Inspiring stories from our Women in Science

In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March we’d like to share six stories of inspirational scientists who work for the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) in a broad range of roles from threatened species conservation and climate science to remote sensing.

Citizen science is an important tool helping to fill knowledge gaps and improve OEH monitoring, evaluation and reporting activities

Ten top tips from our Women In Science for building your environmental science career.

  • Don’t underestimate your abilities
  • Maintain your passion and remember your work is making a difference
  • Be prepared to do the hard yards
  • Spend as much time as you can in the bush
  • Commit to learning new field skills
  • Take a leap, just do it and ask for advice along the way
  • Build a network of mentors and supporters
  • Look for opportunities to volunteer or work during your studies
  • Plan your transition from study to your early career path
  • Put your hand up for management positions and seek out female role models.

On International Women’s Day, we say thank you to the many women and staff for their contribution delivering the research and expertise needed to protect our beautiful NSW environment now and into the future and for inspiring the next generation of young scientists.

Dr Heidi ZimmerDr Zimmer and collaborators from the Office of Environment and Heritage and the Royal Botanic Gardens are in a race against time to protect the famous Wollemi Pine from extinction.

Less 100 plants were discovered as part of the original Blue Mountain population in 1994, Dr Zimmer is working to safeguard this critically endangered species, by investigating the conditions required to establish much-needed insurance populations.

Already, Zimmer’s experiments indicate that the light levels within the wild population may be far below optimal for seedling growth. This unexpected twist opens up the possibility that future colonies could be established in very different environments to the original population.

But this is just one of the many interesting projects Dr Zimmer is involved in.

“I just work on rare plants, where they live and what they need,” she explained. This entails anything from filling out extinction risk assessments, to marching into the wild to investigate a possible sighting of a rare plant.

Dr Zimmer puts her passion for conservation down to her upbringing growing up in a town known for environmental issues that led her to study conservation and development, “so that I could be one of those people that come back and know everything, and solve all the problems.”

Whilst she admits that it turned out to be a little bit more complicated than that, she cherishes the ability to inform decision making with science.

“There is something really good about working at the interface of science and management, in that you can actually make a difference on the ground,” she said.

However, ultimately Dr Zimmer’s favourite thing about working with the Office of Environment and Heritage is the people, who she described as “interesting and intelligent, and passionate about what they are working on.”

Dr Zimmer does not believe she has been disadvantaged by being a woman in the workplace. However, Zimmer acknowledges that biases often enter the workplace as women enter their late 30’s, due to increased family commitments. To this potential challenge she boldly declares, “I am ready!”

Dr Zimmer’s sage words of advice for aspiring female scientists. “Women can underestimate their abilities where men overestimate theirs. Don’t be intimidated.”

Enhua LeeLike many others, Dr Enhua Lee grew up watching and marvelling over David Attenborough documentaries. It was during this time, when Dr Lee was in primary school, when she first realised that she too wanted to learn about and work to conserve our natural environment – and that she did!

Dr Lee went on to study a Bachelor of Science (Zoology) with honours, before deciding to broaden her area of interest from animal physiology, to ecology and wildlife management, completing her PhD in the area of road ecology.

At the Office of Environment and Heritage, Dr Lee is a Conservation Assessment Officer, working as part of Greater Sydney’s Ecosystems and Threatened Species team, primarily running projects under the Saving our Species program.

Dr Lee has had the opportunity to work with and study lots of our unique plants and animals, including the koala, but a stand-out in her career thus far has been discovering an undescribed species of plant during a survey in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. The plant belongs to the Goodenia genus.

As a female working in conservation, Dr Lee encourages other females thinking about a career in conservation to follow their passion and pursue this path, just like she did.

Dr Lee’s parting words of advice for women currently working in, or thinking about working in conservation, is to maintain the passion and interest that first led you in this direction. “You will encounter setbacks, as you do with any career, but maintaining that passion and knowing your work can make a difference is something worth fighting for,” said Dr Lee.

Libby LindsayFrom as long as Libby Lindsay can remember, she has always been fascinated by our beautiful natural environment. It was this interest and fascination that led Libby to pursue a career in science and conservation – and she has never looked back!

After studying a Bachelor degree in Biological Sciences, Libby spent six years working as a ranger for National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) before joining the Saving our Species program as a project officer, working in the south-east of NSW, including the Alps and Southern Tablelands.

Libby’s role sees her working with NPWS rangers and field officers to get on-ground works happening within the National Parks to save some of the most threatened plants and animals in NSW.

But the thing Libby loves most about her role is the fact that she gets to be hands-on and out in the field, taking action to improve the environment.

“My job has provided me with lots of memorable moments - from surveying Mallee fowl from a helicopter, doing surveys with local communities for Aboriginal artefacts, fighting fires in our local national parks and interstate and working alongside some of the most passionate volunteers in NSW,” said Libby.

When asked what advice she would give aspiring young women considering a career in conservation, Libby commented that being able to work in beautiful locations for a cause you believe in is an amazing opportunity. But because of this it can also be very competitive to get a job. Some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in having a career, include:

  • Be passionate and open to learning new things everyday
  • Be prepared to do the hard yards – sometimes you will have to hike for 3 days in the rain or survive on little sleep to get some surveys done
  • Spend as much time in the bush as you can – with other people who have spent time there too and can pass on their knowledge
  • Learning a few field skills like chainsaw use, 4WDing and navigation will make you extra employable
  • Be prepared to move to a regional location – most of our bushland is away from the cities so that’s where the jobs are.

