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National Science Week special: What grows from STEM?

August 17, 2016
Curiouser and curiouser: young brains, wired for science and for discovering how the world works, are not always privy to how work can offer ongoing scientific opportunity. Identifying a career path for passionate involvement in science can seem risky in a rapidly churning job market.
At the same time, the need for science-trained critically thinking people with fresh perspectives is ever growing as the world enters uncharted territory in terms of resource management, population needs and climate tumult.  National Science Week 2016 led GE Reports to explore the emerging science-work spectrum.

Heather Catchpole turned a masters of Science in Geological and Earth Sciences into a fervour for communicating science, first at the CSIRO, then the ABC, in roles at the Powerhouse Museum and as managing editor of Cosmos magazine. She recently co-founded Refraction Media, a company largely devoted to connecting business with university science faculties, and connecting students with career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

In her work as head of content for print and online titles such as Careers with Science, Careers with Code and Postgraduate Futures, Catchpole says: “We can see a gap in the employees being sought by industry in Australia, and the types of degrees students are enrolling in. Enrolments in universities overall show above 1 million students in Australia, but relatively small numbers are going into engineering and computer science—both of which are rapidly growing and highly paid areas of the workforce.”

At GE, Emma Milburn, a program leader for GE Digital, is in charge of developing a STEM strategy for the company in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and runs initiatives such as Coding for Kids, Robotics at School and GE Hackathons. She says, “Businesses are getting better at talking about the opportunities in STEM, opportunities that children who are choosing their subjects for Year 11 may not have visibility to. We want to stop the tide of science-interested kids going in a different direction just because they’re not really sure what’s out there in STEM.”

Milburn says GE has a huge number of engineering roles, in parts of the business such as Oil & Gas, Transportation and Healthcare. Science-trained employees also deepen the expertise in GE’s Healthcare and Life Sciences divisions. 

“I think the beauty of a STEM or science background is that you can transfer into very specific scientific fields or into much broader environments. Some of the science-trained people we have in GE are in equipment-service roles—in water-treatment technologies or electricity distribution—or they might be in business development.”

Universities are adapting their courses to suit students with polymath interests, and a forecast highly mobile working life. “We live in a world likely to be disrupted by technological and environmental change. Young people will have an average of 13 career shifts and stay in each job for just three to five years,” says Catchpole.

“Many students and early career workers are combining skills and experience in STEM subjects with new areas: combining science with international security for example, or health with technology,” she adds. “These combinations, taken as either combined degrees of flexible degrees offered by universities such as ANU and Monash, allow students to develop the agility to move career fields, or to deeply apply skills from one area in another—by, say, developing more secure financial systems, or creating medical devices that can transform research or clinical practice.”

Here, five young science and STEM grads tell where science has taken them, so far!

Katrina Bourke

Rock star helps calibrate Mars-2020 rover
Katrina Bourke, Master of Science (Research), QUT

A love of chemistry and a brief encounter with a volcanic eruption in New Zealand led Katrina Bourke to pursue the study of 600,000-year-old volcanoes. “Seeing an active volcano in real time was really exciting,” she says.

Her Master of Science by research at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is focused on understanding geochemical variation within the eruptions of a ‘young’ volcanic field in Queensland that has had little attention since the 1960s. Bourke says that Australia is often seen as “volcanically dead”, with the last eruption at Mt. Gambier having occurred around 5,000 years ago.
Bourke’s knowledge of volcanic rock composition won her an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Using rock samples from her own research, Katrina will assist Australian astrobiologist Dr Abigail Allwood with the calibration of the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) for the Mars-2020 rover, which uses X-ray fluorescence to determine the geochemistry of rocks. The instrument will carry out a range of tasks, including the analysis of rock and soil samples thought to contain evidence of past microbial life forms.

Vicki Dove

Machine learning with a scientific twist
Vicki Dove, Field Service Engineer, GE Healthcare Life Science

As a biomedical engineer, Vicki Dove has so far repaired and maintained electrocardiographs, medical pumps, neonatal equipment and seven surgical robots. She says that without her degree in Biomedical Science she would not have the same insight into the machinery she works with, and without her Engineering degree she couldn’t pursue her passion for helping people in such a practical way.  

