Science & Health

Australia's Oldest Scientific Institution Celebrates Women In Science For International Women's Day

Women scientists are stepping out of the labs and into the light as part of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney 200th anniversary celebrations, highlighting the immense contribution women have made over many decades at the Garden.

Of the 38 full-time scientific staff working at Botanic Gardens & Centennial Parklands, 58 per cent are women. In addition to this are the many female students, grant-funded scientists and honorary students involved in year-round research projects.

Whether as scientists, botanists, researchers, botanical curators and scientific illustrators, the Garden’s women scientists are working across the areas of plant diversity, seedbank and restoration research, conservation, wildlife and evolutionary ecology and plant pathology.

Dr Barbara Briggs (pictured), one of Australia’s foremost botanists and an Honorary Research Associate, is the organisation’s longest serving female scientist. She began her career at the Gardens in 1959 as the first female staff member with a PhD, following in the footsteps of her mother who in 1914 was the first woman in Australia to graduate with a Physics degree.

Over the course of her career Dr Briggs has named and reclassified hundreds of plant species, conducted groundbreaking research into botanical evolutionary relationships and was responsible for introducing DNA research to the Gardens’ science programs.

“I have been fortunate to work in biology during the time when the use of DNA methods have given a far more complete and robust knowledge of evolutionary relationships than I ever expected to see,” says Dr Briggs. “It has been a ‘golden age’ of new understanding in biology.”

Also leading the way for women in science is Dr Catherine Offord, Principal Research Scientist and Manager of Horticultural Research Science and Conservation at the Australian Botanic Garden. She has spent 22 of her 27 years there studying the Wollemi Pine. Dr Offord helped establish the award-winning Australian PlantBank, a science and education facility where visitors can interact with scientists’ work.

“I have been fortunate to have been very well supported throughout my career by both male and female bosses and co-workers,” says Dr Offord. “I am trying to pay it forward and support other women, and men for that matter, in pursuing careers in this area. Being supported and supportive is important in science as it is a tough area to get ahead in.”

Phycologist and Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Yola Metti, developed a fascination with seaweed when she did a scuba diving course as a 20 year old in Canada and it became her lifelong pursuit. Her first research grant took her diving all around Australia and she recently received a prestigious $270,000 grant to study a poorly understood algae with the rare ability to spread across both freshwater and marine environments, with major implications for lakes and rivers.

Dr Metti’s advice to young women interested in pursuing a scientific career is to follow their passions and keep asking questions. “Just keep asking, no matter what other people might think. This is a real challenge for girls who so often care too much about what other people think,” Dr Metti says. “I’m so proud to have followed my passion and come as far as I have. I’m miles ahead now than I ever imagined I could be.”

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