Diversify your Thinking—Science Pathways 2018

Participants at Science Pathways 2018

Carly Rosewarne
Convenor and EMCR Forum Executive Member

Every 18 months the EMCR Forum hosts a national conference called Science Pathways. The primary aim is to provide professional development for Australia’s STEM EMCRs. The 5th Science Pathways—Diversify Your Thinking—was held in Brisbane on 23-24 April. Via a highly interactive program consisting of keynote speakers, panel discussions, networking opportunities and focused breakout groups, delegates were challenged to think differently about how to access new opportunities and improve the environment in which we work.

At #SciPath18, the EMCR Forum Executive implemented several approaches to improve equity of access to the conference content. Through the Theo Murphy Initiative (Australia), travel grants were provided to 20 EMCRs from across Australia who represent minority groups in STEM or who could identify a barrier that would otherwise prevent them from attending in person. Additional travel and registration awards were provided by organisations through the EMCR Grant scheme. Flexible carer grants, supported by RMIT University, were given to 10 attendees to cover costs incurred to enable their caring responsibilities whilst at the conference.

We knew that attending in person was not feasible for everyone. By partnering with RiAus, financially supported by the University of Sydney, we offered live streaming of the plenary session and panel discussions online. If you missed it, or want to re-live the excitement, these videos are still available via Australia’s Science Channel with written transcripts coming soon. Two of the four breakout group sessions were also offered to remote participants (thanks to Don Mackintosh from AARNet for his technical support!). A special thanks to all the EMCRs around the country who hosted remote conference sites at their workplace. Making #SciPath18 accessible for as many EMCRs as possible was a key aim.

To begin proceedings, we received a Welcome to Country from Maroochy Barambah, Songwoman and Law-woman of the Turrbal People. We thank Maroochy for her blessing of #SciPath18 and for providing important insights into her ongoing efforts to advocate for her ancestors to be recognised in the teaching of history as the rightful traditional owners of Meanjin (Brisbane).

Our opening speaker Christine Williams, Queensland's Acting Chief Scientist, regaled us with success stories from Australian science and provided sage career advice for EMCRs. This included ‘Sometimes journeys are linear, but sometimes things are serendipitous—you will never know where your journey will take you’, and ‘Learn what you like and dislike, follow what you enjoy. Understand you can transition, careers are never linear’. These two statements are wholeheartedly endorsed by the EMCR Forum Executive and are well-aligned with the conference theme. We thank Christine and the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist for providing registrations for eight EMCRs from Queensland universities.  

Natalie Chapman from gemaker delivered the opening keynote. Nat’s talk resonated with the thoughts and feelings of many EMCRs in the current climate—posing questions such as ‘where do I want to go?’ and ‘who do I want to be?’. She emphasised the value of diverse experiences, the importance of a flexible ‘can-do’ attitude, the power of lifelong learning, and the ability to bounce back from adversity. For anyone wanting to learn more, check out Nat’s advice for EMCRs from a diverse thinker (and doer).

The Ben Chuwen Memorial Keynote was presented by Jenny Martin of Griffith University. Ben was a founding member of the EMCR Forum Executive who passed away in 2012. Although Jenny never met Ben, she provided a wonderful reflection on his contribution to the EMCR Forum, and how to think about the type of legacy we should all want to leave behind as scientists—because we won’t be remembered for our H-index. Jenny implored us to identify our personal vision, purpose, priorities and core values to authentically define what success looks like. We are lucky to have Jenny as a positive example for scientists in Australia, and I’m incredibly appreciative of her ongoing efforts to give back to our community.

The first of three panel discussions focused on making science inclusive. Our panelists radiated around the central theme of moving beyond gender equity to understand how we can make meaningful progress towards inclusion in STEM. Applied sociologist  Zuleyka Zevallos presented a compelling case for using intersectional principles to drive changes within the sector. She advocated for the importance of data collection and analysis to inform policy, the use of accountability measures, and the value of proactive leadership. Rachel Ranton and Andrew Siebel provided insights into organisational inclusion initiatives. Rachel’s approach at the Westpac Group is underpinned by deliberate diversity of thought. It shows that large organisations can work towards inclusion by removing barriers within hiring processes, offering flexibility, and providing leadership training. Andrew outlined recent work at the University of Melbourne in his role as the Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. The panel also included two personal perspectives, from Kimberly Olsen and Soressa Kitessa. Kimberly is breaking down barriers to workplace inclusion for trans and gender diverse people in her role as CEO of Trans Employment Program Australia. To overcome the issue of access to opportunity, she says we need to switch to a ‘value add’ mentality—prioritising inclusion instead of pointing out differences. Soressa spoke about his experiences as an African-born scientist who has worked in Australia for over 20 years. He told us ‘the sign of a good workplace that values diversity is when you drive home, and the only thing you think about is the work—not the things that were said about you or your culture or your difference.’ This statement clearly resonated with the delegates as it was the topic of many conversations throughout the rest of the meeting.

In panel session 2, we changed pace to hear from a range of different panelists about their careers—careers that involved different ways to be funded. From philanthropy (Nikola Bowden) to start-ups (Vino Rajandran) to crowd-funding (Mel Thomson) to engaging industry (Chamindie Punyadeera and Asgar Farahnaky), we heard diverse ways to get support for research and career development. A key message that came from all panelists was to be open to opportunities, and ensure you are connecting with people, so they know who you are and what you do. In essence, you never know where your career may take you, and that is ok. So be open to what could be—careers outside the classic academic pathway are equally as fulfilling. For those who are interested, this ties in with the EMCR Forum resources around #kickstartcollab, launched in 2017.

In the third panel we focused on interdisciplinary research, often touted as the means by which we will solve our most pressing and complex societal challenges. But what exactly is it? And what are the keys to its success? Together, Adrian Carter (Monash University), Trung Ngo (University of Queensland), Brad Jackson (Griffith University), Simone Maynard (Simone Maynard Consulting) and Angali Jaiprakash (Queensland University of Technology) used their expertise from the university, government and private sectors, as well as expertise in leadership, policy and research metrics, to attempt to answer these questions. Discussion explored the notion that interdisciplinary research is tricky to define. It spans and merges multiple disciplines, applies techniques traditionally from one discipline in another, and involves cross sector collaboration. It’s varied and it’s complicated! There is no ‘one-size fits all’ description of interdisciplinary research, nor a single approach to initiating, funding, executing and evaluating this type of work. This makes it challenging but also highly rewarding. Recurring themes about how to foster success included the importance of collaboration, communication, and prioritising the research objective over the means of achieving it. Also, writ large were discussions of the challenges and opportunities to measure and demonstrate impact in this research, and clear directives to be bold and diverse when seeking research funds.

We also held breakout sessions on fostering kindness in science, improving diversity in research and in competitive selection processes, and upskilling for industry. Participants were also given an opportunity to attend a skills-focused workshop from ThinkWell.

All sessions were well attended and valuable, but added value was found in the connections made after hours and between sessions. Our social media stats were also high, with #SciPath18 trending throughout the meeting. We hope the lessons learned and the connections made help all EMCRs who attended well into the future.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science