Women ecologists provide strength in numbers

Encouraging girls into science is a tough ask, but one that surely benefits from role models. Nationally and internationally there is a recognition of the lack of representation of women in scientific jobs. However, it’s clear that the Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE) is bucking that trend – with excellent female representation in traditional STEM subject areas.

The number of early and mid-career women researchers in Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE) has reached a critical mass. There are currently 62 women in the CIE, out of a total of 139 members, including PhD students.

Their projects aim to build understanding of the interactions between animal behaviour, physiology and ecology, with the aim of explaining the distribution and resilience of our animals and ecosystems, particularly in the face of environmental change.

Many of CIE’s female staff and students also have young families and have had to devise creative ways to balance the challenges of family and work. These have included setting up flexible, part-time working arrangements, engaging in informal support networks, and providing grant and publication reviewing and career mentoring for one another.

The most senior female researcher in CIE, ARC Future Fellow Professor Kate Buchanan has three primary school-aged children of her own and juggles the demands of managing an active research team with a busy household. This can be stressful at times, but CIE’s critical mass of supportive, like-minded female academics reduces some of the difficulty.

“Authorship by women academics in ecology is about 30 per cent internationally,” she said. “As a proportion of the academic staff, the CIE has a higher proportion of female researchers. It’s not clear exactly why, but it’s likely to be in part a result of the supportive culture we have developed, with backing from CIE Director, Professor Marcel Klaassen, himself a father of three daughters.

“In the CIE, part-time work is commonplace, as well as working from home, working flexible hours and using whatever means we can to support our families and achieve our career goals. If women can find or invent an environment that encourages research activity within the bounds of family demands, female academics can thrive.

Women understand the issues faced by other women. We are not born self-publicists, so we try to encourage each other to promote our work and develop our career pathways.

Professor Kate Buchanan

ARC Future Fellow Professor

“As a mid-career academic, I greatly appreciated participating in Deakin University’s “Academic Women Aspiring to Leadership” program and found the training and advice offered by the University very much supported my career goals. The excellent provision of on-campus childcare at the University has also been vital in allowing me to maintain my research outputs, whilst I managed young kids.”

Dr Lee Ann Rollins and Dr Mylene Mariette are successful early career researchers at the CIE, undertaking important evolution-related research. Both are recipients of prestigious ARC “Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards” (DECRAs) to support their research, and both have had their findings published in leading science journals in the past year.

A geneticist specialising in invasive species, Dr Rollins is focusing her DECRA on rapid evolution of cane toads at their invasive “front line”. She is seeking to understand whether rapid evolution occurs through genetic or epigenetic means; in other words, whether changes in organisms are caused by modification of gene expression, rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

“Cane toads in Australia have very little genetic diversity, but huge differences in phenotypes,” Dr Rollins explained.

“In Western Australia, for instance, cane toads have longer legs than those in the east. In the absence of genetic variation, it is possible epigenetic modifications underlie the rapid changes we’ve seen.

“Traditionally, epigenetic modifications were thought to drive short-term individual modification, but not evolutionary change. We are using Australian cane toads to test whether epigenetic change is influencing evolution in this system.”

Dr Rollins is the mother of two high school students, and has a “super-supportive partner” who has been their primary care-giver for the past several years. She is enthusiastic about the value of strong female role models in academia.

“Kate Buchanan has been an amazing role model and mentor to almost every female researcher in the CIE – she is especially sensitive to the issues that are important for us,” she said.

“This can make all the difference to someone’s career.”

Also researching evolution, Dr Mariette and her team have produced the first evidence that zebra finch parents can adjust the development of their offspring within the egg in response to air temperature by modifying their calls. This previously unknown ecological function for embryonic hearing abilities could prove critical for the survival of a number of bird species in a warming climate.

Associate Professor Rebecca Lester is another CIE researcher juggling family and academic responsibilities. Associate Professor Lester, based at Deakin’s Warrnambool campus, has reduced her hours to spend time with her 18-month old son. However, she is passionate about continuing her research into ways to improve freshwater and estuarine management systems, “so we can have clean drinking water, adequate irrigation and water for other uses, and keep the natural systems healthy.”

While Associate Professor Lester was on maternity leave, a postdoctoral researcher was appointed to keep her research program on track, while sessional staff covered her teaching duties.

“In the past, during maternity leave for most academics the research would have just sat there, but we managed to ‘line up all the ducks’ and get this covered,” she said.

“We hope this can become more standard support.”

The value of the work of CIE’s women researchers seems almost incalculable. Thanks to their determination and collaboration, they are providing crucial insights as to how the environment might be protected in the face of unprecedented pressures from climate change, population growth and development – so future generations can enjoy it as we do.

Metrics reveal true efforts of work and motherhood

Burwood-based conservation scientist Dr Emily Nicholson has been inspirational in her efforts to advance her career, protect the planet and support other women scientists.

Seeking a permanent research position while caring for three young sons, she encountered a career brick wall. Then she discovered that reframing her achievements could provide a way forward.

She took a scientific approach to the problem, realising that reporting her productivity metrics to account for her time away from work, including numbers of publications, citation rates and grant income – and showcasing her time away from work – would help to ensure she was judged fairly. The approach worked. She gained a tenured post in the next position she applied for, at Deakin.

More importantly, she shared her tactics in a paper in the internationally leading journal “Science” and became a role model for women across the globe. Her article has been viewed over 25,000 times since it was published in May 2015, and is in the top one per cent of all articles measured by Altmetrics for social media reach.

In 2015 Dr Nicholson was acknowledged as an outstanding female leader in STEM research through an inaugural “Inspiring Women Fellowship” a scheme funded by the Victorian Government through the Office of the Lead Scientist and delivered by veski.

She also received a 2015 Australian Museum Eureka Award, as part of the global research team that developed a new framework for ecosystem risk assessment, the Red List of Ecosystems. The Red List has been adopted as the global standard by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the world’s biggest environmental organisation – and by governments, researchers and NGOs worldwide, and has influenced Australian policy.