Shedding light on chemistry: Meet Laura Wimberger

By Inna Osmolovsky

Laura is a third year PhD student in the School of Chemistry. Her research focuses on photo-switches: molecules that reversibly change their structure when exposed light. These reversible structural changes can be used in the development of smart materials, to activate drug molecules or as energy storage alternatives. Laura’s research focuses on how exposure to light of certain molecules can alter the acidity (pH) level of chemical solutions. Many chemical processes are governed by acidity levels for example the functionality of enzymes in our body. Laura’s research offers a method to externally control such chemical processes with light.

Laura in the synthetic chemistry lab (left) and hiking in the Dolomites (right)

Because light is a renewable resource, understanding how to harness it interested Laura long before she started her PhD. Interestingly, her academic career started in engineering, but after a year Laura understood that this wasn’t a good match for her and despite a lot of self-doubts decided to switch to a degree in chemistry. This proved to be a much better fit for her, she enjoyed studying, met amazing friends, and later decided to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry.

When the time came to apply for a PhD, Laura decided to explore options outside of Germany, her home country. “I literally searched online for “photochemistry, Australia, PhD”, the web page of my current supervisor popped up and I contacted him”. Her, then future, supervisor was very enthusiastic, and this was how Laura came to Australia to pursue her PhD.

Laura presenting a research poster at a conference in Italy

Her day-to-day work varies with the different stages of her projects. New projects usually begin with reading and gathering information, providing Laura with an important background for the next stages. Then Laura starts off with synthesizing new molecules, analyzes how they react to light and develops models based on these measurements. Because Laura’s experiments are unique, involving irradiation while analyzing the reaction, she needs to creatively adapt existing instruments or measurement techniques, as they weren’t built to involve irradiation. She loves how variable her work is and how she gets to experience and learn new skills.

Laura is preparing samples for spectroscopic measurements (left), measuring the pH while irradiating with blue light (right).

One of the most exciting moments of Laura’s PhD was when she discovered that the light sensitive molecules she studied were able to cause a much greater change in pH than what was previously described. This experience was very validating for Laura, helping her to become more confident in her abilities as a scientist and researcher.

But Laura states that research can also be challenging – sometimes an experiment that seems very important and would determine the future of a project doesn’t work on the first go or needs some fine tuning. Laura says she learned to manage her expectations with such experiments – to approach them with patience and view them as a process rather than an end goal. Viewing these challenges as growth opportunities helps Laura to persevere.

Outside of her PhD Laura enjoys rock climbing, hiking, and spending time in nature. These activities help her both physically and mentally and are a great way to recharge from stressful weeks – climbing, especially, motivates her on bad days.

Rock climbing in the Blue Mountains

Laura joined the Women in Maths and Science Champions program to meet fellow scientists, to reconnect and establish a network, especially after two years of COVID. This experience taught her how to become a role model, how to own her voice as a scientist and how to break away from her comfort zone. In her role, she enjoyed finding creative ways to inspire girls to pursue careers in science, and to stay curious.

Follow Laura on Twitter!

Climate science for a better world: meet Rachael Isphording

By Inna Osmolovsky

Rachael Isphording is a Scientia PhD candidate in the Climate Change Research Center at UNSW (affiliated with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes). She studies climate science and climate adaptation. These fields focus on understanding how and why Earth’s climate has changed in the past and how it could change in the future. The research involves close work with policymakers, stakeholders and communities, helping better prepare for high-impact, catastrophic weather and climate events. Rachael’s research focuses on understanding how well high-resolution, regional climate models simulate rainfall across Australia, on one hand. On the other, she looks into how this knowledge can be leveraged to improve stakeholder decision-making across sectors. With the official announcement of a third, consecutive, year of La Niña in Australia, her findings are helping local communities to anticipate, prepare and adapt to extreme rain events.

Her passion for climate adaptation research stems largely from her childhood experiences, living through Hurricane Ivan (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005). Growing up in Alabama, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, she witnessed firsthand the detrimental impacts of extreme events and their impact on the communities around her. For her, it’s not just about understanding how weather patterns and extreme events might change in the context of climate change. As a self-described humanitarian, she’s also driven by the “people” side of climate science: what does it mean for us – society – and our overall well-being? What can we do to make things better for future generations?

Her journey into academia started at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. There, she first aspired to become a pilot and research meteorologist, flying into hurricanes to collect data. During the completion of her meteorology degree, she took an Environmental Security course which changed the trajectory of her career.  The course focused on how climate change affects human security, helping her realize where her passion truly lies.

During the completion of her bachelor’s Rachael interned for the NASA DEVELOP Program. She was partnered with decision-makers in ‘Mobile (Alabama) Area Water and Sewer System’ company. Her role involved helping to predict how the future growth of the city could affect the local drinking water reservoir. This directly affected water quality for the local community, including Rachael’s grandparents. Rachael was empowered by the fact that the results of her research—as an undergraduate student—would inform actual decision-making to help her local communities.

Sadly, not all of Rachael’s experiences in academia were positive. After graduating with her bachelor’s and interning with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Rachael pursued a PhD at a U.S. university. The working environment during that time wasn’t very supportive or healthy. Despite her impressive achievements and dedication to pursuing a career in science, she started to lose confidence in her abilities and struggled with her mental health. Rachael realized how toxic the environment was and bravely left the program with a master’s degree.

What helped her through this difficult time was a group of fellow graduate students; they supported each other through the tough times and continue to support each other to this day. They also were the ones to encourage Rachael during her challenging job search following the completion of her master’s degree. After nearly a year of rejections, she was finally offered an internship with a defense contractor at NASA. This internship helped rebuild Rachael’s confidence in herself and her abilities. The program also helped her to remember her lifelong dreams of becoming a scientist and using her knowledge to help people. After completing this program, Rachael returned to the DOE where she worked for over two years. This was when she applied and was accepted into the Scientia PhD program at UNSW, researching climate change and water security – her dream research.

A picture says 1000 words! Rachael studies rainfall across Australia

Nowadays, a typical day in her life—while not traveling abroad for exciting workshops, conferences, and collaborations—includes exploring how well regional climate models simulate rainfall and how rainfall patterns across Australia may change in the future. She works with local stakeholders to understand the challenges they face and determine how climate information can help to inform their decision-making.

While traveling to South Africa for a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Workshop (September 2022), Rachael worked with fellow climate scientists, Nicholas Herold, and Jorge Vazquez-Aguirre, to help sector leaders from different African countries analyze historical climate data to include in their climate adaptation plans

Understanding rainfall is surprisingly complex – where will it rain? For how long? How much rain will fall, and when? What are the diurnal rainfall cycles? What will rain patterns look like during extreme droughts? Or extreme rainfall? For her research, Rachael is analyzing over 1 terabyte of observational and climate model data. To manage the analyses of such large quantities of data, Rachael works on the Australian supercomputer.

Rachael presents her research at the Swiss Climate Summer School in Grindelwald, Switzerland (August 2022)

Rachael says that she is very grateful to have found such a supportive research department and supervisors at UNSW.  Her all-female supervisory team is a major source of inspiration and encouragement for her as she continues to grow and learn, professionally and personally. She also takes full advantage of being a PhD student – acknowledging that she is still learning and embraces asking others for help to expand her skillset and expertise.

In her role as a Women in Science and Maths champion, Rachael hopes to inspire other women and young girls to pursue careers in STEM. She hopes that by telling the story of her unique career path—the hardships and successes— she would help others to embark and persevere through their own journey of realizing their dreams. Rachael hopes to inspire young girls to believe that their only limitation is their own ambition.

Follow Rachael on Twitter!