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 Paula Sardina who is a Scientist in Water Sciences at Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA). Paula spoke to us about her international experience and how she balances a career while raising a family.
Q&A with Dr Paula Sardina, Environment Protection Authority Victoria
What inspired your career in science and how did you land in your specific field?
It was my love for nature and curiosity about animal behaviour that inspired my career in science. I followed a Biology degree and soon after I graduated, I obtained a scholarship to do my PhD studying the feeding behaviour of estuarine fish. At this stage I was living next to the sea which made it easy to do the field work. After finishing my PhD, I moved to Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. At this time, I also had my first baby. Being far away from the sea and with a baby to look after, I switched my research from marine to freshwaters, and from the behaviour of native fish to the impacts of invasive species on native ecosystems. I spent a lot of time doing field work, going to conferences, and visiting research institutes and universities overseas in Germany, Canada and Australia to collaborate in various research projects. Through these experiences, my research interests broadened to the effects that human actions have on water environments.
After a two-year postdoctoral work at Monash University in 2014, now with two children of six and eight-years old, and an eleven-month baby, my family and I moved to live in Australia. Not long after we arrived, I started working at EPA Victoria, where I’m still working as a Freshwater Scientist. EPA is Victoria’s environmental regulator, working to prevent and reduce the harmful effects of pollution and waste on Victorians and their environment.
After more than fifteen years in academia and research, working at EPA gave me the opportunity to use my knowledge and expertise in an applied context, and to continue to do what I love and what I am passionate about: building and sharing knowledge of the natural world to help create a better place for current and future generations.
How has EPA supported your career in science?
EPA’s commitment to provide a flexible working environment has given me the opportunity to balance my work and personal life. This has been extremely important for my family, as well as for the development and enjoyment of my career. I feel extremely lucky to work in such a caring, respectful and diverse environment. Working at EPA has allowed me to do high-quality research on real-world problems, and to share this research with the Victorian community, and more broadly with the Australian and international scientific community. I’m always learning in my specific field and what’s more interesting, I get to learn and collaborate with colleagues from other fields who share the same passion for science and the protection of human health and the environment.
What are gender stereotypes for women in science?
One of the most common gender stereotypes is that girls are not as good in maths and science as boys. Women are seen as more emotional and less objective and rationale, which are two key qualities to be a scientist. Evidence has shown how these stereotypes can influence young womens’ aspirations to pursue a STEM career and consequently, have an impact on gender equality and diversity in science.
What obstacles have you faced as a female in a STEM career?
As a mother of three children, sustaining and progressing my career as a scientist, especially in the academic system, has been my biggest challenge. The reality is that there are still gender inequities related to family care and although there are discussions about gender-neutral work-family arrangements, in practice it’s largely constructed as a woman’s issue. This is more a motherhood than a female per se barrier, but a reality that many female scientists face.
How do you address the gender gap in your specific area of science?
I’ve participated in woman-in-science workshops and take a proactive approach to participate in outreach programs to support girls in science. For example, I’m a volunteer for the STEM Professionals in Schools Program, a program supported by the Australian Government Department of Education and delivered by CSIRO. Through this program, I have created partnerships with teachers in schools to increase students’ STEM skills and interests.
What have you done in your career that you are most proud of?
Leaving my hometown and carrying out research experiences elsewhere, including overseas, is something I’m proud of. Through these experiences, I found new opportunities and pathways in my career that I never thought of! One of these pathways was joining EPA Victoria, a place where I love to work and where I can make a difference to solve real-world problems. What piece of advice would you give to the next generation of women & girls considering a career in science? Go for it and trust yourself! Do the things that interest “you” and take advantage of every opportunity. Create connections, talk to others and look for support (there are lots of great people willing to help and support you; help others help you!). And finally, don’t let your fears and stereotypes stop you from following your dreams; take courage and keep moving in the direction of what you love.
Have you had to juggle work and home-schooling arrangements due to lockdowns, etc? How has this impacted your work and family?
Yes. I have three children at school, so it has been a difficult few years for the whole family. My partner and I are lucky to have jobs that are committed to looking after their employees and therefore we were both able to work part-time to care for our children. I’d say that we managed work and life in quite a healthy way. I am aware not every family has been in this same position. What influence does your role in science have on your family and/or children, if any? A lot! I’m always promoting logical and evidence-based thinking at home. I encourage my children to question themselves about what they read or hear all the time, to identify good sources of information, and to think critically.
Do your children show an interest in science?
All children are curious on understanding the world around them, so they are all ‘scientists’ in a way, and I have seen that myself with my children. One of them loves animals and rocks!
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.