20 women who blazed a trail in STEM this year

20 women who blazed a trail in STEM this year


It’s been an incredible year for women in STEM. Across the world and in our own backyard, women in the fields of science, engineering, climate and health have made their mark in unprecedented ways.

We’ve taken a tour around the world and within Australia to bring you a list of the women to look out for, their commonalities and the pioneering ways they’re working to make the world a better, safer place for everyone. 


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Australian Women

Dr Ellen Broad
Ellen Broad, an expert in AI, wrote a book two years ago. The book, titled, ‘Made by Humans: The AI Condition’ explores our role and responsibilities in automation and AI design. The Canberra-based professor recently spoke to  Women’s Agenda about the growing desire from industries to merge a diverse range of skill sets from various fields.

“There’s clearly a need to be able to link STEM issues with politics and journalism,” she said. “These are rare skill sets that are unique – the ability to interrogate texts and understand the contexts of issues.”

 Broad, who is currently serving as Senior Fellow at 3A Institute is located in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University in Canberra, is continuing to champion for STEM industries to embrace the intersection of skills in communication, engineering and analytics. 

Dr Ruth Carr
Ruth Carr believes the gender gap in some areas of STEM has little to do with classroom performance and much more to do with introducing the right role models and enabling exposure to STEM subjects and careers.

As the Executive Director of Australian Science Innovations, Carr works with organisations to improve educational outcomes for high school students. She’s spent years working for various not-for-profits, advocating for more girls to study science related subjects.

Marlene Kanga

Kanga’s career is prolific. She is the director of Sydney Water, Standards Australia, AirServices Australia and Business Events Sydney, and the president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations — the peak body for engineering institutions internationally, representing 100 engineering institutions and over 30 million engineers.

She believes in taking in perspectives from a diversity of people across industries.

“Some of the most unexpected sources have been the most valuable,” Kanga told AFR recently. “I value all the advice and mentoring I get from my peers, from my superiors when I was working and from my fellow board members. I seek it out now because I think having those conversations centres you, keeps you grounded and helps you move forward.”

She’s also passionate about seeing more women in her male-dominated field. In 2015, she was interviewed by The Australian Institute of Company Directors where she said, “Women tend to think more about the social impact of engineering on the community and are often attracted to the profession because of it. I’ve seen how engineering can fundamentally change the lives of people and give them hope.”

Melanie Bishop
As a coastal ecologist, Professor Bishop studies in temperate ecosystems across Australia and the US, observing how different ecosystems operate and respond to change.

Her research has focused on a wide range of environmental problems such as shellfish disease, coastal erosion, nutrient enrichment, invasive species, and marine urban sprawl. All of these issues are, of course, affected by climate change. Right now, co-leading the green engineering working group of the World Harbour Project where a large group of people from various industries and tertiary institutions are looking at solving the problem of sustainable solutions for the design of seawalls and urbanised shorelines. 

Rashina Hoda

Associate Professor Rashina Hoda was recently recognised as one of 60 women selected as part of Science & Technology Australia’s prestigious Superstars of STEM program in 2021–22.

Professor Hoda has been studying agile software development, software teams and project management, and human-computer interaction for years. Her work also looks at educational game design for 21st-century skills and human-centred design for smart energy consumption.

Upon her selection into the Superstars of STEM program, Professor Hoda said she was “looking forward to becoming a role model to inspire more girls and women to pursue STEM by increasing the public profile of women.”

Dr Jagnoor Jagnoor
Starting out as an expert in injury epidemiology, Dr Jagnoor became interested in head injuries and the science behind best recovery post-injury practices.

As a Senior Lecturer at The University of NSW, Dr Jagnoor imparts her knowledge of evaluating potential interventions to reduce the burden of injuries and rehabilitation. Her research extends to studies in injury surveillance systems, road injuries, burns, falls and drowning. She is also interested in creating new knowledge to address the injury burden for low middle-income people with competing health needs.

Amy Searle

A few years ago, Amy Searle won the Australian Academy of Science Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Scientist Travelling Research Award, which recognises outstanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD students in the field of natural science and health.

She’s currently completing a PhD at the Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, where she’s looking at vascular biology and developing a targeted approach to treatment for thrombotic and cardiovascular diseases. “The new therapies that we’re developing here might be able to be used in a more rural and remote setting as well. It’s reaching Indigenous populations, which is a big driving force for my research,” Searle said.

Katherine Kedzierska

Back in March, Professor Kedzierska published an article in Nature Medicine journal which showed that people recovered from COVID-19 like they would the flu.

Her research may help in determining which immune cells are appearing and could help with the development of a vaccine. Professor Kedzierska is the Head of the Human T cell Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, where her primary focus is on viral immunology. This year, she has been busy working with scientists at the University of Queensland as they received funding to rapidly develop and test new vaccines. 

Dr Kim-Anh Lê Cao

Dr Lê Cao has spent her career trying to develop statistical and computational methods that can be transferred to analysing biological data used in designing the latest technology. Technology which is helping scientists and healthcare workers understand the intricacies of the human body.

She has focused her research on developing ways biological data analysis can be used to develop efficient software, and recently won the Moran Medal from the Australian Academy of Science as an early-career honorific. “Science informs everything we know about all the world,” she said last year. “Trying to answer very fundamental questions about how the world is shaping our planet, I think is really what drives me.”

