'Don't let anyone tell you what you can do': Meet geologist, Verity Normington

‘Never let someone tell you what you can do’: Meet geologist & STEM superstar, Verity Normington

It sounds like a simple approach, but hard work and commitment to your passion might just be the best way to achieve what you set your mind to. This is the sage advice put forth by geologist Dr Verity Normington, and her impressive career is certainly reflective of such an ethos.

The University of Adelaide PhD graduate has worked for the Northern Territory Geological Survey for more than six years, and in January this year, was named one of Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM.

This role sees Dr Normington advocate for an increase in the public visibility of women in STEM in Australia and cultivate positive role models for future female scientists.

We caught up with Verity recently for an update on her work and advice to aspiring women in STEM.

Congratulations on being named a Superstar of STEM!  What was your first reaction to this news?

To be honest disbelief. I had of course read the bios of the 2018 Superstars of STEM and marvelled at their successes and fields of research and thought that it was an absolute shot in the dark that I get selected so when I did I was absolutely dumbfounded. It’s an amazing privilege to meet and work with the women in the current constellation of Superstars and be able to learn the skills and have the opportunities that come with being in the program. I am amazed by the work they are doing every time we see each other. I am really just starting out in my career having only been a working geologist for almost 6 years and having only finished my PhD 18 months ago so having the opportunity to make these connections and learn the skills will hopefully lead to my doing some amazing things in the future.

What was the catalyst for you pursuing geology as a career?

When I was in high school I wanted to be a civil and environmental engineer and even when I was in primary school I always wanted to do something in the STEM realm.

After failing year 12 due to having an at-the-time undiagnosed chronic illness (Chron’s Disease), I went back to a senior college. That’s when I found geology. Within 2 or 3 weeks of semester starting, I fell in love with the subject. I just understood it. It came to me much more easily than maths or physics ever did.

As a kid I’d spent lots of time camping in the bush with my family so it was probably ingrained in me that I would work in a field that included outdoor work.

Apparently as a toddler, I would pick up the pretty blue and green rocks in my Great Grandma’s drive way at her house near Burra; now I guess those were malachite and azurite coated pebbles from the copper mineralisation that the Burra region is known for.

Who influenced  you when you were growing up?

Probably without realising it, my biggest influences as I grew up were the strong, resilient women in my family.

Not everybody gets to see strong women working full-time, raising a family and living  life the way my family do, as well as having male role models loving and encouraging it.

Today, I am influenced or perhaps inspired by people like Betty Klimenko who owns the motorsport team Erebus Motorsport. She is unashamedly who she is-  tattoos and all, something I can relate to.

There are many strong women that I admire in lots of different fields STEM and otherwise. I love reading about their journey and how they have gotten to where they are today.

You’re originally from South Australia, but you’re now based in Alice Springs. How have you adjusted?

There are a few big differences, both good and bad.

Alice Springs has an amazing sense of community. If something tragic happens like a house fire, the community really bands together to help. But it’s a very isolated place, despite having most modern conveniences, so that can be difficult to navigate.

You’ve been a geologist for the NTGS for five years now. What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of women’s participation and hiring at the organisation?

Working for the Government is a unique situation because it is a very stable workplace and therefore attracts lots of staff that have children and many women. The gender breakdown amongst the geologists is close to 50/50, which is pretty rare in the geology field.

In fact, in the Alice Springs Office there are more females (6) than males (4) including non-geologists, so hiring women has never been an issue for NTGS. Because of this gender balance, there hasn’t been a shift in women’s participation in a work sense,

When I’m in the field, and I’m the only girl, I do all the same things the men do. I load the trucks and climb the same ranges. There is no expectation of anything different.

The office environment is a little different. There are still the typical gender roles in the wider NTGS. Most often it is the women that organise the morning teas and lunches and when there is cleaning or packing up to do it’s the women that do the bulk of the work.

So there is still some work to be done, but all in all there is not too much of a gender divide in the NTGS.

