Space invaders and their success: meet Zoe

Zoe is a third-year PhD student at the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, focusing on invasive plant species. Her research involves a lot of fieldwork in a range of environments, spanning 6 countries and 2 continents. She comes to university excited and motivated every day, and is a fantastic role model for women in STEM.

Zoe’s current work

Zoe’s PhD is investigating the success of introduced plants in Australia and the factors that contribute to their growth and spread throughout the continent. She studies the effect of animals that eat them, insects that colonise them and their pollinators in an effort to understand whether they are similar in Australia compared to their native range in Europe. This work follows the idea of the enemy-release hypothesis – that the plants have left many of their “enemies” (ie. bugs and animals that eat them) behind in Europe and no longer have to spend resources defending themselves or regrowing eaten leaves.

Zoe has travelled around Europe and Australia collecting samples and data for her work. (Pictured left: Saving a shingleback lizard from becoming roadkill in Canberra. Pictured right: Collecting invertebrate samples in Tartu, Estonia.)

Zoe’s university story

Zoe started a bachelor of science degree, but didn’t really hit her stride until second year when the subjects became specialised and she discovered her passion for biology and genetics. Zoe decided to pursue a major and subsequent honours in biology, answering the broad-scale questions like whether possessing heterogametic sex chromosomes led to shorter lifespans. The open-endedness of honours appealed to her, where she was able to apply her genetics interest and biology passion from undergraduate courses combined with novel areas like ecology to solve a big question. Her honours work was later published and received a lot of media attention.

An artist and role model at heart.

When graduating from high school, Zoe decided to pursue science at university, but still likes to do art as a hobby. She particularly likes abstract art, impressionism and cubism – the art that requires interpretation.

Alongside her art hobby, Zoe has a passion for outreach – involving herself in many programs and activities where she can help inspire younger students to pursue STEM.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork!

Zoe’s work involves lots of travel and international field work, which can be a problem when it is to non-English speaking countries. Working through this required support from a team of people in each location, and really highlighted the importance of not being afraid to ask for help, and helping others when you can.

Pictured: Zoe and her colleagues at the CSIRO European Laboratory in Montpellier, France.

Zoe’s advice for students considering STEM

If STEM is something you enjoy, don’t worry about job prospects or career paths, just try it out! As long as you like what you do, you will stay motivated, excited and passionate about wherever it takes you!

Keep up with Zoe by following her Twitter @zoexiro or visiting her website

A marine biologist with a passion for coastal management: Meet Thay

By Charuni Pathmeswaran

Thay is a marine biologist investigating the impacts of the 2019/20 Black Summer fires on estuaries.  Prior to pursuing her PhD in Australia, she completed her Honour’s and Master’s degrees in Brazil. She has worked on projects involving population dynamics, primary productivity, taxonomy, and ecotoxicology, with a special interest in coastal management.

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What sparked that initial interest in marine biology for you? 

I knew from a young age that I wanted to become a marine biologist. My family didn’t believe me at the time, because kids keep changing their passions. But I kept saying I wanted to become a marine biologist. I grew up by the beach. My dad would always take me to the ocean. I would spend hours picking stuff at the beach. I was always fascinated by the ocean and life underwater. The more I learned the more I loved it.  

What excites you most about your work? 

This project excites me a lot because of its applicability. We had previously collected data from these estuaries. So, when the fires happened it gave us an opportunity to do an impact assessment. I like to know that I am working on something that is very important. I like the whole field of coastal management. I like the job of an environmental scientist, looking at the impacts of our activities on the environment. And learn how we can minimize that. This is what motivates me to do my work.  

What do you find most challenging about the work you do and how do you tackle it? 

My current work involves a lot of chemistry, and this is not within my expertise. I did a bit of chemistry for my undergrad, but my background is primarily in marine biology/ecotoxicology. One of my supervisors is a chemist and he has a lot of experience in the area. So, he has been guiding me well.  

What does a typical day look like for you? 

This depends on which stage of my project I’m in. Last month I had a lot of field work to do. On such days we would spend the entire day out in the field. We were four women driving massive trucks and towing boats around the NSW coast. Even our boating officer is a woman. It was very exciting! Very long hours in the field with a lot of heavy work is then usually followed by lots of lab work. Then statistics and writing, as well as attending workshops and conferences. It’s very dynamic and we get to do a little bit of everything.  

What are your interests outside of science? 

I love spending time by the water, especially at the beach. I am currently learning to surf here in Australia. It keeps me in the water. You put a wetsuit on and meet new people. I’ve been learning it for the past two months and I’m really enjoying it!  

Words of advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM? 

GO FOR IT! I can assure that you won’t get bored. You discover something new every day.  

What are you most proud of in your career so far? 

Doing my PhD in Australia. By the time I started my undergrad I had decided that I wanted to do my PhD overseas. That was a really challenging goal to achieve because English is not my first language. I was always fascinated by Australia. Now that I am here, at a great university and with great supervisors, I could not be happier. I am also grateful for all the facilities and resources available for supporting my research.   

What would you like to see change in the future for women in STEM? 

I would like to see more women in top positions. I was very determined to have a female supervisor and it’s being very important to me to have them as role models.  I want to see more women in higher positions especially in developing countries, like in my home country Brazil.  

Post-PhD plans?  

When I arrived in Australia, I thought 4 years was a long time and I hoped I would like it. I can safely say that each day I love it even more. I have decided that I want to stay in Australia. Hopefully, working as a scientist on a project excites me. 

Follow Thay on Twitter