Pearl Li Ng

Engineering has taken Pearl Li Ng on a dynamic and diverse career journey. She’s volunteered for Engineers Without Borders, joined IBM as a digital transformation consultant, led the Youth Charity Society, and taken on the role of Event Coordinator for Lean In Melbourne.

Currently, she is Digital Implementation Manager at Aurecon, an engineering design and advisory company. She’s also doing her PhD on implementing agile ways of working in the management of physical assets. This year, she was named one of Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM. She told the Academy she hopes to inspire the next generation of STEM practitioners to be exceptional leaders, especially females who are first-generation students or first-generation migrants.

International Women

Adi Utarini

Though the world was focused this year on the COVID-19 virus, another disease continued to ravage communities; one which has been around for a very, very long time.

Adi Utarini is a public-health researcher at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Indonesia, and this year she led a pioneering trial of a technology that could help to eliminate dengue fever.

Edna Kaptoyo
Climate Justice

“I am a fierce feminist because I am walking in the footsteps of feminists who came before me, I strive to end patriarchy strive for equality,” Edna Kaptoyo once said.

The Kenya-based Indigenous Women’s Rights & Climate Justice Advocate has spent years actively engaged in international financial institutions and United Nations processes relating to environmental human rights and advancing the issues and concerns of indigenous people in Africa. This year, she has continued her work with the Indigenous Peoples Taskforce for the development of Global Environment Facility (GEF) Guidelines and Principles of Engagement.

Dr Ocean Mercier

As an Associate Professor at Victoria University in Wellington, Dr Ocean Mercier focuses on how mātauranga and science connect and relate, particularly in educational and environmental contexts. She researches the ways te taiao advocacy connects communities to place; ocean knowledge to support iwi interests and tries to link the understanding of groundwater with mātauranga and Māori perceptions of novel biotechnological controls of pest wasps in Aotearoa. She also presents Maori Television’s Project Matauranga and TV New Zealand’s Coast.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
Climate Change

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim grew up in a semi-nomadic community in southern Chad, so is used to the travelling involved in her job.

As a climate activist and expert on Indigenous people’s adaptation to climate change, Ibrahim recently participated in a webinar organised by the Vatican Covid-19 Commission where she shone a light on the impacts of climate change on Indigenous communities and pointed out how Covid-19 has exacerbated many of these challenges; including restricting the movement of nomadic tribes who migrate following rain patterns.

Gitanjali Rao

This year, TIME magazine created an award to recognise America’s youngest and most inspiring leaders. The Kid of the Year award was taken out by 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao, best known for her technological inventions that tackle water contamination and cyberbullying.

One of Rao’s most noteworthy inventions is a device called ‘Tethys’ that can identify lead in drinking water. It is faster and less costly than current methods and provides all the information to your mobile phone on an app Rao created. 

Shi Zhengli 

Professor Shi Zhengli heads a group that studies bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in the Chinese city where it was first detected.

In February,  Shi Zhengli and her team of researchers published an article in Nature, finding that SARS-CoV-2 is in the same family as SARS, and that it has 96.2 percent genome overlap with the most closely related known coronavirus. In June, she identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and issued a warning in an interview on Chinese television network CHTN that more could emerge.

Anna Blakney

It’s one thing to work on combating the COVID-19 virus and quite another to communicate the science behind it to the layperson. That’s where Anna  Blakney comes in. She wants to make sure people know all the facts.

One of a growing number of young scientists working on vaccines and using TikTok to provide information and reassurance about the safety of jabs, Blakney says her “approach on TikTok is come for the entertainment, but stay for the science.”

Hailing from Boulder Colorado, she has been part of a team developing a Covid vaccine at Imperial College London and has so far racked up over 200,000 followers on TikTok with her creative vaccine explanations generating 2.8 million likes.

“I have to stop and think, ‘wow, this is bigger than our lab and bigger than myself’,” Blakney told BBC. “Obviously there is scepticism out there and I really don’t think that is a bad thing. People really should question [the] development of new treatments and what they put into their bodies, but someone has to be on the other side of the conversation answering the questions and saying ‘here is how we do it, here is what’s true'”.

Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim
Last week, Professor Abdool Karim spoke at the Science Forum South Africa 2020 where she noted the troubling figures from UNAids statistics where there have been at least 1.7 million new infections of HIV/Aid in South Africa.

This week, she received an honorary doctorate from Stennebosch University for her pioneering HIV research and dedication to advancing the health of women in her home country and abroad. She is currently an Associate Scientific Director of CAPRISA (The Centre for AIDS Program of Research in South Africa) and frequently teaches at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Jamie Margolin
Climate Change
She’s been called a ‘visionary’ by Oprah because at just 18, the Seattle-based teenager cofounded the global climate action organisation Zero Hour.

This year, Margolin has been busy joining the youth group that is suing Governor Jay Inslee and the state of Washington over greenhouse gas emissions. She’s active across all social media and regularly speaks out about LGBTQI rights too. Her activism guide, Youth to Power, was published in June this year, with a Foreword by Greta Thunberg.


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