Meet Francesca Gissi, an environmental scientist trying to minimize human impacts on the environment!

What is your scientific background?

My background is in aquatic ecotoxicology, ecogenomics, and environmental chemistry. I study the impacts of pollutants on aquatic systems. My goal is to provide advice to government and industry to assist in minimizing impacts on the environment.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

I have had several role models, both male and female. In both my personal life and career, my mom and dad have always been role models to me. They taught me strong work ethic, but more importantly, they instilled in me from a young age the importance of the natural environment around us and how to care for it and protect it. I think this is why I started my career in environmental science. Now at work, I have several colleagues who are senior scientists that inspire me every day. They are role models that encourage me and are very supportive of my career, and it is these people that continue to inspire my passion for environmental science, and confirm that I have made the right career choice.

How did you choose your field of study?

Francesca in the lab/ Francesca Gissi

I kind of “fell” into my field of study. Whilst at university doing a Bachelor of environmental science, I knew I was passionate about this area of science, but it is such a broad field and I had absolutely no idea what sort of a career I wanted. In second year I went on an excursion where we visited CSIRO labs in Sydney, this was then called the Centre for Environmental Contaminants Research and this is where I first learned about aquatic ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry. I was fascinated with the research the group was doing. The next year I applied for an internship with the group, I got it, and 9 years later I’m still here! I’m still learning every day and I get such enjoyment and satisfaction from my job.

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

This is a hard one because there are so many important areas of science, but for me, and I may sound bias, environmental research is key because if we don’t have an Earth to live on, we have nothing else. Leading on from that, I think renewable energy needs more research, particularly in Australia. I know other countries already run of renewables and I can’t believe that Australia isn’t there yet, particularly as the sunny country. Obviously, I am passionate about the environment and I truly believe a lot more work is needed to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce the impacts of climate change and secure our future on this planet for future generations. It is a beautiful place to live and we should look after it.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Whilst working I have also completed my Bachelors and honors degree, and now I am doing my Ph.D. It is often tricky to juggle work and study and often I find myself overwhelmed. I also found it difficult to make the decision to do a Ph.D. because I doubted my abilities. During these times I turn to my mentors and the people who know me best for advice.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

Two years ago I received my first international award. A colleague of mine, who is also a mentor to me found out about this award before I did and asked the awards committee if he could announce it to me. This colleague called a group meeting claiming that we needed to discuss important issues to do with our building renovations. I was running late for work that day and had lots of calls on my mobile and I was wondering why on earth it was such an urgent meeting. Anyway, when we had all gathered in the room, my colleague starts giving a spiel about these awards and no one has any idea what he is talking about then he announces this particular award and that I am the winner. Everyone clapped and congratulated me and because of the surprise and all of the attention, I went bright red! I was a bit embarrassed, but really over the moon and I felt so special that my colleague had taken the time and made the effort to surprise me, it was a special moment for me to share with all of my colleagues who have supported me over the years.

Preparing for a dive/ Francesca Gissi

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I love to cook, this is my creative outlet. I also love to garden, go for bush walks, go to the beach, snorkeling, diving. I don’t really go far from nature, both at work and in my private life.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

At times yes, particularly when there is a lot of travel. I always try to make time for myself and my loved ones. Time management is important!

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

I think I am yet to face the biggest obstacles, and nor have I found myself in a position where I thought being a man would be easier. If I decide to venture down the path of motherhood, this could be a challenge, although I hope it won’t be. I have been very fortunate to work with a group of incredibly supportive scientists who make it a priority to nurture junior scientists.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

The road to becoming a research scientist is a very long one, and this takes a lot away from personal life. I think to encourage more women into science there needs to be a way to make this road fit in with our personal lives, particularly that of raising a family. It can be at least 8-9 years before we reach the stage of being considered a Research Scientist (Ph.D.). This road can then continue onto Postdocs, which can often mean travel and the uncertainty of short term contracts. Taking time out, for example, to have children, can mean you fall behind. Something about this structure needs to change. I think one thing that could help is recognition of employment by universities. If you have practical experience in research labs, particularly if you have been involved in research publications, this should be taken into account and perhaps even viewed as a form of study. This way the lengthy process of honors/masters/Ph.D., could be reduced.


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