Tipping the scales – equality in science

UQ PhD student Jordan Debono is researching exotic snakes and snake venom – tipping the scales and what it means to be a woman in STEM.

Working as a researcher has its difficulties, just like any other career, but working as a female researcher can have additional difficulties. I’m a current PhD student at The University of Queensland, and I’m so privileged to be involved in such a supporting environment within my school and institute. It’s not until I step outside of this bubble that it becomes apparent the challenges not only I face, but other females within my field, and within science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

It’s a known fact that males dominate the science industry which is evident as soon as you step outside of the undergraduate circle. There may be more females enrolled in science degrees, however as you go up the professional ranks from masters and PhDs, to post doctorates and fellows, to associate professors and professors, female numbers dwindle. However, this hasn’t deterred me from my passion for science, nor my passion for the animals that I work with, and the exciting prospects they hold.

I studied a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology as an undergraduate and obtained first class honours in evolutionary biology at UQ. Now I’m undertaking research and my PhD –  focusing on snake venom within the Venom Evolutionary Laboratory in the School of Biological Sciences. This field of snakes and snake venom research is male dominated – considered a somewhat ‘macho’ field. A lot of herpetologists who may not be researchers but are avid lovers of reptiles are also male. I can’t answer as to why this is but when looking at the stereotype of herpetologists, some might say I’m the odd one out. Despite this, I don’t see a division and it hasn’t hindered me in the slightest. It only drives me to pursue my career and make my own mark in this field.

In saying that, research within the lab and my research career have been exciting so far. It’s been hard but the things in life that are the hardest, are the ones worth working for. One of my most exciting moments as a researcher to date was the first time I had a paper – my very own research – published online. The fact my name was listed first and I could cite ‘Debono et al’ was a fulfilling moment. Mainly because it was something I could show people – a representation of all the extra hours volunteering in lab, staying late, spending summers at uni, and weekends in lab. And the publication was before I was granted a PhD position or my APA scholarship. Once I got the taste for it, I remember thinking that this was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. Many more exciting moments have come along, and taking a moment to look back at my undergraduate days, I never thought I’d be where I am today - an ambassador for Women in STEM.

To be honest, I’d never really thought about the phrase ‘Women in STEM’ or being ‘a woman in STEM’. Even though I am a classic example of a woman in a male dominated science field both in and out of the lab, it had never really occurred to me until recently. All I can say is that in my personal experience, it hasn’t been bad, more difficult, or unfair. I think that is due to the little bubble I exist in within my lab, within UQ. If I was to perhaps be a member of another lab in another university, in another country, the opportunities and outcomes could have been vastly different. Times are changing, the hierarchy of researchers are growing older and a new generation are coming through to fill their place – that new generation is made up of women like me - full of passion and drive.

There are many new and exciting opportunities for me, my research and for women in STEM. Women’s voices are being heard and the way situations are being dealt with are changing. For myself, this means taking the stigma head on, and being told that ‘women belong in the kitchen making sandwiches’ only fuels the fire. We can use our brains and passion for our research to do good – exactly what it’s intended for.

Last updated:
8 March 2017