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'I use zebrafish to fight heart disease. I want girls to know STEM isn't just for boys.'

Growing up with a scientist for a father my family dinner discussions often revolved around advances in medicine, astronomy and neuroscience. So, it never occurred to me as a young girl that my interest in maths or science wasn’t “normal”.

As a female cardiovascular disease researcher and passionate supporter of women in science, I was thrilled to see Quantum Physicist Michelle Simmons named 2018 Australian of the Year a couple of weeks ago. As I believe having strong role models and mentors is key for girls and women to pursue science in school, university and at the workplace.

"It never occurred to me as a young girl that my interest in maths or science wasn’t 'normal'." Image: Belinda Rolland © 2016

Unfortunately, it’s still the case that only 16 per cent of Australians qualified in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women. So, there is far more work to be done to encourage young women to consider a career a STEM field as an option for them and as something they might enjoy.

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Young girls are just as good in maths and sciences as boys and I want my three daughters and other young girls to be confident in these areas and not shy away from pursuing a career in this field if they are interested.

In my experience science can be an incredibly rewarding career choice if you are curious, enjoy being intellectually challenged and want to contribute meaningfully towards solving some of the most pressing problems of our time.

However, young women will often move away from studying science in school after Year 10 and pursue what are perceived to be more typically “female” subjects, such as English or humanities. It’s thought that the misconception that women are not successful in STEM professions may contribute to this.

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What also worries me is the amount of STEM qualified women who are opting out mid-career. A key contributing factor is the lack of female representation at institute department head and director levels which has a direct impact on the lack of female role models and mentors in science.

However, change is in the air, with more and more universities and research institutes making great efforts to promote gender equity.

The underrepresentation of women in science fields is a huge shame, not only for these women but for the growth of Australia’s STEM industries and the future of research in this country. Women can bring different experiences and ways of thinking to their work, which is extremely valuable when you are trying to solve a problem or innovate.

Many people wouldn’t believe that the work can also be incredibly flexible. In my career at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney I have benefitted from flexible working arrangements and opportunities that consider my carer responsibilities.

In fact, just last year I was able to attend the 10th Zebrafish Disease Models Conference in San Diego, USA, while having any extra childcare expenses covered, thanks to the Heart Foundation NSW Cardiovascular Research Network.

With our changing economy, now more than ever is a crucial time for young women to develop skills in fields that are at the forefront of technological development.

So, I encourage you to speak with the young women in your life about how they can future-proof their careers for the jobs of tomorrow.

Dr Martin is a German-trained medical doctor who now lives in Sydney with her husband and three young girls. She is a senior postdoctoral research fellow at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and a Heart Foundation NSW Cardiovascular Research Network funded researcher.

She uses zebrafish models to investigate causes and potential treatments for inherited forms of human adult heart diseases such as cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation. For her work she was recently awarded the prestigious Ralph Reader Basic Science Prize at the 2017 Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand (CSANZ) annual scientific meeting.

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