Laura Babian

Laura has worked for the NSW Government for more than 20 years. She is the Director of the Conservation and Restoration Science Branch, which includes researchers, land managers and Aboriginal cultural scientists. We sat down with her to talk to her about what inspires her and how she's supporting other women in leadership.

Laura Babian

Tell us about your role

I'm the Director of conservation and restoration science for the NSW Government, and have a team of about 65 staff who work across the state.

Our work is linked to improving conservation and restoration outcomes for the people and environment of New South Wales, now and into the future. We focus on:

  • science and research to support the conservation management of species and ecological communities
  • science to support the conservation of koalas in New South Wales
  • applied science to develop practical knowledge for restoring biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes
  • science informed by cultural knowledge to improve land management and sustain Country
  • fire science and fire ecology to help us manage the risk of fire to environmental assets and cultural heritage over time.

Having said all that, my role is mostly one of communication. I spend a lot of time in discussion with stakeholders, colleagues, staff and researchers about the work that we are currently doing and what we could achieve in the future. We have many areas of interest across the New South Wales Government environment and heritage portfolio and interjurisdictionally.

What does a regular day look like?

I try and maintain a pretty structured workday between 8:30 am and 5:00 pm. This helps me manage my family commitments, exercise and other priorities.

On a typical work day, I spend more than half my time in meetings. Often those meetings are linked to governance for the work of the branch, or collaborative partnership meetings where we're thinking about the type of work that is underway or that we might work to achieve over time. And there's a lot of one-on-one interaction with colleagues in the branch and broader department. I do miss fieldwork.

What's the most interesting part of your job?

I've been working in for NSW Government for a long time and started with a focus on applied science and environmental management. I've gradually moved from the individual project scale, through to the catchment scale and to working at a state level. Over time, I have managed teams of increasing size to deliver projects and programs.

In the last couple of years, I've moved into the Director role and just recently finished an Executive Masters of Public Administration. I feel very strongly that the role of public servants is to care for current and future generations. This is the most interesting and important part of my job.

"I try and experience wonder in nature each day. It can be tiny: it can literally be looking at a tiny invertebrate that I've encountered in the garden, or going a quick bushwalk, looking at clouds or going down to the ocean. This helps me reset my perspective around why I do the work that I do."

C'mon, share a fun fact about you

Well, if you ever have hiccups, standing on a red belly black snake will make them go away. Thankfully I've only tested this once but with a 100% success rate. The backstory is that I had had hiccups for about 6 hours while I was doing fieldwork on the far south coast and they were driving me crazy.

I accidentally stepped on the snake and my hiccups were gone instantly (I may well have broken a standing vertical jump record at the same time).The snake was unimpressed but left unscathed.

What sparked your interest in science?

I have always had an interest in plants, nature and growing things. I've always been interested in applied science, understanding the environment that I see and understanding change over time.

My interest in nature was inspired by my parents. One was a forester, the other a science teacher. As you can imagine, we spent a lot of time camping, bushwalking and spending time in nature.

As a plant person, I'm often asked by friends and family for help. It's not uncommon for me to receive dodgy plant photos or videos people have taken from a car travelling 100 km/hour with questions like: 'What plant is this?' or 'What's the matter with this plant in the garden? Why is it dying?' It's pretty funny.

What's your favourite thing about working with the department?

I have been able to witness the transformation and diversification of the environment sector over the last 20 years. We are now seeing whole cohorts of smart, bright, capable, fantastic women move into the environment sector.

Another favourite thing is that I can be involved in mentoring programs, supporting women across a diverse range of backgrounds to achieve their career goals. For example, I helped establish the Women in Science Leadership Network last year. It's deliberately developing a professional network, providing a series of forums that allow women to move into leadership roles from scientific and technical backgrounds.

What research problem do you think is important right now?

Landscape restoration. It is an essential and growing part of the response to the biodiversity and climate crises. Landscape restoration is a significant driver for future biodiversity, carbon balance and climate adaptation for New South Wales and conservation alone is not enough.

What would you like to be working on in 5 years' time?

My hope is that in 5 years' time that we are implementing restoration activities at a landscape scale.

What has been the most useful or supportive thing for you in your career?

Participating in mentoring programs. I remember one of the most useful things I did through a mentoring program was an exercise that challenged me to choose 3 words I would like other people to use when describing me.

I have framed my leadership approach around those 3 words ever since.

What would you like to see changed or addressed to encourage women and girls in STEM?

Greater support for part-time arrangements and job shares to allow the time that's needed on return to work after significant life events , for example, parental leave, sick leave, carer's leave or exploring a career change.

I'd like to see organisations creating mechanisms that allow for overlap in job shares, so that rather than having someone working 4 days a week, but doing a job that takes 5 days a week, we actually advertise roles that have 6 days in 5. So, then we'll have job shares that are able to provide a balanced job share arrangement for staff, they'll have continuity and some overlap with their job sharer. This would mean investing an extra day (for the 6 days in 5 role), demonstrating how much we value both the role and the job share arrangement.

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