Dr Stephanie Downes When Dr Stephanie Downes stepped towards a poster of a breaking wave, displayed at the Mathematics Department stand during a university open day, she didn't realise it was the first step towards an influential career in climate science.

Years down the track, her passion for the ocean, and talent for mathematics and computer programming have helped Dr Downes flourish in her career as a Physical Oceanographer.

Most recently, Dr Downes worked with the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC in Hobart to investigate the impacts of hydrothermal vents and melting Antarctic Sea ice on global ocean circulation.

But as her research skills and interests evolved, Dr Downes was increasingly drawn towards climate change science.

“We are living with a changing climate, and I want to be part of the adaptation and mitigation solutions,” she explained.

This realisation led Dr Downes to her new role at the Office of Environment and Heritage, where she will focus on projects relating to climate change and environmental impacts.

“Working in a job where I can contribute to making a difference, in terms of helping people understand climate science and environmental impacts, is really important to me,” she explained.

Dr Downes is overjoyed to be working for an organisation where she can “contribute to making a difference, in terms of helping society better understand the climate around them.” Whilst Dr Downes is still a self-proclaimed “newbie” to the team here at the Office of Environment and Heritage, she hopes that one day her work here will directly benefit the NSW public, including her Sydney-based family.

As Dr Downes begins the new stage of her career, she passed on a simple piece of advice for women contemplating a career in Science– “Just do it!” And if you have questions, simply call someone from the career path you are interested in and ask.

“Science literacy is so important in our daily lives, regardless of whether you become a scientist or not”.

Caroline BlackmoreAfter a week of counting wheat seeds for high school work experience, Caroline Blackmore was determined not to work in science, and had another career first. It wasn’t until she was working overseas where there was a lot of diurnal fauna to watch and they seemed to be doing such interesting things – and Caroline wanted to know why, that she thought maybe a career in science is actually what she is most interested in.

Caroline converted her Arts degree to Science with a Graduate Diploma, and then did a research Masters in Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, and a PhD in Natural Resource Management where she mostly studied the behavioural ecology of birds and the implications of social systems for conservation.

Currently working as a Senior Project Officer, Threatened Species for the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the North Coast, Caroline oversees a number of conservation projects as part of the Saving our Species program.

But there is a distinct moment in Caroline’s career history that she will never forget, and that reinforced she had found the right career path, which had become a lot more than a job, but a passion.

“I remember hearing, for the first time since the 1980s, that waterbirds had returned to breed on a part of the Macquarie Marshes for which I managed the restoration."

“Local NPWS staff had worked very hard to get the projects funded and delivering them was complex. But in under two years we turned a broadacre farm into a functioning floodplain ecosystem."

“It was the first time I’d had a part in turning a vision for conservation into real, on-ground, environmental gains,” Caroline said.

So what advice would Caroline give aspiring women considering a career in environmental conservation? Do it!

“You get to do what you love and know it’s valuable,” said Caroline. Some of her other tips include:

  • Plan your transition from studies to career early - there are lots of excellent environmental scientists out there and it’s possibly less likely that you’ll be viewed as having a preordained path from degree to environmental practitioner
  • You’ll need a good network of mentors and supporters so ask to meet people working in the field to introduce yourself and talk about career options.
  • Look for early opportunities to volunteer or work during, not after, your studies
  • Importantly, once you have those contacts, listen to them and be grateful when they give feedback on your work or ideas. Their time and experience is valuable.

Rebecca GibsonDr Gibson believes an ardent desire to find answers led her to a career in landscape ecology, specialising in remote sensing.

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” Dr Gibson explained. “It keeps propelling you down the rabbit hole.”

And now, after years of chasing her passion for science and discovery, Dr Gibson has followed the rabbit hole to a project that will ultimately influence the entirety of NSW.

The project, which is run in collaboration with the NSW Rural Fire Service and the new Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub hosted by the University of Wollongong, will research and develop a remote sensing approach to mapping fire extent and severity across NSW.

“The remote sensing I’m doing now can be quite technical, but I always like to bring it back to that ecology framework. That is what is really interesting to me,” she explained.

When asked about her experience of being female in the field, Dr Gibson described how she is often the only, or one of few females in meetings. Whilst Gibson admitted that “it can be a bit intimidating to contribute and feel equal” in meetings like these, she can see that change is happening.

“I can feel it as a rolling wave,” she said. “It’s emerging, a sort of culture of support.”

Dr Gibson believes that increasing women in management is key to establishing gender equality, and is thankful for the strong female role models she has at the Office of Environment and Heritage.

Following this, Dr Gibson has some advice for younger women on their journey towards a career in science.

“At each step along the way, make a simple choice to go with the thing that sparks the biggest fire in you,” she said. “If at every point you are following that drive then I think you can’t really go wrong. You are going to end up in a place where you know you will enjoy what you do.”

OEH citizen science

If you are thinking about a career in science or just want to learn more about how science is helping the environment, volunteer as a citizen scientist and work with OEH scientists on a range of projects across the state.

Learn more about how you, your school or community can get involved in citizen science.