That being said, there is an increasing awareness in the issues that women face in the workforce in the greater Northern Territory Government (NTG), but as yet it hasn’t reached a level that it may have in other jurisdictions.

What’s been the biggest change in those last 5 or so years, generally, as someone who works in STEM in Australia?

I think there is increased awareness that there needs to be more done to promote the advantages, opportunities and the rewards that can come with working in STEM for men and women.

When I first started uni (donkey’s years ago) there was very little public awareness of the types of jobs someone with a STEM degree could do.

I think there is still a big gap, but it is better than it was.

I still have friends that tell their little girls that working as a scientist may not be the best idea and that they should have a backup plan or look for something else, but at the same time I have friends that hope their kids get into STEM because they see it as a steady and rewarding career option.

Programs like Superstars of STEM and the work Science and Technology Australia do is really important in changing the public’s attitude towards things like STEM research funding and the importance of gender balance in reporting.

Just recently WOMEESA (Women in Earth and Environmental Science Australia) launched a database for conference and workshop organisers to find female speakers and presenters as a way of making keynotes and the like more gender balanced. While this may be a small thing, it’s huge in the way it supports the women of Australia to be recognised as experts in their field.

As an executive councillor of the Geological Society of Australia (GSA) I’m always looking for ways to promote young earth scientists and show the amazing work they do; normally with an unbridled passion and enthusiasm for their research. All of these things are very important to making normalising and celebrating the work that STEM professionals. Hopefully, when someone says ‘oh I’m a geologist’ the response is ‘oh that’s really cool and so interesting’ instead of ‘oh, what do you do? Look at rocks and stuff’.

As a woman have you ever felt burdened to advocate for alternative perspectives?

Not in the ‘you’re a (somewhat) young women and an early careerist, you need to have a different opinion’ way of being tokenised. If I feel that we are doing something wrong or unfairly I will always speak up anyway. Some would say I’m opinionated, but I’m lucky that I work in an environment that I feel comfortable doing so.

What are two things you’d say to yourself if you were 24 again- around the same time you started this journey?

At 24, I was doing the 3rd year of my degree. I had just taken 6 months off study to recover from major surgery due to my Chron’s Disease and I was at an impasse as to what to do next.

If I could go back, I would tell myself that the hard work of the past 3 years and the next decade would be worth it.

One of my favourite sayings is “The road to happiness is not well trotted,” and that is absolutely true. Hard work and dedication to your dreams will get you through, and never ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something because of your illness.

You might take a little longer to get there, or take a different path, but you will get there. And the places you will get to, you’ll never forget. I have just spent the last 5 weeks flying over some of the most remote places in Central Australia. At 24, I would never have thought that possible.

What do you do for fun or self care?

My go to self care is the gym. I work out probably 6 to 8 times a week doing classes, weights or just running on the treadmill. It’s a place that I can put all my energy into achieving a goal and nothing else matters.

As I spend quite a bit of time away from home, especially during the winter months, when I am home I like to just hang out with my husband, Adam and fur baby Deena. We typically watch the V8s if it’s a race weekend or watch movies and just generally spend time together.

In the summer months, I play women’s cricket with a lovely bunch of ladies. I do love a brunch or lunch with the women I work with, and we try and do that as often as we can. I also love a good book.

A quick change of pace here: What kind of music do you listen to, and does it inspire your work as a geologist?

Ha this is a great question! On permanent rotation is Foo Fighters, Halestorm, The Pretty Reckless (both little known female lead US rock groups) and Counterfeit (a UK Punk band). But I also love classic rock especially Aussie rock INXS and The Living End.

I have pretty random taste in music, but it is almost always underpinned by a rock beat, guitar groove or an incredible singer. When I’m walking/climbing/clambering over the rocks I always have my music on and I will usually be singing at the top of my lungs scaring the cattle and flies. It gets me pumped for the day and helps me concentrate. My brain tends to wander less when I have music playing.

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