Meet 3 remarkable LIMS women

From battling newborn sleeping patterns and feeding routines to publishing in high impact journals and writing grant applications, women researchers at LIMS walk a thin line trying to balance their career and personal lives.

Andrea Nguyen – PhD candidate

Andrea is a driven final year PhD candidate at LIMS, an example of the next generation of women scientists who have been actively encouraged to pursue a career in STEM throughout the early years of their education.

‘My high school was very supportive and encouraging of women in STEM and my parents always wanted me to receive a STEM education as they never had a chance to pursue their dreams,’ said Andrea.

The support Andrea has received from her family, formal education and mentors, like supervisor Professor Stephanie Gras, has given her the confidence and clarity to pursue a career in science.  But Andrea is not going in blind, ‘There are barriers (to women) everywhere you look. Such as career planning for having a family. And less obvious barriers, like how funding is disproportionately distributed and allocated to females.’

Ms Nguyen particularly wants to acknowledge the added hurdle that women of colour face. ‘Our workplace needs to actively create a space where women of colour don’t need to constantly fight for recognition despite their stellar achievements.’

Dr Pamali Fonseka – early career researcher

Pamali moved from Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2012 to take up a La Trobe University scholarship to study a Masters in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, after which she completed her PhD in Biochemistry and Genetics.

Dr Fonseka is a post-doctoral researcher specialising in extracellular vesicles within LIMS Mathivanan Lab. With several high profile papers under her belt and no less than three professional development awards in 2021 – including the highly regarded Jack Brockhoff Early Career Researcher Grant – Pamali is on her way to becoming a very successful independent researcher.

Pamali has also recently become a mother to a thriving baby girl. And this has changed Pamali in ways she did not anticipate. ‘I always thought there are no barriers to a career in science. But now that I’m a mother to a newborn, I find it very difficult leaving my child to come into work.’

‘I now see how reducing research hours to care for my child might affect my career,’ worries Pamali. ‘If working hours are reduced, research output is reduced and career progression slows.’

Dr Fonseka’s concerns are not unfounded. A ‘Professionals Australia’ report attributes a gender pay gap in STEM careers between women and men to the break from paid labour that many women take to raise a family. The report also ascribes the disparity between women and men in senior roles to the career break most women take in the early years of their child’s life.

See below for schemes La Trobe University implements to help remedy the gender divide.

Associate Professor Begoña Heras – mid career researcher

The positivity, passion and warmth Begoña exudes is as infectious as the pathogens she researches.

Dr Begoña Heras came to LIMS in 2012, supported by a LIMS Research Fellowship. When she was awarded the Fellowship, Begoña was a mother to a toddler and pregnant with her second child. Her second child was just four months old when she began. ‘This is a hard time in a working woman’s life. The belief shown in me by LIMS executives was incredibly encouraging,’ said Begoña. ‘But I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy.’

Begoña was juggling a burgeoning and increasingly successful career in science – she went on to receive an ARC Future Fellowship, running her own lab and supervising students and post-docs – at the same time as being a parent to two very young children.

‘I felt a lot of guilt. Guilt that I wasn’t there for my children in their formative years. And guilt that I may have not been able to give 100% to my research.’ From this Dr Heras learnt a valuable lesson, advice that she often gives to women who seek her counsel. ‘Be true to yourself. Work out your comfort level around sacrifice and compromise – whether that’s around family, research or something else because you can only be yourself, nobody else.’

Another key piece of advice Begoña offers to aspiring researchers is to find your passion. ‘If you don’t have the passion, it is going to be hard’. Begoña recognises that she is lucky. She has passion for her research and works with a team of committed and enthusiastic people, which Begoña claims is key to enabling her to carry out the world-class research for which she is known.

To facilitate career success Dr Heras recommends finding a mentor you respect and trust. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t found my mentor,’ claims Begoña.

According to Dr Heras, the importance of a mentor cannot be understated. She believes that the development of meaningful role model programs is essential. Dr Heras is convinced that this, combined with better institutionalised support for both men and women with young families, is the best way to encourage and retain women in science.

How does La Trobe University address the gender divide?

La Trobe provides a number of initiatives to encourage greater participation of women in academia and professional roles at the University:

  • Onsite childcare is available for younger children
  • Breastfeeding/chestfeeding areas are provided on campus
  • Flexible work arrangements are increasingly available – for both parents and other carers (La Trobe recognises that caring duties exist beyond those of young children)
  • Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellowships – to support future leaders who have significant caregiving duties
  • A carers conference and travel support fund is available to help cover the cost of additional childcare when presenting at conferences
  • Developing a gender balanced workforce
  • Recognition of the need to assess achievement relevant to opportunity
  • In the process of implementing an Inclusive Leadership Program to educate leaders about their role in creating a culture of equality and inclusion

While International Women's Day is about women in all their diversity, we acknowledge that trans, non-binary and gender diverse staff also face barriers due to their gender. We know that the experience of gender inequality can be compounded by the intersection of gender-based discrimination with other forms of diversity such as disability, cultural diversity, Aboriginality, gender diversity, and sexual orientation. We are committed to taking an intersectional approach to our gender equality work and achieving authentic inclusion that supports and values a diversity of people to progress in their careers and to contribute to our organisational success.