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Today marks the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We’re celebrating with a snapshot of just some of the great work that was done by the women of UNSW Canberra in 2021.
2021 was a big year for climate science – the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, demonstrating that global warming would likely increase to 1.5 degrees in 2021, and the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) brought together world leaders with the aim of reaching an agreement on climate action.
We also saw record-breaking heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere, with temperatures nearing 50 degrees in parts of Canada.
Climate scientist Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick helped us make sense of what’s at stake.
“Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, given the short time we need to turn our emissions around, as well as relying on underdeveloped technology to extract emissions from our atmosphere and store them safely in the ground,” Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.
“But that does not mean we should give up. We must do as much as possible as soon as possible. If we take credible and serious action over the next few decades, we have a solid chance of avoiding 5°C warming. So let’s just get on with it.”
Dr Megan Evans was named the ACT Young Tall Poppy of the Year by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science, recognising her excellence and enthusiasm for communicating science to broad audiences.
Dr Evans’s work aims to understand and inform governments and businesses on how they can more effectively protect the environment.
Her background, which includes mathematics, ecology, public policy and policymaking, informs her research.
Dr Evans said she was grateful to be recognised, not only for her research, but for her engagement with policy and in the media.
“Many researchers do so much more than just research, but this work is often invisible, and so I’m really glad that the Australian Institute of Policy and Science provides this opportunity for the engagement work of early career researchers to be recognised,” she said.
As the ACT Young Tall Poppy of the Year, Dr Evans will continue to engage with policymakers and the broader community about her research – including talking to the media, policymakers, businesses and politicians and by making submissions to public inquiries.
Cultural geographer, Dr Nina Williams, is driving STEAM at UNSW Canberra – an initiative that emphasises the importance of the arts within the traditional STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The aim in doing so is to raise questions about the ways that life today is shaped by complex entanglements of technological, biological, geological, aesthetic, and atmospheric processes (and much else besides), from the scale of the planetary right down to the bodily,” she said.
“The respective logics of the sciences and arts can only get us so far in addressing this complexity, so the initiative seeks to open fruitful lines of dialogue between the two.”
Dr Williams explained that the arts don’t always provide clear answers in the ways that we might expect the sciences to, but they do provide new ways of looking at the world that makes us think of things differently.
“My current research examines biodesign (primarily in textile design), a unique field intersecting principles from art, design, science and engineering in order to create innovative and regenerative materials in response to the unsustainable practices of the wider design industry,” she said.
UNSW Canberra researcher Dr Katie Moon has co-created a complex system model that is being used to understand coral reefs, bringing a social science approach to the natural world.
Working with Dr Nicola Browne, a coral reef scientist from Curtin University, the ARC DECRA-funded project brings together expertise from a variety of disciplines including ecology, geology, chemistry, physics and climatology to determine the effects of climate change on coral reefs.
Scientists within these disciplines often describe the system in different ways, because of differences in their own knowledge, values, beliefs, and goals.
“So, we needed a method that was going to allow us to access and integrate these different knowledges, but no existing method was available. We needed to develop our own,” she said.
The method has been devised so that it can be applied to any field, from ecology to economics.
Squadron Leader Kate Yaxley, a Visiting Military Fellow at UNSW Canberra is studying how using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to herd sheep could actually be better for the animal than traditional methods of shepherding.
“UAVs are currently being used by farmers, so this isn’t a brand-new school of thought,” SQNLDR Yaxley said.
“But what we found was missing was that there was no understanding of how the sheep are interacting with the technology and the impact of the technology on their welfare.”
As part of a research project with Charles Sturt University, drones are being put to the test against working dogs to directly compare the stress levels of sheep when being mustered using experienced sheep dogs to that of mustering with a drone.
“Drones are increasingly being used in agriculture, not just to check sheep but to try to round them up,” SQNLDR Yaxley said.
“However, the technology hasn’t been specifically designed for mustering and there’s a need for more research to understand the impact of this on the health and welfare of the sheep.”
The research is also examining the most effective drone manoeuvres for mustering and what sort of drone features would make the technology easier to use for farmers.
UNSW Canberra is also demonstrating to young women in years 9-12 where their maths and science studies at school could take them through its Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) program.
The 2021 event welcomed almost 100 YoWIEs to explore elements of aeronautical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering through a range of activities, including designing satellites, building gas turbines, programming robots and constructing earthern dams.
Event organiser and aerospace engineer Dr Bianca Capra said the program was created to address the gender in STEM, particularly engineering where just 13 per cent of degree qualified engineers in Australia are women.
“At YoWIE, young women experience the creativity, teamwork, and skills engineers use daily,” Dr Capra said.
“Equally important, they see and learn from the diverse role models of our team.”
UNSW Canberra will welcome a new cohort of YoWIEs in April 2022.
Since 2018, UNSW Canberra has presented the UNSW Canberra Prize for the Best Female Student in Mathematics to high school students across the ACT.
The Year 8 and 9 recipients, who have been nominated by their schools are the top female maths students in their year.
Supported by Northrop Grumman Australia, the annual award aims to address the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and encourage more young women to pursue STEM studies at a tertiary level.
A 2021 winner, Angelina Subramanian from Alfred Deakin High School, said she loves the challenge of solving maths problems and wants to apply that to a career in STEM.
“Wanting to know how the world works through science has always been really interesting to me, and maths and science go hand in hand,” Angelina said.