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Key roles for women scientists in invasive pest battle

Women scientists are playing key roles in protecting Australian agriculture against invasive species while changing the face of a male-dominated sector.



When Nadine Chapman started work on a bee breeding project, she had no idea the honey bee industry would soon be faced with a deadly mite threatening its survival.

"We had to scramble," the University of Sydney bee researcher said.


Immediately her work was front and centre in the biggest biosecurity response Australia had initiated.


Dr Chapman and her team scurried to discover how the rest of the world had managed the mite.


"We had wanted to have a breeding program in place for the eventual arrival of varroa, which we were hoping was going to be 20 years away," she said.


"It was a really big responsibility to get it right."


The researcher said it's that ability to pivot that makes her job as a scientist so appealing, along with the international work opportunities.


Dr Chapman's research has taken her all over the world, from a long stint in London to Thailand and India.


The 43-year-old said she has noticed a turnaround in the number of women working in the field since starting two decades ago.


"When I went to my first beekeeping conference, it was very different, the women ran the reception desk and sold the raffle tickets and the men went to the talks, now there's a lot more diversity," she said.


As the United Nations marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Sunday, the organisation said a significant gender gap continues in science.


Dr Chapman said while she was passionate about temporary job as a research fellow, the unpredictable nature of contracts makes her work precarious.


"My friends don't understand why I don't have a permanent job," she said.


Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers according to the UN.


Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues, and while they represent a third of all researchers, only 12 per cent of national science academy members are women.


Scientist Sharna Coleman is trying to protect the cotton industry from the cluster caterpillar.


Agricultural scientist Sharna Coleman is also on the farming front line, trying to protect Australia's cotton industry from the cluster caterpillar.


It is groundbreaking work and her enthusiasm for her research is overt.


The young scientist has also travelled with her work and spends a third of the year in cotton fields in Australia's north, researching how growers can protect themselves against the pest.


"We want to be pre-emptive rather than reactive," she said.


The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries scientist is also enthusiastic about closing the gender gap.


"Science can take you to a huge array of places, I wear football shorts and work shirt and work boots, and I'm in a cotton field and that's science," Ms Coleman said.


"It's important to encourage women to continue going into science careers."


Things seem to be improving for women, says Sarah Annesley, who heads the Molecular Cell Biology Group at La Trobe University.


Dr Annesley has noticed a shift in the number of female scientists in more senior roles.

"When I started, there were two hardcore female scientists that had nothing else going on in their lives, and there were no mums."


The mother of two young children said it's been a big balancing act juggling the two roles.


"I do think we've made progress, for sure, but I think that we still a long way off in achieving parity," Dr Annesley said.


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