Women in Maths and Science meets SciX: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity in STEM

By Elizabeth Haris

For the third year in a row, UNSW has delivered a successful Science Extension (SciX) program to senior high school students passionate about science—and this year, some of our PhD champions got to take part!

SciX@UNSW is a summer school developed for high school science students to extend their understanding of the scientific method. Developed in collaboration with high school science teachers as a response to the Science Extension Syllabus, students take part in their own scientific research, developing a hypothesis, analyzing data, and presenting their findings. As well as learning technical lab skills like mathematical modeling, programming, and statistics, students also learn transferable skills like planning a project, collaboration, and critical thinking. And of course, one important aspect in all these things is a deeper understanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

A few of us PhD champions were involved in a panel discussion aimed at facilitating a conversation about the critical importance of EDI to progress in STEM. We took part in a discussion on issues surrounding open science, diversity, and representation in science, which is something particularly important to us as champions for women in maths and science.

Though open science creates enough conversations in its own right, it is imperative that there are EDI practices across all aspects of science to enable science to be completed, published, and accessible to all. Introducing students to practices that enable the production of reproducible science—open code, deidentifying and sharing data, transparent research practices—is crucial at the beginning of their science careers to create good working practices. Yet just having good working practices isn’t enough to make science accessible to all. Students were also introduced to the practices still making science inaccessible (e.g., pay to publish articles and pay to read articles), and how this affects society at large. If we can’t make science accessible to all, we risk making it elitist and unrepresentative of society at large. But if we can facilitate a discussion about the inequities in the accessibility of science at the beginning of these scientists’ careers, then hopefully they can help create the change we need to see.

The SciX EDI panel featuring UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champions Elizabeth Haris, Suki Jaiswal, Savannah Minihan and Charuni Pathmeswaran

The other important topic of the session was the representation of minorities and women in STEM, primarily centered around a 2012 video by the European Commission titled, Science, it’s a girl thing!. A dismal attempt designed to entice high school girls to pursue careers in science, this video simply reinforced stereotypical gender cliches of men as ‘serious’ scientists (i.e., in lab coats), and women wearing high heels, short skirts, and makeup, and just posing and giggling. Allowing students the opportunity to discuss their thoughts on the video and on the representation of women in STEM in general, brief discussions were held surrounding gender stereotypes in science, women entering science and staying in science, and why it’s important to have diverse perspectives in science. It is exactly these kinds of issues that need to be at the forefront of these students’ minds when entering STEM fields: not only are they the ones these issues will affect, but they are the ones who can help change the system. If we empower students at the beginning of their science careers to stand up for representation in science, then hopefully one day we can all benefit from such a rich and diverse STEM environment.

As champions in maths and science, it was a pleasure seeing these young minds critically engaging with issues crucial to the progress of EDI in STEM through the SciX program. Fostering such an understanding of EDI in the next generation of scientists will not only allow for more inclusive science practices, but also create a more diverse population of compassionate, kind, and caring individuals in STEM and in society at large. Something from which we could all benefit.

Thought psychology was just for psychologists? Think again…

By Savannah Minihan and Elizabeth Haris

When you think of a psychologist, perhaps you picture them sitting on an armchair, face-to-face with a client, notepad in hand. This perception of psychology is not an uncommon one, but it is not entirely accurate either. And it is especially unrepresentative of the diverse research areas represented by the 2021 psychology Women in Maths and Science PhD Champions. From analysing the relationship between brain connectivity and mental health (Elizabeth Haris) to studying decision-making (Octavia Soegyono), visual neuroscience (Jean Hsieh), adolescent mental health (Savannah Minihan), and the mental health of pilots (Corrie Ackland), we each have unique perspectives and experiences.

In early September, we spoke to 60 current UNSW psychology undergraduates about our experiences prior to our PhD, our current areas of research, and our goals and aspirations. We wanted to inspire them to continue their careers in science, because science can take you anywhere.

Read on to learn more about our journeys and the insights we have learned along the way 🙂

(Pictured left to right – Octavia, Savannah, Liz, Corrie and Jean)

How did you come to do a PhD in Psychology at UNSW?

Octavia: I majored in psychology but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go in life so I applied to honours. The experience of working on my project was great and, although I was unsure about the topic initially, I really enjoyed learning about lab-based research.

Savannah: Prior to starting my PhD, I worked in an anxiety and trauma research group. This experience instilled in me a passion for translational clinical research. When the opportunity arose to complete a PhD at UNSW, focused on the development of novel interventions for mental health difficulties in young people, it seemed like the perfect fit.

Liz: I had started a PhD in the UK in basic neuroscience, but unfortunately was not passionate about the research, and knew I couldn’t continue with it for 4 years. So, when the opportunity to do a PhD in clinical neuroscience in Australia came up, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  

Corrie: I am a clinical psychologist and have been working in private practice for 10 years. As part of this, I work with clients who have a fear of flying, which puts me in a flight simulator for a few hours each week. This unique combination of clinical psychology and aviation experience made me a perfect fit for a research opportunity that came up right when I happened to be pondering a return to study. It seemed too serendipitous to pass up!

Jean: I completed my honours at Flinders University in Adelaide. My honours supervisor had collaborated with my current PhD supervisor, so once I decided to apply for a PhD, we had a chat. I really enjoyed our first meeting and so decided to do a PhD with him at UNSW.

What kind of research do you do?

Octavia: My research focuses on understanding the neural mechanisms which underpin our ability to make decisions and how impairments to these mechanisms may result in making suboptimal decisions. I do this by targeting and manipulating specific brain regions using newly developed neuroscience tools in combination with behavioural testing.

Savannah: My research investigates cognitive, emotional, and social processes that influence young people’s mental health. The idea is that we then take insights from this work to design novel mental health interventions, such as gamified cognitive training.

Liz: I work in clinical neuroscience, investigating the neural mechanisms underlying PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The connections of the part of the brain we know is a key player in all these disorders are still unclear. My research focuses on investigating these connections to determine the differences between disorders so that we can provide more accurate diagnoses and more targeted treatment options.

Corrie: My PhD is in aviation psychology; specifically, pilot psychology during COVID-19. I aim to gain an understanding not just of the psychological symptoms pilots are experiencing, but the possible vulnerability and protective factors.

Jean: My PhD project is about how colour and contrast influence our perception of faces when perceiving age. My project uses passport photographs of Australian citizens as naturalistic stimuli to improve our understanding of age perception and how it is performed in real-world tasks.

Where do you see yourself after your PhD?

Collectively, we are all just riding the PhD wave: enjoying the research experience and seeing where it takes us. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned about research, it’s that while it’s important to have a plan, flexibility and uncertainty are part of the package. But with so many great fellow scientists with whom to share the experience, we’re all having one hell of a journey.

If you’re keen to follow our work, check out our links below –

@ElizabethHaris @jeanyjhsieh @o_soegyono @SavannahMinihan