Meet Dr. Megan Sebben, a hydrogeologist and science communicator, passionate about STEM outreach and closing the science gender gap!

What is your scientific background?

My undergraduate degree is in Environmental Science and I have a Ph. D. in Groundwater Hydrology. During my Ph. D. research, I used computer models to examine how discrete geologic features (such as fractures and fault lines) can influence the spreading of contaminants in our fresh groundwater reserves (aquifers). I focused primarily on coastal systems, where the threat of contamination by intruding seawater is a widespread problem! My research has taken me to a number of exotic locations throughout Australia, Europe and the United States (and knee-deep into the occasional peat swamp).

Ready for a day of field work!/ Megan Sebben

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

A happy accident! For me, the path to becoming a scientist wasn’t an obvious one. I have always been passionate about the environment and knew I wanted to work towards solving some of our planet’s major environmental concerns. Luckily for me, a very wise career advisor suggested that I study environmental science so that I’d have the opportunity to work in both science and management!

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

Often. Many of us are familiar with the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’, which perfectly describes my experiences as a Ph. D. candidate and an early career scientist. It seems that the more you learn, the more you realize just how much you still have to learn. This can feel pretty daunting, but it’s important to acknowledge that science is cumulative. We don’t have to have all of the answers, we just need to maintain our curiosity to explore the questions and try to answer them! Linking in with a mentor can be very empowering in this situation. If you can find a good mentor, they will be honest with you about their own experiences of self-doubt, which can help to overcome that pesky self-critical voice!

Glacial striations in Hallett Cove Conservation Park, South Australia/ Megan Sebben

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I love the outdoors, so I’m happiest when I’m outside exploring or doing something that raises adrenalin! My weekends generally involve exploring my new home town with my friends and my partner, so you’ll probably find me out to brunch, a winery, or going for a hike! I also love to dance (particularly tribal belly dance), music, art, and enjoy keeping fit and active whenever possible.

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

It can be for sure. There are always going to be those times when work is particularly busy and consuming, but it’s important to make sure that it’s not the majority of the time. Prioritizing your health and wellbeing is critical, including for your work productivity. I usually try and keep the habit of waking up early to do some exercise before work. That way if I’m held up with a meeting or a work problem, I’ve still made time to do something good for myself that day. I also try and keep my work at work. If necessary, I’ll work a longer day in the office before completely switching off at home. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done, particularly when mobile phones and e-mails make us accessible almost 24/7! My other tactic is to plan something mid-week with friends to avoid that feeling of living for the weekend!

Presenting at the SWIM2016 Conference in Cairns, Australia/ Megan Sebben

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

First and foremost, we need to put a lot of energy into encouraging and supporting the next generation of women in STEM. We need to increase the public presence of women in STEM – it’s very hard to be what you can’t see! School-based programs are critical to achieve this (the Curious Minds program and CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools are fantastic examples), but I also strongly believe that a complete cultural shift is required. We need to be encouraging and supporting young girls before they even start school because the evidence shows that by primary school, gender stereotypes about scientists and engineers are already deeply ingrained. We need to be conscious of our language and behaviors in the home, as well as in the school environment.

For women already working in STEM, systemic failures such as a lack of work flexibility and clear gender pay gaps are preventing the longevity of women’s scientific careers. These hurdles are being encountered at every stage of the career pipeline and are real deterrents for many women trying to forge successful STEM careers. The answer to “what changes are needed?” is not a simple one, but we can certainly identify many areas for improvement! It’s important to acknowledge that making STEM more female-friendly is good for everyone – it promotes diversity in the workplace, and diversity is what’s going to help us solve some of our most challenging scientific problems.

STEM professional for CSIRO’s Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools/ Megan Sebben

Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?

In my spare time, I try to encourage discussion about cultural biases, closing the science gender gap and increasing the public presence and recognition of women in STEM, through blogging, mentoring, podcasts and public engagement. I am extremely proud to have been involved in the ‘Illuminating the face of STEM’ event co-ordinated by STEM: Women Branching Out at Flinders University. The group ran a week-long event, which profiled some of Australia’s women in STEM during our National Science Week.

You can watch my interview about closing the science gender gap here!


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