Door to science opened for nine young women

Nine young women from secondary colleges in Melbourne’s southeast participated in a two-week immersive program at Hudson Institute that was funded as part of a concerted effort by the federal government to increase the number of women in science.

The 2019 Hudson Institute Young Women in Science program attendees with Prof Hartland
The 2019 Hudson Institute Young Women in Science program attendees with Prof Hartland

The Hudson Institute Young Women in Science program gave a ‘behind the scenes’ insight into the fascinating laboratory science underpinning current medical research, which will hopefully encourage the aspiring young scientists to consider a career in this area.

The most engaging aspects of the experience for the young women were how interesting and flexible working in a lab is every day, the exposure to the wide range of jobs within a major medical precinct and the ongoing connection and support they will have with their mentors at Hudson Institute.

The program included exploring a scientific research project in the laboratory, seminars, events, exposure to scientific technologies and attending forums to seek career advice from scientists and postgraduate students.

Over their two weeks the girls were partnered with a female mentor and undertook a range of activities across the fields of embryology, cell therapies, microscopy and clinical trials

The fortnight culminated in the girls delivering short presentation to their mentors, teachers and parents about what they had learnt while taking part in the program.

High praise for the young attendees

Education coordinator for the program Dr Jemma Evans said, “I’m absolutely astounded by how much the girls remembered, how much they interacted with the supervisors – both in the laboratory and as a whole. Their maturity and enthusiasm shone through.

“They’ve learnt a lot, and were also really excited about the program and took an avid interest in the practical activities.

“The whole group was highly engaged, as much as some of our undergrad and honours degree students.

“I think we’ve definitely got future leaders on our hands here!” she said.

Chelsea Campbell (15) from Wellington College spent her two-weeks partnered with mentor Dr Te-Sha Tsai, looking at what affects epigenetic changes in women’s eggs have on their offspring.

“My highlight from the experience was getting to take part in the day-to-day lab life because it’s flexible and interesting. Everyday there’s something new,” said Chelsea

“Experiments at high school aren’t as interesting or detailed as what we have been doing at Hudson Institute. This is the first thing I’ve got to do that’s like this.

“It was an amazing opportunity to get to do this and hopefully it keeps running because I’d recommend it to all Year 10 girls,” Chelsea said.

Mentoring the next generation of scientists

Hudson Institute CEO Professor Elizabeth Hartland said the dedication of the mentors and the students in the program made it a huge success.

“The mentors were all volunteers from among our scientists. It was great to see this leadership from our female scientists, and to see their support for the young female students,” Prof Hartland said.

Speaking about her supervisor, Chelsea said, “It’s been really valuable. I don’t really know what I want to do with my career yet. Dr Tsai told me about her experiences, the kind of things she had to face and different challenges, and how she got to where she is today.

“I’m definitely going to stay in touch with her. I have her number and have work experience with her planned at the end of the year – so I’m coming back,” she said.

This ongoing relationship with the young women was a key desired outcome from the project.

Dr Evans said, “We’ve emphasised to the girls that this relationship between Hudson Institute and the girls doesn’t stop with the end of this program and that we want them to keep in touch.

“A few of them have already indicated that they would love to come back again and do further work experience with their specific supervisor. It really is a relationship rather than just a one-off program.”

Investing early

Gender equity is an important focus of the Hudson Institute, not only bringing our own postdoctoral scientists through to the next level but also giving opportunities to young women in our community who are interested in pursuing a career in science.

Prof Hartland said, “We know that women and men enrol in science subjects in equal numbers at university – both at an undergraduate and PhD level. However, by the time scientists get to senior levels, the split becomes more like 20 per cent women, 80 per cent men.

“Initiatives such as this one aim to help younger women see the breadth of career opportunities available, as well as connect them with successful female mentors that can give them advice on how to carve out a career in this industry,” she said.

Dr Evans said, “We need to invest early. There’s no point in investing in students when they’ve finished their undergraduate degree – we need to go way earlier than that, particularly for girls when it comes to science. We’re well represented at university but then we fall off a little bit.

“It’s important we engage with them and get them enthusiastic really early – then we’re showing them this is the sort of job you can have, this is how you can make a difference to human health,” Dr Evans said.

Key program outcomes

Dr Evans said, “I think they’ve had a really good exposure to the many ways they can become engaged in medical research. Whether that’s through studying science, being a medical doctor, a nurse, pathology analysist or working in pharmacy – there’s so many ways to engage and they’ve really appreciated that.

“The feeling that I’ve got is they’ve been really inspired by the fact it takes a team that actually do medical research – it’s not just you by yourself,” she said.

Reflecting on the program, Chelsea said “I wasn’t really sure about a career in medical research before, but seeing what the work is like and getting to experience it – it’s definitely something I would consider now.”

Future of the program

Dr Evans said “We’re hoping to use this successful inaugural program to engage with either government or philanthropists to invest in the program’s future and build a relationship with the Hudson Institute, because it’s only by investing early on that we can grow our female leaders of the future,” she said.

The inaugural Hudson Institute of Young Women in Science program ran from 17 – 27 June 2019.