Rohini’s story

Rohini’s story

Bombay to Townsville; A journey in architecture

If I went back in time and told my 10-year-old self that in the future I’d be living in another country independently, ziplining and kayaking, diving in the great barrier reef, working in multi-cultural environment, publishing my own research paper in an international architecture journal and finding my own family in a country where I didn’t know anyone; 10-year-old me would think it was something from an adventure book. 10-year-old me had 2 new clothes every year, second hand textbooks, hardworking parents who looked after her and travelling between 2 major cities in India on holidays. Travelling abroad was an insane concept because we had no family. During my bachelor’s degree in India my best friend left for the States for her PhD. It had a huge impact on me.

Being a nerd deep down all my life, my passion for architecture led me to see the world very differently and after graduation I wanted to be in a space where I could feel a part of the larger world. So, after much deliberation, I moved to Australia for a new life. It took some time to adjust, but I eventually got the hang of life in a different country. It was a huge cultural and perspective shift. I think the idea we have of a place, person or experience is the most important because thinking about doing something is the first place to start. Then eventually, doing it makes it much more enjoyable. Of course, it was not all smooth sailing, there were times where I felt like I had to give up. But, I’m glad I didn’t. All my life, I longed for freedom, for independence and today I feel I have got everything I wished for. I have made friends in the strangest of circumstances and diverse backgrounds.

All this has led me to shed my inhibitions, let go of my prejudices and allowed me to be grateful for all that I have. Fear, Hatred and Pride don’t make good company to live anyway. I believe my life is what you make of any situation and my love for architecture has made this my life. I am a 5 foot 2 woman living in a world which still lacks representation from people like me. Most of the times, I’m always the only coloured person in the room or the only woman. But, you know what? Someone needs to make the change. I’m glad I’m part of it. All the moving from a huge city then to a smaller one and then living in a town which is a 30 minute radius of everything makes me feel a sense of belonging. It has become a part of me and it makes me feel a sense of happiness.

Rohini Chatterjee

Hiral’s story

Hiral’s story

When you’re as passionate about nature and wildlife as I am, people can’t help but ask where that passion stems from. Truth be told, I can’t really pinpoint exactly where it came from but I’m pretty sure growing up in Zimbabwe and being exposed to nature so freely, probably had something to do with it. My early migrations from Zimbabwe to India and then to South Africa also made me more receptive to what the world could offer. From a really young age, I was very curious and adventurous and that led me to be completely fascinated with the sciences. I was fortunate enough to have a family that encouraged that curiosity which ultimately allowed me to pursue a science degree.

From astronomy to climatology and geology to evolution, I remember wanting to learn about it all. Eventually, in university, I decided I wanted to stick with geography and ecology as my two majors. Fast forward seven years and I graduated with a Master of Science with a distinction and my research focused on evolutionary ecology in snakes. One of my proudest moments in life. As an Indian female working in herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) in the developing world, comes with a certain amount of challenges. First off, there aren’t many women in herpetology and rarely any Indian females in this field outside of India, that we know of! However, when you are as passionate and determined as I am and willing to go after what you want, the world presents you with many opportunities.

After I finished my masters two years ago I decided not to jump into a PhD straight away and that was one of the best decisions I made. In the past two years, I’ve exposed myself to other means of learning both online through videos and media and offline through networking events. I have learnt about the collaboration of science, technology and arts which has opened my mind up to ideas that I might not have been able to harness before. I now look at combining artificial intelligence in wildlife research, using technology and art for conservation communication and combining all STEM subjects to fit my niche. In my spare time, I am invested in learning about astronomy, machine learning, biology and everything that will increase my knowledge of the world and how it works. I am learning to train neural networks and I am using marketing as a means to communicate the importance of wildlife. I certainly have my plate full and continue to want to do more.

Next year I hope to start a PhD in Australia working with reptiles and using my combined skills and passions that form the epitome of STEM. What my science degrees taught me is this: A curious mind and a willingness to learn will give an edge but an ability to think with an open mind and be able to apply the scientific method in all aspects of life, will give you the ability to profoundly influence your problem solving and creative capabilities. Your mind is your only limitation and just a tip, never underestimate the value of a good encyclopaedia to a child.

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Fay’s story

Fay’s story

A post recently popped up on my facebook feed of a fantastic photo shoot a mum had taken of her daughter’s softball team. The girls wore both pretty dresses, and their trainer. They wore crowns, and war paint, high heels and catcher’s mits, they were both ‘pretty’ and ‘sporty’. The idea of the shoot- why can’t girls be beautiful and like sports?

This idea of each of us being ‘one true thing’ in life can sometimes be inspiring, when we see a dancer so dedicated they get through three pairs of point shoes a day or an environmentalist who lives in the wild, eating nothing but insects! But the truth is most of us don’t fit into one box nicely, we are far too complex for that!

