Telling someone they're good at something is more powerful than you think: Dr Melanie Finch

Telling someone they’re good at something is more powerful than you think: Dr Melanie Finch

Finch

Dr Melanie Finch is devoting her life and career to exploring just how awesome Earth science is and what being a geoscientist is all about.

In particular, she wants to see more women in geoscience careers.

Having enrolled in a music degree at univerity with plans to have a career in musical theatre, she quickly moved into a science degree focusing on psychology. Later, she realized that wasn’t her fit either: she loved natural science and was obsessed with how the natural world works. She wanted to find answers to the biggest questions she could think of.

That’s what geoscience offers, and the career Dr Finch ultimately pursued.

But it’s a career that’s come with plenty of imposter syndrome, she says. Having not studied scienece at school — and initially pursuing different areas of academic focus — Finch says that she’s often felt behind, and like she was catching up.

She says she sees a similar lack of confidence in others.

As such, she urges others to consider the power of their words in supporting others who might be experiencing a gap in confidence. She says there’s so much power in just telling someone that they are good at something. “My tip is to be that person for someone else – your students, your colleagues, your supervisors. When they do something awesome, tell them,” she says.

Now, Dr Finch is taking her career and life’s work to the world. Currently, she’s pursuing a #100DaysofGeoscience outreach campaign across social media, where she posts a photo every day from her research and explains the awesome geology that the picture reveals (you can see the campaign on Twitter and Instagram campaign @melaniefinch_).

Now a structural and metamorphic geologist at the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University, Dr Finch’s early work focussed on the evolution of crustal shear zones in a variety of settings, in order to understand their development and tectono-metamorphic evolution.

In 2016 she was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, based at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, where she modelled the development of ductile shear zones.

She returned to Australia in 2018 in a teaching-research position at Monash University. Her current focus is on the links between deformation and metasomatism in shear zones, focussing on subduction channels as well as in the crust on shear zones related to critical mineral deposits.

Dr Finch is a 2021-2022 ‘Superstar of STEM’, as well as editor-in-chief of the WOMEESA newsletter and runs the WOMEESA seminar series.

She’s also the latest to feature in our STEM Changemaker Q&A.

In one sentence, how do you describe what you do?

I am a geoscientist and lecturer working on how tiny minerals in rocks deform and change their shape and composition when tectonic plates collide.

Was there a key turning point that put you on the path to doing the work that you’re doing today?

When I was 18 I thought I was going to have a career in musical theatre! I first enrolled in a music degree at university, but quickly found that it wasn’t the right fit for me.

Then I enrolled in a science degree, focusing on Psychology and went on to be a Human Factors Scientist at the Defence Science Technology Group. I knew that that wasn’t the right fit for me either. I loved science, but I had always been transfixed by how the natural world works, first by space and the universe, and then by planet Earth.

I wanted to find answers to the biggest questions I could think of, like ‘why do volcanoes erupt’ and ‘how do mountains form?’. I didn’t realise that you could make a whole career out of answering those questions, but once I found out, I raced into a geoscience degree and immediately knew I had found the place I belonged.

What drives the hard work that you do: your passion, your desire to be an instigator of change?

Like most Australian geoscientists, I stumbled across geoscience in a strange way.

Geoscience is not a major feature of the High School curriculum, so lots of people don’t know about it. I think that there are a lot of people out there in the world who have the same passion as I do for answering Earth science questions, but they have not realised that they can spend their lives doing that work.

My outreach work is about getting the word out to the public about how awesome Earth science is and what being a geoscientist is all about. At the moment that outreach work involves a #100DaysofGeoscience campaign on twitter and Instagram, where I post a photo every day from my research and explain the awesome geology that the picture reveals (@melaniefinch_).

Another aspect of my outreach work that I am particularly passionate about is increasing the number of women in geoscience careers. In university geology classrooms the gender split is 50/50 and the female students love geoscience just as much as the male students.

Yet, as soon as our graduates enter the workforce or academia there is a drop in the proportion of women, and this gets worse as the level gets more senior. For example, about half of the graduates that minerals companies hire are women, but most leave within the first few years, so the minerals industry ends up as the most male dominated industry in Australia.

It’s a similar story in academia – about half of our honours students are women but the proportion of women gradually decreases until there are <15% at the highest (professor) level. Something within these systems is getting in the way of these continuing in geoscience. I am trying to change that. I am part of an organisation called WOMEESA (Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences Australasia) and we aim to raise the profile of women in our discipline and create a supportive network for newcomers. WOMEESA also works to create awareness of the obstacles that get in the way of women succeeding and suggests ways that these obstacles can be eradicated. It’s free to join!

What can you point to that has been pivotal in supporting your STEM career?

In 2006 I went to a conference called “From stars to brains” that was in celebration of the 60th birthday of Paul Davies. The conference started with the Big Bang and the first few seconds of the universe, and then went to the formation of our solar system, then Earth, then plate tectonics and then onto to the evolution of life. In the middle section, there were talks by geologists and I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do with my life, those were the questions that I wanted to be asking.

More recently, my experience being part of the supportive WOMEESA community has given me the confidence to start to see myself as a leader. It is wonderful to feel like women in your profession have your back, and that is something I want to give other women by broadening the reach of the WOMEESA network.

What more needs to or can be done to support more women in STEM?

One of the biggest things universities and organisations can do to support women in STEM is give their partners equal access to parental leave.

Many organisations in Australia have generous provisions for maternity leave but very restricted leave for the other parent. Unequal access to parental leave creates inequality in Australian households that persists far beyond the period of maternity leave. Statistics show that even after returning to the workforce full time after maternity leave, the Mum still does the majority of the household duties and childcare. On the flip side, the other parent misses out on the opportunity to spend time with their child, an opportunity a lot of parents would love and are currently denied.

Additionally, the financial or psychological allure of giving the child more time at home before entering the childcare system may mean that Mums take the longest allowable period of leave, even if they would rather come back to work earlier. If universities and STEM organisations are serious about equality, they should afford both parents equal access to parental leave so that families are able to choose to structure their work/life balance in equitable ways.

Is there any key tip you can share for other women in STEM?

I came to science late and did not study science at High School. This primed me perfectly for constantly feeling like I was behind everyone else at university and beyond. I see that same lack of confidence in others, even when it is without cause, which is part of what we call ‘imposter syndrome’. I know the power of someone telling you that you are good at something. It can be huge, it can change someone’s life, and yet it happens so rarely. My tip is to be that person for someone else – your students, your colleagues, your supervisors. When they do something awesome, tell them.

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