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Celebrating our women in science

Posted: 11th February 2019

SVI is proud of the important role that women have played in the development of the Institute.

The recent appointment to Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne, of Natalie Sims, Head of the Bone Cell Biology and Disease Unit, and Helen Thomas, Head of the Immunology and Diabetes Unit, gave us the opportunity to find out what inspires them.

Professor Natalie Sims

“My family are really proud of me becoming professor – although it’s not unexpected, I guess they see it as a natural progression. But every now and then I think about how my grandparents would have reacted – my Nana didn’t even finish primary school. It’s also really important for the people in the lab. They’re excited because they, quite rightly, see it as recognition of their work too: research really is a team activity.

Professor Jack (Martin), a previous Director of SVI, has been my biggest inspiration. I am constantly impressed by way he has been able to maintain his curiosity and his thirst for knowledge about the skeletal system. Also, the way that he has been able to inspire a group of people to travel with him, and with his ideas, over so many years, is pretty amazing. 

Doing research requires an active choice every day. Every grant that you write; every paper that you produce; every experiment that you run, it’s a commitment that you’re going to finish that. When you get new data, that reminds you why you’re still in the game.

For me the point of it all is to understand how we get this skeleton, how it works, how we can make it healthy. There is so much we don’t know about it – it is such a black hole. That is what motivates me, everything we find out – and every possibility of finding out more – is really exciting.”

Professor Helen Thomas

“My Dad expected all four of his daughters to do well: he had very high expectations. When I sent him the screenshot of the email from the University telling me I was appointed as Professor – he was in India at the time – he replied, “What wonderful news, I should say, high time too!”

The professor I worked for in Alabama after I finished my Uni degree was a fantastic role model. She is an Australian named Gillian Air, and she worked on the flu virus. I basically answered an ad in the paper and went over to the US to get some experience, without much idea of what it was going to be like.

She was a bit younger than I am now, and she had a similar group to the one I do now. She was a really good boss – she was interested in everyone’s work, she was tough but fair and the lab was full of people from lots of different places. She set a really good example, that I have kept in my mind, even if it I haven’t thought about it that much consciously. I think that cemented in my mind how to do it right.

When I started out, my aims were short term, really to solve the next problem, but as time has gone on, I have met many people with type 1 diabetes, and parents whose children have the disease. Through that you get to know more about how the disease affects them. And you feel more and more that something has to be done to help them. The idea that I can personally make a difference is a big motivation.”

About International Day of Women and Girls in Science

On 22 December 2015, the General Assembly decided to establish an annual International Day to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on 11 February, is implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners that aim to promote women and girls in science. This Day is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

Gender equality is a global priority for UNESCO, and the support of young girls, their education and their full ability to make their ideas heard are levers for development and peace. 

Tackling some of the greatest challenges of the Agenda for Sustainable Development -- from improving health to combatting climate change -- will rely on harnessing all talent. That means getting more women working in these fields. Diversity in research expands the pool of talented researchers, bringing in fresh perspectives, talent and creativity. This Day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened.

Join the conversation with #WomenInScience!