This International Day of Women and Girls in Science we're celebrating the role of women and girls in science, not only as beneficiaries, but also as agents of change. We acknowledge this important day by profiling women who have pursued careers in science, to inspire Victoria’s future female scientists.
We’re excited to profile Dr Suzanne McDonald. Dr McDonald is a Water Treatment Technologist with Grampians Wimmera Mallee (GWM) Water in Horsham.
Dr McDonald has a passion for water, and loves being part of something bigger in life to help others. She explains “I started from humble beginnings, not knowing where I’m heading, to a happy career in water 2003 – present (including PhD). I have had such a positive and wonderful experience working in a STEM career”.
She states “Water is essential for life! I work as part of a team to bring about a better life for people by providing safe drinking water. It is always exciting when we upgrade a town to drinking water or improve water quality and hear of the positive changes that it has made to people’s lives.”
Q&A with Dr Suzanne McDonald
What made you interested in science and why did you choose your specific field?
In mid-high school, I enjoyed graphic design, and had thoughts of becoming a graphic designer, but by the time I reached year 11, I had a wonderful chemistry teacher who had come to Australia on a teacher exchange program from Alaska. He made chemistry fun, and we got to do run experiments like make slime, nylon, extract caffeine out of tea bags and rubber balls. He encouraged me, and I found that I did well in chemistry and enjoyed science in general.
I deliberately chose science subjects in the latter years of high school, as I thought that they would give me a good foundation for a steady job. I was an average student who worked really hard, and my family moved to different states of Australia for each of my year 10, 11 and 12. I found navigating the different state school systems challenging, and received only an average university entrance score that got me into a local university Bachelor of Science (chemistry) course, with the help of a few extra points because I was local.
Once at university, I realised that (although I found them hard), I really did enjoy the sciences. I completed my degree, and went on to complete my Honours year, studying antioxidants in olives.
After Honours, I had the choice to continue with a PhD or start working. I decided to start working, although, I had no real idea at this stage about the types of jobs I could do with a science degree. I ended up finding work as a Development Chemist, but after three years, found that I was becoming sick from exposure to chemicals. At this point in my life, I really took time to think about what I wanted to do in the future. I prayed that God would give me a passion for something, as I didn’t feel passionate about anything. I liked environmental things, maybe salinity or water, but didn’t really know. After praying, God gave me a real passion for water that has never died. That’s when I returned to complete my PhD and purposefully move into the water industry. I first worked in the research sector for six years, and then moved to industry. I have been working with GWMWater now for approximately eight years and continue to love every day of it.
Water is essential for life! I enjoy the aspect of being part of a community and team that provides safe drinking water to people. I enjoy being part of something bigger in life to help others. I enjoy the chemistry part of water, being able to think and troubleshoot, and I am learning every day.
The water industry is collaborative in nature. Water utilities communicate with each other and help each other out, working together for the same purpose. There are many jobs within the industry and many opportunities for a career.
What are gender stereotypes for women in science?
I haven’t met with specific gender stereotypes for women in science in my career. I believe that it is important to just be true to yourself. Sometimes it can take courage to be honest and just be ‘you’ in the workplace, but it is important.
What obstacles have you faced as a female in a STEM career?
I have been fortunate to have started a STEM career at a time in history when it is seen as acceptable now than times past, for women to be in science related careers. I have worked in predominantly male dominated workplaces, female dominated workplaces, and mixed gender workplaces. In all these scenarios, I have found people to be very supportive, kind, and proactive in allowing your voice to be heard, and being supportive in leadership opportunities.
There have been the odd times where, in a group of men’s setting, there has been a sense that a female’s perspective is not as important, and times where my approach to handling some issues has not been appreciated from a male’s perspective, because it was done differently. However, I believe that gender differences working together complement each other, that difference is what strengthens us, and that there are many different paths that can be taken to resolve an issue, coming the same end-result. I had a very wise supervisor and mentor in university that taught me that if you have some logical reason behind a decision to support it, then you can move ahead with confidence. In all honesty, these times have been so very few. I have had such a positive and wonderful experience working in a STEM career.
How do you address the gender gap in your specific area of science?
In line with the Gender Equity Bill 2019, GWMWater has a Gender Equality Action Plan that ensures that gender equality is promoted and targeted in our organisation.
I am aware of other initiatives such as a partnership between VicWater and the Career Education Association of Victoria (CEAV) that undertook a project to raise awareness of water sector career opportunities and pathways to secondary students across Victoria towards around October 2021. There was opportunity in this project to encourage females into a STEM career. Universities also try to address the gender gap with their promotions. What have you done in your career that you are most proud of? I am proud of being able to work as part of a team to bring about a better life for people by providing safe drinking water. It is always exciting when we upgrade a town to drinking water or improve water quality and hear of the positive changes that it has made to people’s lives. I am also proud of being part of some work that helped a collective voice advocate for changes in an Australian standard, to lead a complex program that improved water quality for customers, to contribute to an Australian Drinking Water Guidelines fact sheet, to be chosen as an Australian representative for a trip to Germany for a meeting with Nobel Laureates, and to see research projects that I had contributed to, lead to water quality improvements for customers.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to young females?
“Just be true to yourself”.
About the day
The 7th United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly focuses on the topic “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us". Water is the basis of the fluids of living organisms, essential to our survival and thus unites us all. This year in Victoria, we also recognise the reality that science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of internationally agreed upon United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
You can discover more stories about women who have pursued careers in science to make a real difference.
“We invite you to read and share the stories, and celebrate women in science to inspire our future female scientists pursue their passion and make waves across industries”Dr Gillian Sparkes AM Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability
These stories were selected for the positive impacts made to improve water in Victoria and beyond, and thus to our environment and the health and wellbeing of the Victorian community.