STEM CORNER: Highlighting Successful Women in STEM





Our Maths Club initiative to connect students with women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-based careers continues again in our ‘STEM Corner’.

This edition features an interview from Laura Tambasco (pictured above) of Year 8 with Dr Sophie Calabretto (pictured below). Dr Calabretto is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Macquarie University, as well as an Honorary Associate Professor in the Aerospace & Computational Engineering Research Group, in the School of Engineering, at the University of Leicester in the UK. She has kindly agreed to speak with us about her career journey and offer advice to MSCW students.

LAURA: Can you please describe your career journey so far and what you are currently working on?

DR CALABRETTO: I went to university straight out of Year 12, where I did:

  • a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science double degree (BA majors in French and Applied Maths, and BSc majors in Physics and Theoretical Physics)
  • a Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences (Honours) in Applied Mathematics (my Honours’ thesis was on Mathematical Models of Neuron Firing – basically using mathematics to understand the equations the describe how biological neurons fire)

  • a PhD in Engineering Science, in which I studied why fluids go from being well-behaved (laminar) before transitioning into an unstable then fully turbulent state – once we can understand turbulence, we can control it, which can mean faster planes, a better understanding of weather and climate, advances in diagnostic medicine and so much more!

While I was completing my PhD, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do afterwards so I applied for a couple of postdoctoral research positions and ended up as a Postdoctoral Fellow at ETH Zürich in the Institute for Mechanical Systems and, after about a year of doing that, I was recruited back to Australia to take up the position of Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Macquarie University. A couple of years later I was promoted to Senior Lecturer and then a couple of years after that, I left academia and spent a year doing freelance science communication (I co-hosted a Twitch stream called Battery Low in conjunction with Arludo and the Australian Museum, did a bit of writing for Cosmos magazine, hosted RiAus/Cosmos’ podcast … that kind of thing). And finally … I became a Defence scientist, as part of Defence Science and Technology Group’s (DSTG) NAVIGATE Program. I am currently seconded as the Associate Director of the Defence Innovation Network (DIN), where I help link together university researchers, industry, and Defence, to help solve Defence innovation, science, and technology problems.

LAURA: How has your gender influenced your career journey in STEM? Do you think there is or have you encountered much gender bias in your chosen field?

DR CALABRETTO: I was lucky to be raised in a household that didn’t really believe in gender norms, and so I never felt like gender influenced any of my decision-making. Unfortunately, I have encountered a lot of bias due to my gender (and age too), since most of the places I have worked have been full of men who were, on average, much older than me. Depressingly, I do think there have been several occasions in the past where I’ve had to outperform male colleagues to even be considered as good as them. Having said that, I do think things are changing! We (as a society) are just so much more aware of all kinds of biases, and most workplaces are actively putting measures in place to minimise (and hopefully eventually eradicate) them.

LAURA: What was your schooling experience like? How did it influence your journey into this career?

DR CALABRETTO: I think I really enjoyed school for the most part. I went to my local public primary and high schools, which were good schools and I had pretty good teachers in general. If there was anything that influenced me in school in my career journey, I guess it was that I didn’t really like the chemistry curriculum in Year 12, so that probably dissuaded me from doing chem at university. On the other hand, I really liked the physics curriculum so that’s possibly why I ended up doing physics at uni.

LAURA: What is a challenge or barrier to success you’ve had to overcome and what did you learn from it that you could pass on to others?

DR CALABRETTO: I think imposter syndrome has been a challenge for me in the past. Unfortunately, I think the more you know about a topic, the more you realise there’s a bunch you don’t know, and so you can start to second-guess your own ability. I think for me, listening to the positive (and sensible) people around me, helped me be a bit more logical and realise that I was sometimes being unnecessarily harsh on myself and my abilities. Be as fair to yourself as you are to the people around you!

LAURA: Are there any particular programs or role models that influenced your career choice and journey?

DR CALABRETTO: I went to the National Youth Science Forum in the summer holidays before I started Year 12, where we got to visit university labs and facilities in Canberra. I don’t think the NYSF necessarily influenced my career choice, but I did find it to be a great experience as someone who was interested in pursuing a STEM career in Australia.

LAURA: What advice would you give to students in high school?

DR CALABRETTO: This may sound biased, but do as much maths as possible, for as long as possible! When you’re learning maths, you’re subconsciously learning a completely different way of thinking, which will be useful no matter what you do. It doesn’t matter what career path you follow, employers want logical/critical/analytical thinkers, problem solvers, researchers, and those who show creativity – that is what mathematics trains you to be.

LAURA: What would you like to achieve in your journey ahead?

DR CALABRETTO: I’m not sure where I’ll end up in my career, but at the end of the day, I would like to have had a positive impact on the world. I think the scientific endeavour is incredibly important, and without great people working in STEM, we’re limiting ourselves as a society. Howeverrrrr, I also think it’s important to be a good person in whatever you’re doing, and I think it’s possible to achieve great things while also building up the people around you to be their best too. (I’d also like to learn some statistics – the  world is all about data these days and one of my biggest regrets is not doing any statistics!)

LAURA: Are there any misconceptions about your work that you’d like people to know about?

DR CALABRETTO: I think there are loads of misconceptions about what a mathematician is or does (the number of times people ask me to split a restaurant bill in my head, because I’m a mathematician, is wild!).

Applied mathematicians are people who apply mathematical methods and techniques to solve real-world problems, and the real-world problems I’m interested in all have to do with (turbulent) fluid flow. Turbulence is just badly-behaved fluid (think of air, water, toothpaste, anything that flows!), moving in a messy, disordered, chaotic way. The problem is that we do not understand how or why it does this. Whether it be flow in a pipe or blood vessel, or the more complex flow around a boat hull, spinning projectiles, or aircraft wing, we still do not understand the fundamental fluid mechanics at play.

My research, which involves using mathematical equations, big supercomputers, and experiments in a lab, aims to understand turbulence at a fundamental level. Once we can understand turbulence, we can control it, which, as I mentioned before, can mean faster planes, a better understanding of weather and climate, advances in diagnostic medicine and so much more. And if I have to split a bill, I just use the calculator on my phone, because it’s way faster and more accurate than I am when doing it in my head!

Thank you, Dr Calabretto, and well done to Laura for an interesting and exciting interview!

Miss Emma Pracey, Instructional Specialist
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