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Encouraging women into fire and biodiversity science

The 11th of February marks the 5th International Day of Women and Girls in Science and this year’s theme is Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science provides a platform that recognises the critical role women and girls play in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

At the SE Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium, we work with a many intelligent, innovative and dedicated women. To celebrate, we asked a small portion of the Women SEQFBC work with about what has inspired them to pursue careers in STEM and what has been the most rewarding part of their careers.

Here is what they had to say.

Image: Dr Diana Virkki in the field in Tasmania. Diana's advice to a young women exploring work in science: Firstly, follow your passions and never stop learning. I recommend seeing a supportive and passionate mentor, building a solid network of likeminded women and finding a work environment where you are encouraged to learn and grow.

1. What inspired you to work in a science and applied science, technology field? 

Dr Samantha Lloyd, SEQFBC Manager: I have always been inspired by the natural world and passionate about working in ecology and sustainability (particularly fire ecology) and driven to learn more about the natural world and communicate that to others. I found maths and science came naturally to me, which allowed me to explore in those areas and make the most of opportunities as they arose. I found my niche in ecology as an undergraduate at university.

Chandra Wood, Local Government Conservation Land Manager:  As a kid I wondered how everything interacted in the bush and what happened when something like a storm occurred. I wanted to learn more and understand how I could make a difference through looking after our natural heritage. Applied science linked these aspirations.

Dr Annabel Smith, Fire Ecologist: I was tricked into science. As an angsty teenager in school, I had no interest in science. In my 20s, I hadn’t figured out what to do with my life so I did a semester of science at University before dropping out and going to work random jobs. Later, after becoming interested in environmental issues, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science with a major in Biodiversity Conservation. Along the way I found out I really loved science!

Martine Parker, Fire and Land Management Specialist: I had always wanted to be a Park Ranger as a child and knew that’s what I needed to be. I was introduced to fire management at the start of my career and as I began learning how much science was involved in prescribed burning something ignited (pardon the pun) inside of me. I knew I had found my niche in this industry.

Dr Diana Virkki, Fire Ecology and Management Specialist: A passion for knowledge and my innate obsession with the natural world. We have so much to learn. We need to improve the ways we share this environment with growing populations while maintaining our vital natural areas to foster resilient communities. 

Dr Penny Watson, retired Fire Ecologist: I studied an undergraduate in Science because I couldn’t write essays (cut out Arts) and faint at the sight of blood (cut out Medicine). I got hooked on biology, thanks to inspirational teaching, field trips and discovered the world under a microscope. I got into Fire Ecology as an adult, finally following up a long-held fascination with fire, which started age 11 when wildfire roared past our house in the Adelaide Hills. I needed to know: does the bush recover?  

Ariane Allen, Local Government Natural Areas Projects Officer: I am passionate about conserving our natural environment and the wildlife that live there. I understood that one of the best ways for me to do this was by learning more about how our natural environment works. Once I started learning about how the different elements of the environment work together, how it relates to real life and how important it is to conserve, I was hooked!


2. What part of your job do you find rewarding and why? 


Image: Dr Annabel Smith in the field in a recently burnt gorse shrubland in Ireland. Annabel believes that the point is to change the system so that it works for a greater diversity of people - not just different genders but different races, sexualites, classes and personalities. 

Dr Samantha Lloyd, SEQFBC Manager: I really believe in the values and objectives of THE program that I manage (SEQ Fire and Biodiversity Consortium). I know it has incredible relevance and value for our landscape. I enjoy working collaboratively with a brilliant, dedicated and inspiring people and organisations locally and throughout Australia. I love being able to use the skills and knowledge I developed during my studies and PhD to work in an area I love and see tangible and consistently positive outcomes.

Chandra Wood, Local Government Conservation Land Manager: I love spending time in the field with our team, sharing knowledge and looking at the healthy and sustainable areas that we manage and seeing that we are making a difference through the application of good science and sound principles.


Image: Chandra Wood's (above) advice to encourage young women into applied science is to follow your passion. Don’t pursue a career if you’re not passionate about it. If you don’t know what your passion is, then take some time to explore and discover it. Never believe anyone who tells you that you can’t do it.

