gonna be fine.

Grace McKee: Trust your gut.

Chloe Stewart: Don't be afraid to ask your fellow students what's going on.

Georgia Aitken-Smith: Do what you love.

Mary Mathias: See what's out there.

Leah Heiss: Start to look at the broader perspectives, and the broader ways that you can do that, particularly if you're a creative person. You don't want to park your creativity at the door.

Erin Grant: It's okay to be a bit anxious.

Sarah Hanieh: Believe in yourself.

Ellen Sandell: Yes go and do other interests, but always keep that stream of science and maths in your formal education.

Josh Cake: Try everything.

Catriona: Time for some credits!

Andi: Thanks to everyone who shared their stories in this episode of the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Thanks to my co-host, Catriona Nguyen Robertson.

Catriona: And thanks to you Dr Andi Horvath, our resident science advisor and host extraordinaire.

Andi: You are most welcome! But we were good teamwork, Catriona. Woohoo!

Catriona: This episode was produced and edited by Silvi Vann-Wall. With additional production support from Buffy Gorrilla and Arch Cuthbertson.

Andi: The Reverse engineering segment on Helium was by Erin Grant, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall.

Catriona: You can explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne has on offer by visiting study.unimelb.edu.au - we’ll pop a link in the show notes.

Andi: From all the producers here at Secret Life of STEM, Buffy Gorrilla, Silvi Vann-Wall and myself, Dr Andi Horvath, thanks for listening - we wish you all the best in your STEM journeys!

Andi: Shhh...that was the Secret Life of STEM, but it’s not a secret anymore!

Andi: Thanks for the STEM-ories...oh wait, there might be a better song to go out with…

Catriona: For giving them to us!


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