Meet the incredible women 'Breaking the Bias' in science and medicine

·8-min read

International Women’s Day is here, and there’s never been a better time to celebrate the women in STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics) who have risen to various challenges over the last two years spearheading groundbreaking trials, research, and even the field of artificial intelligence.

Dr Shadma Fatima and Professor Josephine Chow are two such incredible women that have led the way, and spoke to Yahoo Lifestyle about what life is like in the fascinating field of STEM.

women in STEM
Time to celebrate the women in STEM - Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics. Photo: Getty

Pursuing a Career in Stem

For Dr Shadma Fatima, her interest in research and helping her community started in her school days while she was living in India.

“I was initially very much interested in making my home country a better place to live,” the mother of two explains. “With a fast-growing population, India had many challenges.

"I had this fire to do something. I kept reading news articles and seeing examples of sustainable farming, recycling waste, sewage treatment, and reducing pollution and the greenhouse effect.

'I started a clean city motif for my hometown, did presentations in school and community meetings, looking for any opportunity to get people onboard to progress my goal.”

Sadly, Dr Shadma’s cousin died at an early age due to brain cancer, which shook her family and really shook her world.

“We lost her within six months and there was nothing we could do," she says.

"This experience ignited my passion to help find a cure for these deadly diseases. It led me to do a biology major during my final year of high school. I was hooked!”

Pursuing a Master’s in Research in mammalian genetics, followed by a PhD from Monash University, Dr Shadma later joined Medical Oncology Labs at the Ingham Institute, where she followed her passion for working on brain cancers and identifying better and effective therapies for Glioblastoma, the most common and fatal type of brain cancer in adults.

Dr Shadma Fatima
Dr Shadma Fatima is at the forefront of brain cancer research. Photo: Supplied

Analysing brain activity through 3D printing-3D printers, Dr Shadma is helping to develop a prototype that can replicate the conditions of inside the body to analyse brain tumours and the way they replicate in the brain.

“I am fortunate to have the great support of my colleagues and mentors and a great research environment at Ingham Institute of Applied Medical Research. We get closer to curing this disease every day.”

Deputy Director of Research at the Ingham Institute, Professor Josephine Chow, likes to use her skills to help solve real-world problems within the health and academic system too, translating to better and more efficient health care.

As the head of the South West Sydney Nursing and Midwifery Research Alliance at the Ingham Institute, Professor Josephine, while working in a COVID epicentre, helped alleviate her dedicated team of overrun nurses by creating a conversational AI bot.

Gender-Based Challenges in Stem

Both Dr Shadma and Professor Chow have experienced some gender-based challenges, despite their qualifications and intellect.

“I think being a woman and especially one with post-marriage family responsibilities, as well as having a disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work, makes us very vulnerable to gender-based challenges,” Dr Shadma says.

"Many passionate students and scientists, particularly women, have to compromise and give up their dream careers to fulfil these responsibilities. This is often a drawback at the workplace and later hinders the growth of fellow female scientists or any career-oriented women.

"In my case, it led to losing many opportunities. It also normalises the pay gaps and gender-based inequalities in the workplace."

Dr Shadma says when she started work at the Ingham, she didn’t feel any gender-based inequalities or sexism in her current role, but has heard many stories of such differences from other senior female scientists in other workplaces.

“Australia's national gender pay gap is 14.2 per cent which is a big proportion, and we need better policies to reduce this gap. I think we also need an awareness campaign for both men and women to overcome this problem," she says.

female scientist
Dr Shadma has heard many stories of gender-based inequalities or sexism from other senior female scientists in other workplaces. Photo: Getty

And Professor Chow agrees.

There was a time when I faced gender-based challenges in my nursing and research career, though I think I might be one of the lucky ones not affected by reduction of experience and training due to taking time off for family caregiving,” she explains.

“I took very minimal maternity leave. My supportive husband had allowed me to work without disrupting my career journey."

But Professor Chow does recall some of her early career opportunities as a member of the peak professional committees amongst senior medical clinicians (predominantly male) created some gender-based challenges.

"I experienced hostility and subtle resistance that discouraged women from job interviews and career promotion.”

Groundbreaking Achievements in STEM

In early 2021, Dr Shadma identified a new therapeutic compound for the treatment of brain cancer.

“This compound was initially developed in my mentor’s Lab to treat prostate cancer. I have some excellent initial results, which I am further investigating in detail now. I am confident that this compound works better than the drugs currently available in the market and can help brain cancer patients fight their disease more effectively.”

During the COVID pandemic, in addition to getting some great results from her lab work, Dr Shadma was successful in grant fundings from WSU and Ingham Institute to pursue her research.

She was awarded the Teresa Anderson Fellowship from Franklin Women’s Society and one of her papers was awarded “Best” (a popular choice category) from UNSW MedECAN.

“As a mother, I am very proud that I could manage my kids’ studies from home along with my work during the lockdown period. It was challenging but a very fulfilling experience.”

Professor Chow has also had great success in her field.

Professor Josephine Chow Ingham Institute
Deputy Director of Research at the Ingham Institute, Professor Josephine Chow. Photo: Supplied

“I am proud of my success in navigating through the unfolding complexities dealing with Covid,” she says.

“Leading a team of clinicians and researchers, we have generated a number of significant research studies that significantly helped healthcare professionals and the general public through the pandemic, and created life-long learning opportunities.”

Josephine helped create Sam, a conversational artificial intelligence care robot to aid in the South Western Sydney hospital staff maintain contact with and follow up the thousands of COVID patients in the district.

Sam made over 39,787 calls to COVID patients to check in on their physical condition, wellness, and support assessments. The robot received very positive feedback from their patients and care providers during the pandemic, and has the potential to improve follow-up services and patient satisfaction across a raft of disease states.

“My vision now is to investigate management of 'Long COVID',” Professor Chow says.

Inspiring The Next Generation of Women in STEM

“To aspiring women in science, I would first like to congratulate you on choosing a great field to work in!" Dr Shadma says.

"We need more women scientists in these fields because it is well known that women are great at multitasking and teamwork, which are the attributes necessary for the nature of much current and likely future scientific research.

"I am not shy to say that girls or women are not less but much better in their intellectual and technical abilities. Still, we are hesitant in communicating our abilities.

"It’s the responsibility of our schools, parents, and scientific communities to build a level of confidence in these young girls so that more women can come forward and choose careers in the field of science and technology."

A photo of shocked girl surrounded by smoke. Smiling student gesturing during science experiment. They are in science class.
Both women encourage young girls to look into a career in STEM. Photo: Getty

"Eventually, all of us need to take charge of our own career, so decide early on what matters to you, and focus on attaining it. Take the lead, be confident, bravely speak your ideas," Dr Shadma continues.

"If you believe in yourself the world will believe in you."

Professor Chow says STEM is an exciting, creative and extremely satisfying career choice.

“Medical and applied science involves working in a team to explore how the world works and then testing hypotheses,” she explains. “It is exciting, creative and extremely satisfying, especially if your ideas turn out to be wrong!

"Every mistake we make points us further in the right direction.

"The skills and the knowledge you gain, and the experience you come across, can lead you in many directions, providing pathways into a wide range of fulfilling and exciting careers."

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