In celebration of 11 February as International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and to promote gender equality in the in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), we recently spoke to high school student, Georgia about how her interest in surfing and career aspirations in science resulted in an amazing week of work experience at our Envirolab Services Sydney laboratory.
Ripple Effect: Combining Interests with Career Aspirations
A keen surfer, Georgia will be found paddling out at her local beach when the surf is up. Georgia explained that there is nothing more liberating than feeling sand beneath your feet as you take flight over the glinting waves that seem to stretch forever out into the horizon. As one of the most expansive and diverse places on Earth, the ocean is undeniably one of our greatest resources.
Despite their size, beaches, oceans and the surrounding network of rivers, bays, estuaries and waterways, are vulnerable to environmental contamination. In Australia, water quality management primarily lies with state and territory governments, who work with local councils, agencies, industry bodies and community programs to implement guidelines and regulations for managing the quality and supply of water. Regular collection of water samples is conducted to test for common groups of pathogens including bacteria, protozoans and viruses. For emerging contaminants, scientists, including our Research and Development Team at Envirolab, continue to lead developments and understanding about how pollutants, including Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are leached into the waterways, and affect mammals and aquatic life.
Improved understanding of the multitude of sources of contaminants and how they enter the ecosystem as well as the ever-increasing drive for action towards sustainability, led Georgia to wonder about the beach and the surrounding reserve that makes up her local area, Manly Lagoon. Located north-east of Sydney’s CBD, Manly Lagoon is home to breeding grounds and habitats for a wide range of birds, fish species, seagrasses and other living organisms. To facilitate her interest and maximise practical learning, the team at Envirolab included a sample testing project of the Manly Lagoon.
The results from the sample testing and an extract from Georgia's placement diary are detailed below and give us some insight into her thoughts as she settled in as well as what's generally involved when working a commercial laboratory.
- Although I was a little nervous at first, it did not take long to settle in. From the moment I arrived, everyone was friendly and so patient.
- The day kicked-off with an explanation about the safety procedures and then a tour of the different lab sections.
- I was shown the ropes at the Login section – this is where the samples get checked as soon as they arrive at the lab.
- After lunch, I spent the afternoon prepping my samples for organics testing. We didn’t get to do the testing as I ran out of time, but I helped other staff with organics testing of other samples instead.
- I spent the day with the Inorganics department and helped the team prep and test TSS, Cyanide, pH and EC.
- During the morning, I worked with the Metals Department in the morning.
- In the afternoon, I assisted the Asbestos team and learnt how to identify fibres and measure them through a microscope.
- My week seems to have flown by already!
- Tested my samples for PFAS in the morning.
- Toured the Airtox lab and was all of the machines and processes they use.
Thank you for the amazing week! The connections I’ve made, the tips I’ve been given and the new skills I learnt will definitely shape my future career. I can’t wait to make my mark in the big wide world and I know this experience has helped me to achieve this.
Findings From the Sample Testing
Georgia collected water and sediment samples from the Manly Lagoon. The testing of the sediment found positive results for Arsenic, Lead, Chromium, Copper, Mercury and Zinc.
However, and of interest, there were positive results for PFOS, which stands for "Perfluorooctane Sulfonic Acid." Along with PFOA ("Perfluorooctanoic Acid"), PFOS belongs to a group of PFAS, which are widely publicised chemicals used in a variety of industrial and consumer goods, such as firefighting foam.
Well done Georgia on your achievements during your week of work experience at our Envirolab Services Sydney lab and we look forward to hearing about your future endeavours!
STEM as a Career Pathway
Australia is facing a significant change in the way we work due to digital disruption. According a 2018 report by the ABC, demand for STEM skills is in high demand and will continue to grow as society continues to tackle challenges of a digital and technologically-enabled world.
While it’s difficult to predict what the exact jobs of the future will be, it’s likely that the demand for skills in innovation and problem solving, both of which are underpinned by a STEM education, will impact nearly every industry. Unfortunately, girls continue to lag behind in STEM fields due to stigma and cultural stereotypes that tend to portray males as naturally better at performing in these fields. The United Nations reports 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women, and only 35 percent of all students enrolled in STEM related fields of study are women. Therefore this demand cannot be met unless cohesive and collective action is taken to remove gender disparity and maximise the participation and retention of women and men in STEM related career pathways.
Addressing the complex challenge of broadening the participation of girls and women in STEM requires addressing the broader sociocultural context that is first experienced during the early years of childhood or the formative years of primary schooling, rather than targeting women later in life. Here, it’s about recognising equitable treatment and that males and females are of equal status and value. That's why it's important that we work together across government, education, industry and within our communities to engage, educate and encourage today's curious minds become tomorrow's innovators.
About International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Celebrated annually on the 11th day of February, International Day of Women and Girls in Science was first implemented by UNESCO and UN Women, in collaboration with intergovernmental agencies and institutions, as well as civil society partners on 22 December 2015. The day is aimed to promote full and equal access to, and to strengthen participation of women, girls and other underrepresented groups in the fields of STEM.
For more information about International Day of Women and Girls in Science and to find out more about how you can get involved, visit: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/international-day-of-women-and-girls-in-science