Dr Annabel Smith, Fire Ecologist: I really love making discoveries – finding out things that no one ever knew before. Sometimes this happens in the field but, more often than not, it happens when I’m analysing data. When you have a well designed study, there’s nothing more rewarding that sinking your teeth into some data and seeing what nature has to tell you. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

Martine Parker, Fire and Land Management Specialist: There’s many rewards in my job, but two that top the list. The first one is the ability to restore degraded and maintain healthy regional ecosystems in pristine natural areas through delivering effective fire management and integrating weed and feral animal management. Secondly, being able to protect the community and vulnerable flora and fauna through strategic burning practices.

Dr Diana Virkki, Fire Ecology and Management Specialist: In fire management, it is rewarding seeing the ducks align for shared values and objectives from a variety of stakeholders (community protection and resilience, cultural heritage, biodiversity, land use). It is encouraging to see prescribed burns being implemented successfully and seeing positive environmental outcomes, particularly through cultural burning.

Dr Penny Watson, retired Fire Ecologist: I love seeing life arise from the ashes. I am grateful to have learned how fire shapes the bush. I love yarning about fire ecology.  I take heart from growing community awareness of indigenous fire management. I consider fire ecology, central to life in Australia and I love that I get to explore it through hands-on research, reading and listening. I love pulling ideas together so others can better understand our fire-prone land.  

Ariane Allen, Local Government Natural Areas Projects Officer: Seeing our beautiful bushland areas regenerating and providing habitat for wildlife. I also enjoy seeing other people getting as excited as me when they are in the bush. One part of my job is being part of our prescribed burn team, and I love it. I love seeing our team work well together for great environmental outcomes. 

3. What advice would you give young girls/women who would like to pursue a career in a STEM field? 


Image: Dr Sam Lloyd leading a field trip during one of SEQFBC's Fire and Biodiversity Forums. Sam suggests to young women to look for a balance of interest, motivation and natural ability - find something that you enjoy doing, so that you are self driven to achieve. 

Dr Samantha Lloyd, SEQFBC Manager: Go for it!  Be strong and determined in what you are interested in and what you want to achieve and do not let negativity from others get in your way. 

Look for a balance of interest, motivation and natural ability – find something you enjoy doing, that you are self-driven to achieve in, and that you are good at.  Importantly, find a mentor and pull in people who can help you along the way. Look at the job opportunities and think about whether you are prepared to undertake post-graduate studies and potentially work overseas for a while. You may need to consider moving around before you land where you want to be.

Chandra Wood, Local Government Conservation Land Manager: Follow your passion. Don’t pursue a career if you’re not passionate about it. If you don’t know what your passion is, then take some time to explore and discover it. Never believe anyone who tells you that you can’t do it.

Dr Annabel Smith, Fire Ecologist: Don’t let them mould you into the system. Demand that the system is flexible enough for you, your life and family (what ever form that takes), the quirks of your personality and your passion. The point is to change the system so that it works for a greater diversity of people – not just different genders but different races, sexualities, classes and personalities.

Martine Parker, Fire and Land Management Specialist: Support each other. It is paramount to support other women in the field, so they can feel empowered and continue to be strong enough to push through challenges, whether it be through discrimination or returning to work after maternity leave (yes, as a mother to 2 children, we can have a career and a family if we choose!). Never forget the people that support you, sometimes they may be the very ones who challenge you! Sometimes you won’t know this until they are long gone, and you realise how capable you are because of the situation(s) they pushed you into and how much they believed in you when you didn’t.

Dr Diana Virkki, Fire Ecology and Management Specialist: Firstly, follow your passions and never stop learning. I recommend seeing a supportive and passionate mentor, building a solid network of likeminded women and finding a work environment where you are encouraged to learn and grow.

Dr Penny Watson, retired Fire Ecologist: Apart from ‘run like hell’, which was my first thought. To put that nicely: it won’t always be easy. Find your specific passion within STEM, and find a mentor who knows that area, communicates well, and is supportive of women.  If you’re planning to do research, add understands statistics to that list. Practice writing clearly and succinctly: it’s vital.

Ariane Allen, Local Government Natural Areas Projects Officer: Follow your passion and give it your best shot. Everyone is capable of learning and applying what they learn, especially if it is something you are passionate about. Don’t be afraid to work hard in male dominated fields as you will learn some great skills and meet some great people.  Get out of your comfort zone – you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.


Image: Martine Parker about to fly off to conduct a landscape scale prescribed burn using targeted aerial incendiary.  "There are many rewards in my job, but two that top the list. The first one is the ability to restore degraded and maintain healthy regional ecosystems in pristine natural areas through delivering effective fire management and integrating weed and feral animal management. Secondly, being able to protect the community and vulnerable flora and fauna through strategic burning practices."