When I think back to things that could have stopped me going into STEM, and the thing that still makes me feel like an imposter, this idea of ‘you can only be one thing’ is probably the biggest barrier.

My story

I was very lucky in that I went to an all-girls high school, so the idea of male/female subjects was unheard of, they were just subjects. However, the idea that you were either sporty OR smart OR artistic was rife. I was sporty when I started high school. I was a gymnast, who competed in the national team, I went on training camps and excelled at PE. That was until I quit the sport due to health issues, and suddenly I didn’t excel at anything. I was average or as the saying goes ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I wasn’t needy enough to require extra help, not intelligent enough to receive accolade, so I just sort of existed in the middle- ‘master of none’.

If you had asked me then, in high school who of my peers would most likely be working in STEM, I probably would have pointed to those at the ‘top of the class’, because that is what we are conditioned to think, to follow a path, you have to be the best. The best at that, and nothing else. If you aren’t a math genius, don’t bother with physics. If you can’t label all the parts of the plant off by heart, don’t bother with biology, if you aren’t ‘academic’ you won’t survive in science.

Yet all of this is a lie because none of us are one dimensional. That girl I would have pointed to as most likely to end up in STEM? She went to do Physics at university, but now is a lighting designer for theatres. And me? The ex-sporty ‘master of none’, I’m completing a PhD in Biomedical Physics and last month gave a keynote talk at a surgical conference!

Labcoat and barbell

But even now, I look at those around me and think ‘look at him, he is a real physicist. I’m not as good as him, because he has the brain for maths’. And I forget that the reason I have got where I am now is precisely because I am a jack of all trades.

 An enjoyment of drama taught me how to speak and captivate an audience. Literature and books taught me to write. Exercise and Sport gave me an appreciation for the very physiology I am investigation and art helped me to be able to draw my own schematics for my research.

More than this, with science and academia being a very stressful environment to work in, those other parts of ‘you’, allow you to thrive in life and in work. They give you ways to let off steam, socialise and be mentally and physically healthy. I work with a physicist who runs marathons, a biologist who knits, an engineer who bakes like Mary Berry and a chemist who cycles. And me? Well, if I was to star today in a photoshoot like the softball girls, I would be wearing a lab coat and safety goggles, while lifting a 150kg+ barbell. The only thing getting me through the mind-numbing pain of writing my doctoral thesis is training for a strong woman competition!

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Erin’s story

Erin’s story

At first glance, my career path may appear as a professional absurdity.  People like me – first-generation college student, millennial, brown, and female – have never been the traditional face of leadership in STEM, and are certainly not expected to exist, let alone excel in the construction technology industry.  However, after a closer look, I believe my journey illustrates that women and STEM not only go hand-in-hand but require each other to evolve our world and to create a brighter future.

Here is my story. Born on suburban Long Island to Guyanese-Indian parents, I quickly became familiar with being different from my peers.  While my skin color was the most notable difference amongst my classmates, it was my academic accomplishments that really set me apart.  Following my parent’s work ethic and my own drive to succeed, I graduated high school as salutatorian, a varsity athlete, and a state-level violinist, ultimately culminating in my acceptance to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. 

First steps

Without the resources from the small-town bubble I was familiar with, life immediately became more challenging pursuing a B.S. in Civil Engineering on the other side of the country.  I now found being a first-generation female college engineering student made the pressure to perform paramount.  After a lot of hard work and persistence, I graduated and landed my first job as a project engineer in the construction management field.

Up until this point, I was confident that if I kept my wits about me and put in some effort, I’d be able to achieve my goals as an engineer. However, in the professional realm, reality set in full-time with just how unwelcome I would be in the industry… 

My first day on the jobsite, the size small men’s safety vest fit me like a dress; being 4’-11” I had little choice but to look silly and unprofessional with the vest hem swinging at my knees. When women’s safety vests were finally issued, they had about half the amount of pockets in comparison to the men’s, and the couple of pockets that were there were barely big enough to hold a measuring tape, let alone the standard-issue iPads or notepad.  From the clothing alone, it was obvious that I, quite literally, just didn’t fit in.

Don’t question yourself, embrace the differences

In meetings, I was the quintessential token female in the room.  In a chorus of men, my voice was routinely the only soprano heard.  Imposter syndrome took root – was I even supposed to be in the room at all?

Having a rookie status also did me no favors when working with colleagues that had sustained the business with their expertise as 30- and 40-year industry veterans.  I found that expressing ideas as a young woman frequently put me in danger of appearing ‘too intelligent’, ‘intimidating’, and ‘aggressive’.  What were once foreign words now became associated with me – unjustly so – due to unconscious gender bias.

