Women in Science Working Wonders at the Gardens
This Saturday is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In a perfect world where women were equally paid and represented at all levels of science, such a day might not need to exist. Despite the continued challenges for many women pursuing a career in science, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan boast a diverse workforce and some of the world’s most brilliant female plant scientists and botanists. Their stories bring good news and encouragement to all the girls and young women in the world wondering if working in science is the right path for them.
Of the 56 paid science staff working at the two gardens, 30 are women and several are in senior positions. Another four female staff members are retired honorary researchers, including Barbara Briggs who this year celebrates her 58th year working at the Gardens. This level of representation in the workforce is well above average for a lot of scientific organisations despite the gender balance being equal at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels of science study.
Female staff are currently working across all areas of Garden science including genetics, taxonomy, seed research, collection management, horticultural science, ecology and botanical illustration. Each tell unique and fascinating stories of their journey to becoming scientists, many coming to the profession later in life or after successful careers in other fields.
Dr Kerry Gibbons was a midwife for 23 years, specialising in high risk pregnancies in an incredibly stressful and emotionally demanding environment. Kerry was 39 when she started studying science as an undergraduate and 51 by the time she got her first job in systematics, studying the evolutionary relationship and classification of Australian plants. Kerry’s advice for young women is to follow your passion but be prepared for the challenges, “I did more than 10 years of study to retrain as a researcher but I am glad I did. Even now I am in a grant funded position with minimal job security but I get to explore the natural world; discovering new things and contributing to the world’s knowledge of Australian plants”.
Dr Karen Sommerville, swing dancer by night and seed researcher by day, is also a latecomer to science. Karen worked in printing and banking before starting a science degree at the age of 28 after getting interested in plants. Karen was unsure about making such a big change and like Kerry, knew that job security can be difficult, with research so often linked to short term grant funding. Today Karen’s research focuses on the long term preservation of rainforest seeds, notoriously difficult to store in seed banks. The Sydney Morning Herald visited Karen at the Australian PlantBank last year and covered her important work.
Amanda Rollason looks after the tissue culture collection at PlantBank and loves her job but is sometimes surprised to find herself working in a lab, “I was a hairdresser who loved plants. I was 44 when I got the job at the Australian Botanic Garden and it was a bit of a dream come true”
Katharine Catelotti studies the tricky-to-germinate seeds of threatened geebung or Persoonia plants. Her work drew the attention of ABC radio last year when she fed several hundred seed pods to some hungry emus, to see if the digestive process would crack open their hard covering (listen to the podcast to find out what happened). Katharine was a social worker for 9 years while studying science and is a strong advocate for diversity in science and opportunity for anyone born with an interest in discovery and love of the natural world.
Find out more about the incredible women working in science at the Gardens by reading their profiles on our staff page.