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 Angelina Severino and Savannah Lin (pictured above) of Year 8 with Manon Sabot (pictured below). Dr. Sabot works as a Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, and was formerly a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of New South Wales, having been recognised previously as a UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champion. She has worked with the Climate Change Research Centre and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. Her study looked at energy, water, and land carbon balance changes when water is scarce. Dr. Sabot has kindly agreed to speak with us about her career journey and offer advice to MSCW students. 

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: What specific things are you currently working on or researching? What technology, methods or tools do you use to progress your analysis and research in this work?

SABOT: My research primarily focuses on understanding how plants respond to global environmental change: increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing temperature, and changing water availability. I am also interested in understanding how changes to plant responses and functions can influence the environment around them, and in particular, how they might affect our future regional climates. For example, if less rainfall becomes available to a given ecosystem, then this ecosystem will in all likelihood become drier, and thus the plants within the ecosystem will have less water vapour to transpire into the atmosphere than they used to, which in turn will further reduce rainfall.

To study this kind of complex interactions, I integrate a range of observations across scales (from measurements made at the scale of a leaf to measurements made via satellite over large areas) with statistical approaches and models (those are algorithms that combine a series of physical, chemical, or even biological equations describing known processes, as well as hypotheses that I want to test).

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: How would you best describe what your work involves? Do you have a lot of theoretical research work or do you have to do practical testing too?

SABOT: I do both theoretical work and practical testing. My research first involves making hypotheses to explain how poorly (or only partially) understood processes might work — in practice, this often means drawing on existing knowledge from other research fields to try to fill the gaps in understanding in a specific research field. For example, theories and hypotheses from the field of economics can be adapted to describe photosynthetic behaviours observed in a number of plant species, as photosynthesis can be seen as a trade-off between a gain in carbon and a loss of water by plants. The second step after making any such hypothesis is to test it. The way I would normally do this is by building a model that embeds my hypothesis, and by testing this model against observational data. This data can be retrieved via experimental work or measured in the field where a specific process is observed to happen. Going back to my example about photosynthesis, we have machines that allow us to measure how much carbon travels from the atmosphere towards the cells inside a specific leaf, and how much water is simultaneously transpired by this leaf into the atmosphere. With the data collected via these machines, we can confirm or refute any of our “economics”-related hypotheses regarding photosynthesis.

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: To undertake your study and research, what skills were most required and useful?

SABOT: Being at ease with equations and not shying away from maths (or physics) in general was very important. Coding skills, which I built working in the field of climate modelling during my masters, also proved to be critical during my PhD. Finally, I like arts and I am a creative person in general, which I feel greatly helps me with my research.

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: Did you enjoy school and what STEM courses did you enjoy most at school?

SABOT: I went through the French high school system where I was pushed to specialise in STEM early because I was a good student (all good students were pushed towards STEM), although I loved history, literature, and language classes and would rather have kept on following a more holistic curriculum. As a result, I really enjoyed school until what would be the equivalent of Year 9 or Year 10 in Australia. In terms of STEM courses, I really liked Maths and Biology up to Year 9, then not at all. In my last year of high school, I figured out physics was pretty easy and I took more of a liking to it than other STEM courses, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.     

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: Did you always know you wanted to end up in a career like this or did you think you would do something else?

SABOT: I did not see myself where I am now at all! I pictured myself a climate activist or an environmental journalist, or perhaps a policy maker or a diplomat. Towards the end of high school, I did think climate scientists were valuable to society but I had a limited understanding of what being a researcher was like, and I found most of my STEM classes boring, so there was little appeal. However, everyone I spoke to who was working in a field related to climate change said that studying physics and taking climate science courses at university would be useful for climate-related jobs (even policy jobs), so I did that.

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: What influenced you to choose this field of work? Was there anyone in particular who inspired you?

SABOT: I grew up in a farming area where there is very bad nitrate pollution. Therefore, I was aware of adverse man-made impacts on the environment from an early age. Then, when I was 13, I saw the film/documentary “An inconvenient truth” which opened my eyes to the climate crisis, and I made my mind to somehow work on this climate problem. 

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: How important is it to build relationships and have collaboration with other researchers, institutions, or organisations in your career?

SABOT: It’s very important. I got my current job in part thanks to a collaboration that I started five years ago. Of course, not every collaboration or work relationship with a different institution will land one a job, but collaborations are central to research and help us grow into better scientists, by exposing us to different ways of thinking and methods. 

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: What were or have been the barriers to entering your career and having success in this field? How do you think your gender helped or hindered this?

SABOT: The main barrier I faced was the lack of a programme to study climate science in France at the time. There were only two masters programmes and both were faraway from where I lived, in cities where life is expensive. I ended up being admitted into the programme in Paris on a scholarship, on the condition that I would do a dual programme, which of course meant more work for me than for other students. I enjoyed my “minor” a lot though, so this turned out okay.

Earlier, when I was still studying for my Bachelor in Physics, I unfortunately had to deal with appalling sexism by a minority of teachers. Among the rest of the teachers though, a few were extremely happy to see a woman in a Physics programme and therefore were extremely encouraging. Now, I think things have changed a lot as there is more awareness of the unconscious biases against girls in STEM (especially fields like maths, physics, or engineering), and there are big efforts to course-correct. At a more advanced stage, it is often nowadays more advantageous to be a woman when competing for a job (at least, for an equivalent CV), since hiring quotas are in our favour.  

ANGELINA AND SAVANNAH: Have you ever doubted your journey or ability to achieve success or felt there was a lot of pressure in your work? How did you overcome it and what advice would you give to anyone else doubting their ability to achieve success in a field like this?

SABOT: I am lucky in that I do not overly stress about my work or my ability to stay in academia in the future. The main reason for this is that I have not made having an academic career my life goal, and I consider that being happy in my personal life, outside of work, is at least as important as being satisfied at work. I know that my skill set will easily port to other jobs, so there is no reason to be too worried. I also use my soft skills a lot: I build good collaborations and I help people around me with their work. Therefore, even if I am not the hardest worker, the most ambitious, or the most productive person, I hope I am valuable enough to my research group that they will want to keep me around.

Now, I had a few rejections that were pretty hard to take when I first looked for a PhD programme after completing my MSc. I was in the top 3 candidates for three different PhD projects but ended up not being selected for any, which made me doubt myself a lot. I took a break from doing research and went into a different field (humanitarian work) whilst I reassessed the type of PhD I wanted to do. Taking a step back proved to be an excellent decision; I realised that I had not been successful at getting these PhD positions because I had a vision of how I wanted to tackle specific research questions, although the projects I had been applying for had an already set timeline and did not allow for much initiative. So, I applied for projects which did not have a set timeline and were not asking very specific research questions (that is, projects for which the candidate drives their own research proposal), and I was successful doing that.

Thank you, Dr. Sabot and well done, Angelina and Harriet, for yet another interesting and exciting interview to inspire the MSCW community and raise awareness for the work women do in STEM careers!

Miss Emma Pracey, Instructional Specialist

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