If working hard and being smart were no longer enough to overcome being unwelcome, and sometimes even worked against me, what could I possibly do to professionally thrive?  It turns out, the answer was very simple:

Embrace my differences.

Traditionally, the way in which we create the built environment has resisted change for hundreds of years.  Plans are still printed on paper, and until recently, everything was managed through painstaking manual entry and labor.  Today, construction management is suffering a massive wave of disruption from technology, data, and innovation.  Teams that once stood behind the motto “that’s the way we’ve always done things” now find themselves playing a constant game of innovation catch-up in order to implement the next new process or technology that will save time, money, and ultimately satisfy the demands of a rapidly evolving society.  This has led to a new mandate for leadership in construction technology, data and innovation.  Now as a director in the construction technology industry, I believe that being a fledgling minority female has uniquely positioned me to satisfy that mandate and have an impact on the world.

Stand out from the crowd

As a millennial, I have experienced life both before and after the introduction of the Internet in my formative years.  Adapting rapidly to extraordinary changes and embracing new ways of functioning was programmed into my brain growing up as a means of survival.  In my industry, when new technology is birthed, where most would resist change, my natural response is to adopt these innovations to ensure future longevity and prosperity.  Having a fresher set of eyes leads to uncovering new solutions, which in turn become new standard processes in effective and efficient building.

Furthermore, having a diverse heritage helps me be more open to communicate with individuals with a variety of backgrounds while appreciating input from diverse sources.  You never know where the next groundbreaking idea will come from.

Being a woman on top of all that means that I definitely don’t fit in – which, as it turns out, is not just a good thing, but rather necessary in order to cement my presence as a woman in STEM.   Having to constantly create my own future and opportunities makes innovation in my professional world a natural extension of my life.  I will always be willing to learn and explore new interests.

Learning to stand my ground and be true to myself despite the odds has led to an intrinsically rewarding experience as well as being a voice in shaping my profession.  Although it isn’t always simple, the more I persist, the easier it gets to shape the world and perceptions of society to a place where women in STEM like me can be welcome, expected, and celebrated for their accomplishments.

Written by: Erin Khan

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Kim’s story

Kim’s story

Hello from Dallas, Texas! My name is Kim and I am a controls engineer in a company focused in industrial automation. When you order your headphones online or pick up a single serve pre-made salad from your local grocer, your product may have at one time, been my work product. The work that I do implements sensors, conveyor and robotics to get product from one location to another – its a happy medium of hardware and software.

To get here, I studied electrical engineering at The Ohio State University , but my internship in a similar company best prepared me for this job. I am the only female engineer in my office and as I write this, the only female controls engineer in the company. I’m here to change that.

As a woman in engineering, hearing backgrounds similar to mine helped develop my interest for a career in STEM. I was drawn to it because I was determined to make my career invigorating and challenging. Many people ultimately want to make an impact in the world and for me, finding a pathway to realise it in the form of a college major was the first step. Most definitely, I knew I wanted to avoid the notion of showing up to a job that I hated hoping time would fast-forward to retirement.

Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors

As my senior year of high school neared, the social pressures of deciding what my lifelong career became more prevalent. I was taking Advanced Placement classes to prepare for college, but an auto maintenance class with afternoons of popped hoods and clanging wrenches sparked my interest in tangible problem solving. A Wikipedia article in electrical engineering persuaded me to claim that major and I began the next chapter in my academic journey.

While I found some of the classes difficult, my passion was fuelled by joining a student automotive engineering group practicing real world applications of engineering. In Buckeye Current, we built electric motorcycles, travelled and learned to communicate effectively (for better or for worse).

As a young professional today, every challenge I have faced and how I have reacted to it has created a foundation for how I solve problems. The learning curve in my current position is steep and keeping my head is vital. Outside of my air conditioned office lies a plethora of environments for a controls engineer to commission projects and solve problems, which unexpectedly affects that reaction.

Ask all the questions

For example, a project earlier in my career was spent troubleshooting on a cold dirty floor in a dark warehouse-like space in Toronto. In addition to the dismal atmosphere, my spirits were low from unsuccessful work locating the issues in safety wiring – a vital part to any system. To mitigate the situation, I left for the night and took a local dance class to both take my mind off the stress and celebrate something I could do well.

The next morning, I came in refreshed and rooted out all issues with a fresh set of eyes. I am living proof you don’t need straight A’s to become an engineer and when I speak as a member of the Society of Women Engineers or a role model from the online international FabFem database, I make sure to share that with the many young ladies that are conditioned to avoid risk and not make mistakes. I challenge them to be brave.