4. Summary of each of the Women below including their areas of study, their current role and their relationship with the SEQFBC.

Dr Samantha Lloyd, SEQFBC Manager: I have 19 years research, management and teaching experience in ecology, entomology, bushfire and natural resource management. I graduated from the University of Wollongong with a Bachelor of Science (Biology), 1st Class Honours in 1998 and a PhD (pollination ecology) in 2006.  My work has included working as an entomologist for the Australian and New Zealand Fire Ant Control Programs and as both an Environmental Manager and Coordinator of the Moreton Bay Oil Spill Environmental Restoration Program for the SEQ regional NRM body.  My role is Manager of the South East Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium, which I took up in 2010 and thoroughly enjoy. (The SEQFBC is a program hosted by Healthy Land and Water).

Chanda Wood, Local Government Conservation Land Manager: I completed my Associate Dip Rural Techniques (Wilderness Reserves and Wildlife) when I left school in the early 1980’s. I also completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Parks Recreation and Heritage) in the 1990’s. I am currently completing my Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Science. I have been a professional land manager for local government for more than 30 years and I am the current Chair of the Steering Committee for the SEQ Fire and Biodiversity Consortium.

Dr Annabel Smith, Fire Ecologist: Working as a fire ecologist, my research is involved in better understanding how plant and animal populations recover from bushfire so we can better predict how to manage ecosystems in future. I’m collaborating with SE Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium scenario planning, so we can work with state government agencies, traditional custodians and private land owners to improve fire management for biodiversity and human safety.

Martine Parker, Fire and Land Management Specialist: I studied Conservation Land Management, Business Management and every fire management qualification I could get access to. In 2019 I participated in a Fire Training Exchange Program in Florida, USA that was specifically focused on women, where I met inspirational women in firefighting from across the world and learned that although we came from different countries, all the issues and challenges were the same. I work as an Environmental Coordinator as a contractor to a large government agency. My position requires me to develop and deliver fire mitigation across Queensland and other land management practices such as weed management, feral animal control, water quality monitoring and threatened species management. I love my job!

Dr Diana Virkki, Fire Ecology and Management Specialist: I studied a Bachelor of Science and completed my Doctorate on fire and wildlife ecology. My current role with Ten Rivers is to provide fire ecology and management advice, develop Bushfire Management Plans and annual Bushfire Mitigation Works Schedules for a variety of clients across the country. I have had a long and ongoing relationship with the SEQFBC through their support of my research, and now where I share my learnings and gain support for my students that I am nurturing early in their careers.

Dr Penny Watson, retired Fire Ecologist: As an undergraduate, I did a Bachelor of Science, with majors in Botany and Psychology.  I married and had two kids and worked as a social science research assistant, then for government and in community development, building skills which have continued to be useful today.  When my first child finished school, I started a Masters in Environmental Management, which I completed with an add-on honours project in 1999.  This set me up to do a PhD in fire ecology, which I completed in 2006. By the time I went back to university as an adult, I had learned to write, to organise my time, to self-motivate, to appreciate the opportunity to learn.  I had found my passion in environmental management and during my Masters refined it to fire ecology. 

Since completing my Masters I’ve worked as a researcher in fire ecology, and in community education initiatives including SE Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium (SEQFBC)  I was the initial co-ordinator of SEQ FBC, a fabulous job. Where I was able to interact with a range of wonderful people in the Consortium and beyond.  With others I wrote fire management guidelines, brochures and newsletters. I helped organise workshops and presented at them.  Such a great team effort!   I really loved my time with SEQ FBC.

I’m nominally retired now but am still writing up journal articles from previous projects (it happens), and responding to requests for information and input in my field. I am a huge fan of the present-day Consortium, am stoked that it continues to inform people about the role of fire in our beautiful SEQ bush. 

Ariane Allen, Local Government Natural Areas Projects Officer: Whilst working as a veterinary nurse for 15 years, I realised I could save more animals by saving their habitat. Thus, I studied a Bachelor of Environment Science as a mature age student at Southern Cross University, part-time whilst I worked full time. Since graduating and working in a variety of environmentally related fields and volunteering as a fire fighter, I developed an interest in fire as an ecological tool, I have undertaken an Honours research project investigating how different fire regimes affect fauna populations. My current role predominantly involves managing bushland weed control with Contractors.

 

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