Six of our early career researchers across the sciences have been named as Superstars of STEM in recognition of their scientific research and science outreach.
Announced on 18 November by Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic MP, our six are part of a group of 60 new Superstars of STEM from across Australia, who will undertake a two-year program in 2023 and 2024 to get them ready to step into the media spotlight as STEM experts.
Superstars of STEM is an initiative of Science and Technology Australia, and is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Science and Resources.
Through a highly competitive selection process, the program selects 60 women and non-binary STEM experts and gives them the training, confidence, networks and experience to become sought-after media commentators as experts in their fields.
Over two years, the Superstars of STEM program provides participants with advanced communications training, mentoring and high quality opportunities to speak on the stage, on screen and to the media. The program aims to inspire and encourage women and non-binary people to pursue a STEM degree and a career in STEM by supporting and elevating the profile of relatable role models in a variety of STEM jobs all around Australia.
“The need to boost diversity in our science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector is urgent. I’ve always been a fan of the way the Superstars of STEM program pushes to deliver a diverse STEM workforce and ensures the next generation of scientists and technologists have visible role models,” said Minister Husic.
Our six new Superstars of STEM:
Dr Caitlin Cowan
School of Psychology, Faculty of Science
Dr Caitlin Cowan studies the gut microbes of young children, which means collecting and testing a lot of baby poo. She tries to answer questions like: Are there certain microbes that increase the risk for mental health problems? And could these microbes actually change our mood or our behaviour, either in good or bad ways? Ultimately, she’s trying to work out if and how we can use microbes to protect and support young people’s mental health, putting them on the right track for a happy, healthy life.
Caitlin completed her PhD and Master of Clinical Psychology at UNSW in 2017. Following this, she undertook a prestigious Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship at the APC Microbiome Ireland, one of the leading microbiome research centres in the world. She is currently an NHMRC Investigator Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney.
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science
Behavioural ecologist, Caitlyn Forster, completed her PhD studying how flowers without nectar impact foraging choice in bees. Her research has involved looking at bee behaviour in Australia and Canada, by using artificial flowers – which is a fancy term for flowers made of colourful paper.
Nowadays, Caitlyn gets to do a lot of interesting science. Some days she works as a research assistant looking at foraging choice of bees. Other days she teaches undergraduates biology at the University of Sydney. She also is involved in a project that aims to get young people from western Sydney outside enjoying nature, while being part of citizen science projects.
PhD student, School of Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering
As a biomedical engineering PhD candidate, Christina explores how electrical signals traverse the brain’s information highways. She is particularly interested in understanding what causes some signals to take a ‘wrong’ turn, such as during a seizure. Her work involves applying AI and computational models to neuroimaging data to create translatable outcomes that can help those who need it most.
Christina volunteers with the CSIRO ‘STEM Professionals in Schools’ program, aspiring to engage young girls in science, especially those from rural communities. Memorable activities include being a guest judge at the Box Hill Primary (rural school) ‘STEM Challenge Day’. She also volunteers with the BioTech Futures program, where she previously mentored high school girls creating bio-inspired solutions to real-world health challenges.
Dr Eliza Middleton
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science
Growing up in the remote deserts of western NSW, Dr Eliza Middleton was fascinated by the environment around her from a young age. She yearned to understand the processes of the water table, why birds migrated, and how ants know their role in the colony. Her love of nature was her stepping stone into a STEM career. Learning over two-way radios on School of the Air with her siblings as classmates, she knew first-hand how limited access and opportunities to pursue education can be.
Eliza moved from the country to the big city to get her undergraduate and honours degree in marine science from Macquarie University. After graduating, she returned to the desert, this time Alice Springs to research ants, followed by work at the Queensland Brain Institute on honeybees. She then travelled to Canberra to complete her PhD at the Australian National University, and now works at the University of Sydney as manager of the Invertebrate Behaviour and Ecology Lab.
Dr Taylor Szyszka
School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science
As a synthetic biologist, Dr Taylor Szyszka is inspired by the question of how biology can keep up with the rapidly changing environment. Taylor is using proteins – tiny molecular machines responsible for many life processes – to build nanoparticles to help plants do photosynthesis more efficiently, with the aim of improving crop yields to feed our growing population. Her research has been featured in top journals and she has won numerous awards presenting her work at conferences and symposia.
Taylor is also an avid science communicator. From live events to radio and podcast interviews, and several segments on Channel 7’s science show ‘Get Clever’, Taylor has taken every opportunity to make science accessible. A strong advocate for diversity in STEM, Taylor was the program coordinator for the STEAMPunk Girls educational program at UTS in 2019, where she helped NSW teachers implement STEAM programs for their female students.
Dr Nicky Wright
School of Geosciences, Faculty of Science
To uncover what the Earth’s surface looked like in the past, Dr Nicky Wright uses plate tectonics, lots of different types of data, and computers to reconstruct its past surface elevation, known as palaeogeography. Nicky is particularly interested in what caused changes in Earth’s past climate – such as plate tectonics and palaeogeography – so that we can better understand how our climate will respond in the future.
She is passionate about encouraging students to try geosciences, and showing that it’s not just the field-geologist stereotype that is often portrayed. She enthusiastically promotes STEM and geosciences, as they are important in helping to address the big challenges society is currently faced with, including climate change and moving to renewable resources. She has run numerous geoscience workshops for high school students, and been a STEM mentor for undergraduate students.