This International Day of Women and Girls in Science we celebrate 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.
"Marine science is a ticket to travel the world" says Dr Rebecca McIntosh. For her, it was a way to combine her passions for the ocean, diving, nature, and travel. As a marine biologist who studies sea lions, penguins and fur seals, the seas are her workplace.
Born with a love of nature, Rebecca has been monitoring wildlife all her life. She and her brother would perform capture-mark-recapture studies on cicadas; finding them and writing numbers on them to see whether they would return the next year. She spent much of her childhood hanging around the local vet surgery until they gave her a job. Her mother also passed on a passion for ocean conservation. One of Rebecca’s earliest memories is of her mother planting jojoba beans to save whales (their oil is a substitute for sperm whale oil). Rebecca wanted to protect the oceans too.
At the age of 16, Rebecca also picked up diving. Wanting to keep up the hobby, she studied zoology and marine science at the University of Melbourne as it has a diving club. Then she volunteered and worked on projects around the world, including the Galapagos Islands and Macquarie Island. She has now settled back into Victoria, working with Phillip Island Nature Parks to protect the Australian fur seals and little penguins.
Rebecca’s proudest achievement in her career was during her PhD. She studied the Australian sea lion, which was not receiving much attention at the time. This beautiful, unique mammal was declining, and so she and her supervisor advocated for government funding to monitor them. While they have since been listed as threatened and endangered, some populations have seen a bounce back due to fishery exclusion zones and conservation efforts.
Rebecca also leads the annual SealSpotter Challenge, a project involving citizen scientists from every continent. She uses drones to capture footage flying over Seal Rocks, and participants count the number of seal pups in the footage. This project allows everyone to be involved in cutting-edge research and allows her to analyse seal population data faster and more accurately so that she can see how the population is fairing over time.
Marine research is a very male-dominated field as it often involves physical, dirty, adrenaline-pumping work. Diversity in any team brings diverse ways of approaching problems. Rebecca sometimes needs to come up with a creative solution instead of relying on physical strength when working with animals, and this often leads to an approach better for both her and the animals. Teamwork is also critical and working alongside others is important for great field work and science.
When capturing seals, "you run over rocks, and if you fall, you just have to get up" says Rebecca. And this is the approach she has taken to life. "If you’re passionate and really want to do it, don’t let anything get in your way."
Having been told that she wasn’t strong enough to work with seals as a young woman, Rebecca is now a leader in her field.
‘"I don’t want to be a successful female scientist" she says. "I want to be a successful scientist."
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.