Women in science – making a difference

Today is February 11, the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate we’re catching up with Dr Tanya Detto, a scientist who works at one of Australia’s wildlife wonders, Christmas Island National Park.

Tanya came to Christmas Island for a three-month contract eight and half years ago. She has been working to try and stop the decline of red crabs, which are found only on Christmas Island and are famous for their spectacular migration.

Millions of crabs have been wiped out by yellow crazy ants since the 1990s. Dr Detto, other Parks Australia staff and La Trobe University are working hard to protect red crabs from this invasive species. You can find out more about this incredible story on the ABC website, courtesy of journalist Tom Joyner.

Q&A with Dr Tanya Detto

Photo: Island Care Christmas Island

How did your interest in science start?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in understanding how the world worked. I grew up watching David Attenborough’s documentaries and collecting and studying bugs in the garden. I didn’t realise that I could actually make a career out of studying animals until I was about eight, when my grandfather suggested to me that I should think about becoming a zoologist instead of a vet.

What do you enjoy most about your job as a scientist on Christmas Island?

The best part is that I actually get to make a real difference to the conservation of the unique wildlife on the island while still getting to satisfy my curiosity about how the world works and what makes animals tick.

Do you have many female colleagues and would you like to see more women in science?

I know a large number of highly successful female scientists. In fact my entire cohort of PhD students and the majority of my team on Christmas Island are women. Of course I would love to see more women in science, but I would also love to see more men in science. I think science should be a much more valued discipline in general.

One of the many tasks carried out by rangers and scientists on Christmas Island

Do you believe that encouraging women and girls to take up an interest in science is important?

I think it is important to raise the profile of science in general. Everyone should be given the opportunity and encouraged to follow their passion, no matter what their gender. So, if you’re passionate about seeking answers and don’t mind the fact that they might not be the answers you want or expect, and will probably just lead to more questions, then science might be for you.

Did you experience any barriers when developing a career in science as a woman?

Given that I have managed to successfully develop a career in science, it is perhaps not surprising that I am less likely to have experienced barriers than those people who may not have been able to pursue a career in science.

Science, like many other career paths, is a very competitive field and I think the barriers that I experienced were because I am not a particularly competitive person, not because I’m female.

My family, friends and teachers have always encouraged me to follow my interests and I have never been told that I can’t do something just because of my gender.

The work being done by rangers, community members and scientists like Dr Tanya Detto will hopefully give these young red crabs a brighter future.

Do you believe barriers still exist in science for women, and are things changing?

I don’t think that there are nearly as many barriers to women pursing an interest in science as there once were. While I am sure that there are still gender issues in particular workplaces that may make it difficult to progress, I think these are the same issues faced by women in many careers.

The nature of science, and academia in particular, means that it can be difficult to return after taking extended time off, such as when raising a family. However, there are grants available specifically for women returning to research and I know several women who have successfully returned to academia after raising their kids or who have raised their kids while continuing to work.

Did you have a positive female role model that inspired or encouraged you into your science career?

I am not generally someone who needs to see someone else do something to think that I can do it, so I guess I didn’t need to see women doing something to think that I could do it too.

My family have always supported me in any decision I made and I have had several memorable teachers who encouraged me to pursue my interest in science. My grandfather first introduced me to the concept of being a scientist and my interest in biology was nurtured by two really good science teachers in high school and college, both of whom happened to be men.

However, I probably learnt what it really meant to have an actual career in science from my PhD supervisor. Although I chose to leave academia, I would probably consider her to be my role model of what a scientist should be.