She’s always loved taking machinery apart, identifying what makes it tick—or not—and putting it back together again. These days she doesn’t rest until it’s “working 100%”!

A double degree at Swinburne University of Technology has paved Dove’s path to indispensable roles in Melbourne hospitals, to testing and repairing the remarkable Da Vinci laparoscopic robots, and to London, to work in various hospital departments. “Now I want to have a career, rather than a series of jobs, and I thought GE would be one of the best places to do that,” she says.

Her science degree was heavily focused on physiology, and, “Learning about cells and the human body, has helped a lot in understanding what the equipment I work with does,” says Dove, who joined GE to maintain its Life Sciences equipment. She now works with machines used in cell therapy, such as the WAVE Bioreactor systems, and ÄKTA chromatography equipment that separates and purifies cellular proteins for research, and manufacture of drugs such as vaccines, cancer treatments and human insulin.

From dog-sledding to a dust-busting PhD
James Hooper, PhD Researcher at University of Wollongong

In 2008, James Hooper was co-named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic after the young graduate of geographical science travelled using only human and natural power from the North Pole to the South Pole, to raise awareness of climate change.

Today, he is pursuing a doctorate of Philosophy in Earth and Environment Science at the University of Wollongong in collaboration with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Hooper is investigating how different land uses, such as farming and grazing, affect the amount of dust produced and emitted to the atmosphere, and the subsequent impacts on the ecosystems where the dust finally settles.

For example, dust can fertilise oceans with an influx of nutrients, causing a shift in the variety of organisms such as phytoplankton.

As part of his research, Hooper travels to remote locations around the world, collecting soil core samples, and analyses the dust within them using specialised scanning equipment at ANSTO. By examining the cores, he can identify the quantity of dust that has settled over time, and the elements it is composed of. He also uses carbon dating to determine the movement of dust from one location to another.

Hooper says making discoveries in science is immensely exciting. “You get to do things no one has done before.”

Nathalia Tan

A double degree delivers exponential analytical skills
Nathalia Tan, Analyst, Deloitte Digital

Nathalia Tan began her role as a technology consultant in Deloitte’s cloud computing team in March 2016. It was secured, she says, as a direct result of the knowledge and skills she gained while studying for her double Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Computer Science at Monash University, which she completed in 2015. Tan chose the course at Monash because it involved a lot of practical work and, the chance, she says, to “get my hands dirty”.

“I was lucky to gain a unique set of skills, from problem solving and lateral thinking to communication and collaboration, as well as how to approach issues in a diplomatic manner,” says Tan. “These skills were all key to my being offered the job with Deloitte.”

She says choosing to study both science and computing was a wise decision: “There are lots of instances these days, with the rise of big data, where science and computing come together in this fantastic way that we’ve never seen before—such as finding associations between air quality and health, or using genetic data to help breed drought-resistant crops.” Photo: Amelia Grevis-James, Monash University.

Cameron Cuthbert

Physics applied to better business outcomes
Cameron Cuthbert, Senior Associate, Insight Analytics, PwC

A passion for problem solving led Cameron Cuthbert across the world to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. In his role as a research physicist in the field of experimental particle physics, he worked with  a team focused on recreating the conditions of the Big Bang, to uncover the secrets of the early universe.

After completing his PhD at CERN, Cuthbert returned to Australia and took a role as a consultant on the Insight Analytics team at PwC. He tackles complex business problems involving statistical analysis and computer simulation for clients who seek expertise outside their organisations.

Cuthbert found significant crossover in the skills required for scientific research and business analysis. “The skills I learned at CERN—including data analysis, measurement and estimation—were not specific to physics,” says Cuthbert.
“These ‘hard’ or ‘technical’ skills, in combination with ‘soft’ communication skills—such as presenting and explaining complex concepts—developed during my PhD, are all key to the work I now do at PwC.”

The stories of Katrina Bourke, James Hooper, Nathalia Tan and Cameron Cuthbert were originally published by Refraction Media.