If I could say anything to those interested in STEM, I’d want them to above everything else, foster their passion and let it take root. For what it’s worth, that social pressure that I experienced in high school doesn’t need to be experienced by everybody. 4 years at a university isn’t a good fit for everybody especially when STEM can be fostered in so many venues, trade schools included. Ask all of the questions and if you’re willing to stand up to it, there is no lack of challenge here.

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Catharina’s story

Catharina’s story

My expert field is amphibian ecology with a focus on acoustic ecology. I do a lot of programming and coding as well, both for analysis and when needed for software. My PhD was conferred in October 2018, and my post-doctorate in China just started. I am very excited and looking forward to this next part of my career I absolutely love my job; in very few professions do you have the freedom to let your creativity play out as you do in research. My main task is to come up with research ideas that should solve some (hopefully) great questions and then go and make it happen. I also get to hang out in nature a lot, often at night which is even better.

Seriously, rainforests come alive at night, they are full of sounds and animals everywhere, and on top of that who wouldn’t want to work with amphibians? They were here before the dinosaurs and each every one of them are in my mind evolutionary miracles, often with amazing adaptations to their environment. Every year there are new studies coming out reporting on some previously unknown behaviour or cool physical trait. 

I may be the first, but hopefully not the last

That I would aim for a career in academia was not an obvious thing, after high school I spent four years working customer service-related jobs in the UK and Ireland. When I told my dad back in Sweden that I was going to university in UK to study ecology he mostly seemed confused, I am very grateful that I come from a society where you are not bound by the socio-economic background that you are born into and even though my family have had very little understanding of what I am doing they have never stood in my way and have helped when they can. Even if my parents never really pushed me or encouraged me to go to university, society in Sweden and how it functions have a built-in lesson that you have the option of doing whatever you put your mind to. I am the first person in my family to get a PhD, hopefully not the last.

I decided during the bachelors that I wanted to work on amphibians, as despite the amount of work that is still required on this taxon, there are not enough people around to collect the data needed to prevent them from disappearing. I also realised that I like statistics and analysis and really like coding! I can do fieldwork and see the data come in and bring it the whole way to the end regardless of what is required – I guess it is one of my main strengths, figuring out what is needed and then learning how to do it even if this involves a new programming language or doing something I have no prior experience of and that pushes the boundaries of what I am comfortable with.

Giving up is not an option

I am forever grateful to the Singapore government for funding my doctoral training. It has been very tough at times, especially when my grandparents passed away and I could not go home for their funerals, or when I was spending months on end on my own in the field apart from my local field assistants. I had never been to Asia before I moved here and the PhD has exposed to me some fantastic cultures,  and given me experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. Some of the things I have learnt is how to develop a research idea that is good enough to attract funding, navigate the paperwork process involved with permits (in multiple countries), I can organise fieldwork and a field crew, solder hundreds of wires efficiently and well, figure out how to analyse the data and I know how to communicate the information to others around me. Most of all I know how to not give up.

A PhD, and a career in academia, is mostly about resilience. Very rarely do you get told that you are doing well or are on the right track, if anything people will probably want you to think you are doing badly. You must stand steady enough to know when peoples comments are wrong and to know when you need to pay attention to criticism. Be honest with yourself, if you are bad at something and feel it is necessary for your career to do well – learn it! I just ignore the negative people, do my work and deliver the projects to a very high standard . It is for you to decide what you can and cannot do. Take support from the people around you that are offering sound advice and trust that gut instinct.

Master a skill

My other main advice is to figure out what skills are needed to get a job; this is a tough field to break into and get a position in. The ability to compete on an already crowded job market lies partially in your professional network and partially in having skills that are desirable – having “just” a degree in conservation or ecology is often not enough to land a job – the hard bit is figuring out not only what skills will be attractive in the future but also what you are good at and can get known for. People talk about passion and yes, it is hard without passion and loving the job, but it isn’t everything, it is the final thing on top of solid base of other skills that are required. Passion and love for the job is what keeps you fighting even when things are tough, that makes you give up one day and come back stronger the next.

I am not sure what I am aiming for in the future, the next two years will focus on my research on acoustics. I also just registered a company to work as a freelance data analyst, I mainly started it as I enjoy analysing data and figuring out exactly what analyses it needs, even if it isn’t ecology related. It will provide a small side income and something to fall back on if I have periods without contracts in academia, as well as backup career should it be needed one day. I of course hope that I can continue in research, it would be nice to get to the point that we have large amounts of data coming in from big areas of Asia and still be able to process it properly without being swamped. I think it will take a bit more time before we are there though–mostly I just see a lot of acoustic work ahead of me in the region, it is an exciting time to be here! I just started the next part of the journey as a post-doctoral fellow in China – continuing the research work on bioacoustics and amphibians that I started during the PhD in Singapore.

Written by Catharina Karlsson