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Is the future of scientific research female?

Twenty-first century science is increasingly about collaboration – sharing ideas and techniques across disciplines, regions and countries. As a result, the make-up of a research team and how the people in it work together can be vital to its success.

Within Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM), three female researchers are leading multidisciplinary, multicultural and mixed gender teams in scientific fields traditionally dominated by men. They spoke about their experiences.

Professor Maria Forsyth: the power of mixed teams

Professor Maria Forsyth, Alfred Deakin Professor, Director of BatTRI-Hub, Associate Director in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science and IFM’s Deputy Director, is internationally recognised as a leader in the fields of advanced materials for new energy and infrastructure technologies.

‘I think it’s interesting how women and men work together in historically male fields,’ Prof. Forsyth says. ‘I’m proud to be a role model – not just for young women, but for all those looking at entering the scientific arena. I want to show them you can be female as well as smart and a good leader. It’s not either/or. You don’t have to be one of the blokes. Just be yourself, because we all have skills to offer.’

Prof. Forsyth is one of Australia’s leading experts in battery technology and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Deakin/CSIRO BatTRI-Hub – a research and innovation facility for developing next-generation battery and energy storage technologies.

Using BatTRI-Hub’s state-of-the-art facilities, Prof. Forsyth and her team are developing and testing new materials so renewable energies can be stored cheaply and efficiently enough to compete with the current energy storage options.

‘The team brings quite a diverse set of experience to the work, from bioscience to engineering, materials science and chemistry, but everyone has important roles to play,’ Prof. Forsyth says.

Professor Tiffany Walsh: collaborating with the best

For Professor Tiffany Walsh, a member of the Australian Research Council College of Experts and board member for Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge Innovation (veski), collaborating with other scientists is ultimately in Australia’s best interests.

‘We can’t necessarily compete with America and China for everything, but if we want to punch above our weight, then Australian scientists need to work together,’ she says.

Prof. Walsh, who returned to Australia from the UK many years ago, focuses on molecular modelling for a range of applications. Her team is developing technology to assess a person’s level of stress or fatigue using real time, non-invasive methods.

‘We want to be able to chemically measure the biomarker molecules that indicate stress or fatigue in the body without taking blood samples, for example by monitoring sweat or tears,’ she explains. ‘It’s a revolutionary technology for measuring vigilance and stress at a molecular level.’

Prof. Walsh’s team is mostly male, which she attributes in part to the traditionally male disciplines her work requires.

‘Our research lies at the junction of many disciplines, including physical science aspects, such as maths, chemistry, physics and materials science. It also includes biology, where historically there has been greater female participation. Ultimately, you just want the best people on your team regardless of gender, who contribute, get along and help each other.’

Dr Alessandra Sutti: innovation and diversity

As Deakin’s chief researcher in short ultrafine fibres, Dr Alessandra Sutti heads IFM’s award-winning short polymer fibres group. She said IFM’s open and supportive culture encouraged collaboration across teams and disciplines, regardless of background or gender, which allowed her team to actively collaborate with others across Deakin on successful projects.

The short polymer fibres group studies questions and applications in future fibres and materials, particularly exploring ways to enhance and apply properties such as water repellence or chemical absorption. In conjunction with IFM industry partner HeiQ, the group’s work last year led to the development of a commercially released product – HeiQ RealSilk – which allows ordinary fabrics to mimic the feel and characteristics of silk.

‘RealSilk is the result of hard work by a dedicated team of multidisciplinary researchers at IFM, Deakin’s School of Engineering and HeiQ,’ Dr Sutti said. ‘Our task now is to enable HeiQ’s scaled up production and together develop new products and new devices to make those products.’

Dr Sutti, a materials scientist and engineer, said IFM’s collaborative approach was a reflection of how things are changing in the scientific world.

‘More and more you don’t just have specialists working only in a narrow field. You also have a growing number of people who can apply their expertise to a wide range of research that has a real impact on fundamental and applied science.’

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Dr Alessandra Sutti
Dr Alessandra Sutti

Chief researcher in short ultrafine fibres, Institute for Frontier Materials
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Professor Maria Forsyth
Professor Maria Forsyth

Alfred Deakin Professor, Director of BatTRI-Hub, Associate Director in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science, Institute for Frontier Materials Deputy Director
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Professor Tiffany Walsh
Professor Tiffany Walsh

Professor of Bionanotechnology, Institute for Frontier Materials
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