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’re celebrating this special day by profiling women who have pursued careers in science to inspire Victoria’s future female scientists. We’re excited to introduce Dr Kelly Zuccala who is the Water Operations Lead at Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA). Kelly spoke to us about her love of the marine environment and how she balances a career in science and raising a family.
Q&A with Dr Kelly Zuccala, Environment Protection Authority Victoria
What inspired your career in science and how did you land in your specific field?
I grew up with a saltwater canal running through my backyard that led to a bay, a chain of barrier islands and then the ocean.
I have always loved the marine environment and found that science was the way for me to help protect it.
When I was in high school in New York, I knew that I wanted to study marine science and found a university there that allowed me to specialise in marine science. From there, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to conduct research on excess nutrients and mangrove algae at the University of Melbourne. I did my Ph.D. research at RMIT looking at oil spill impacts on echinoderms. Since then, I have happily been in a wide range of roles and am currently the Water Operations Lead at EPA Victoria, where I lead and manage a team of specialists who are responsible for marine and recreational water quality monitoring, assessment and reporting across the state, and conducting field work to better understand our environment and prevent harm to Victorian communities and the environment from pollution and waste.
How has EPA supported your career in science?
I have benefitted from being in different applied science roles every few years at EPA Victoria. This has given me a larger scope of experience in science than what I’d had from conducting research previously.
Since having my son five years ago, the flexibility that EPA offers to work part-time hours has enabled me to look after him and my family while continuing to take on different roles at EPA.
What are gender stereotypes for women in science?
Gender stereotypes that I grew up with were that women didn’t like science or that women weren’t very good at understanding science – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
What obstacles have you faced as a female in a STEM career?
Many research labs are dependent on securing external funding and grants to finance the research. Depending on the year-to-year success of obtaining funding, research teams sometimes need to reduce staff numbers, and this creates a lot of uncertainty. The one gender-based obstacle that I and some of my female colleagues in research labs faced was the added challenge of planning for maternity-leave and how to raise young children in this work environment. Many opted to change to other science-based roles outside of research because of this obstacle.
How do you address the gender gap in your specific area of science?
Over time at EPA, there doesn’t seem to be a gender gap. In the previous leadership structure at EPA, I had an all-female line of management from my manager, director, Chief Environmental Scientist, and Chair of EPA.
What have you done in your career that you are most proud of?
I am proud of the research I’ve been part of to understand introduced species in marine environments around the world.
What piece of advice would you give to the next generation of women and girls considering a career in science?
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to make the perfect career choice for yourself from the start. Focus on starting with something you enjoy doing and that interests you. As you learn more, you can change roles or focus. You’re not stuck in one role or one career for life.
Have you had to juggle work and home-schooling arrangements due to lockdowns, etc? How has this impacted your work and family?
Lockdowns and the upheaval from COVID-19 were difficult on most people. Supporting a team of people through this virtually at work was a challenge. Having a three- to four-year-old to manage at home at the same time made things incredibly difficult as he didn’t understand my competing priorities and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t spending time with him like I normally would when we’re home together. Everyone I worked with was sympathetic and many were in a similar situation so we supported each other as best we could but it was certainly an incredibly difficult challenge at times.
What influence does your role in science have on your family and/or children, if any?
My love of science has always spilled over into my conversations with others, especially children. Kids are always asking great questions about how/what/why and it’s great to be able to answer some of their questions but also leave them wanting to discover more on their own.
Do your children show an interest in science?
Yes, my five-year-old is really curious and wants to understand how things work. As a family, we often take things apart so he can see how the parts fit together to make it work again. And we spend a lot of time at the beach and our backyard looking at things we find in nature and talking about how they fit within a bigger system. He is full of questions, and we often get books out of the library and look things up online to help him learn more.
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.
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.