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Spotlight on women in STEMM – Professor Elizabeth Watkin

Serendipity played a part in Professor Elizabeth Watkin’s decision to pursue a career in the life sciences. A fortunate pairing with an inspiring supervisor in her first post-degree job, highlighted just how fascinating research could be and set her on her current path.

Professor Elizabeth Watkin, School of Biomedical Sciences.
Professor Elizabeth Watkin, School of Biomedical Sciences.

Professor Watkin’s work focuses on the microbial ecology of environmental systems. Her research has been critical in building Curtin’s reputation in the increasingly important area of bioleaching, an environmentally responsible process of extracting metals from ores using bacterial microorganisms.

What sparked your passion for science, and when did you decide you wanted to build a career in this area?

My passion for research in the life sciences was sparked in my first job as a graduate research assistant after completing my undergraduate degree. My supervisor was inspirational and showed me that research was stimulating and rewarding.

Describe your area/areas of research.

The overarching theme of my research is the microbial ecology of environmental systems and covers the fields of mining biotechnology and mineral resource recovery, microbial induced corrosion and microbial fouling of water (particularly within mining systems) .

My research team investigates biotechnological processes for environmental and industrial applications and approaches to mitigate microbially caused problems such as biocorrosion, biofouling and bioclogging.

How long have you been at Curtin, and where did you work/what did you do prior to joining the University?

I commenced at Curtin in 2002 after completing two postdoctoral research fellowships – the first at CSIRO-Plant Industry in Canberra and the second at Murdoch University.

What have been your biggest challenges in your career, specifically as a woman in STEMM, and how did you overcome them?

My biggest challenge has been balancing the conflicting demands of family and work.

Bioleaching is an environmentally responsible process of extracting metals from ores.
Bioleaching is an environmentally responsible process of extracting metals from ores.
What are you most proud of?

My leadership and development of a dynamic and successful research team that has established Curtin’s reputation in the developing field of bioleaching. My research group has benefited from an extensive network of collaborations at a cross-faculty, national and international level, as well as significant industry links. However, I am most proud of the success of my PhD students, whom are all employed in industry and academia, including post-doctoral fellowships at prestigious institutions.

What has assisted you in developing your career?

Family support has been the most important. I have a very supportive husband and understanding children.

What makes a successful scientist?

An enquiring mind.

What would you say to young girls and women who are interested in developing careers in STEMM?

Go for it! Follow your passion. It may have its challenges but it is worth it.

What are the barriers to women participating successfully in STEMM areas – systemic, personal, and professional – and what can we do to improve this?

I feel the biggest hurdle for the participation of women in STEMM areas is the lack of uptake of STEMM subjects by girls in high school. Once women are participating in STEMM, the issues they encounter are more generic to women in the workforce.

On reflection, is there anything you would change about your career?

Probably not. My career has developed rather organically and I’ve been in the fortunate position to take up opportunities that have come my way.

Curtin is a member of the inaugural Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of the Athena SWAN accreditation program. This is a national pilot that recognises best practices in recruiting, retaining and promoting women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).