Women in research who are changing the world

Whether it's marine science, environmental contaminants, regenerative agriculture, food security, stroke rehabilitation or social dynamics, Southern Cross University researchers are tackling the questions that matter, and coming up with solutions. In this series to celebrate International Women's Day 2020 and the #EachforEqual campaign, we profile some of our early and mid-career women researchers who are pushing the boundaries in their respective fields.

Kathomi Gatwiri explores trauma and the African experience in Australia

Dr Kathomi Gatwiri

Dr Kathomi Gatwiri is an award-winning researcher, lecturer and activist. She is a regular guest on ABC radio discussing issues affecting Africans in Australia. Her book, African Womanhood and Incontinent Bodies, explores the issue of women living with vaginal fistulas in Kenya, the country where she was born. She campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation, early marriages and other forms of gendered violence that can give rise to conditions such as fistulas. Kathomi is also the founder of Counting Dead Women – Kenya, an initiative that aims to record every woman’s murder reported in the Kenyan media.

Kathomi enrolled in university when she was just 17 and at 27, she was one of the youngest Kenyan women to ever be awarded a PhD.

“For my PhD research I wanted to understand how prolonged childbirth trauma that leads to obstetric fistulas impacts women’s lives. A fistula often leaves women with a body that is uncontrollably incontinent so I was interested in seeing how women showed agency, how they coped and how they interpreted what had happened to their bodies. My dream is that women in Kenya – and everywhere – can give birth safely and receive treatment for conditions like fistulas without humiliation, fear or shame,” she says.

“My work now has shifted into other trauma aspects, primarily focusing on two areas. First, how complex trauma affects the development and life trajectory of children and young people in out of home care and secondly, how racialised trauma impacts how Africans navigate their lives in Australia.

“As a trauma researcher, it is very important to have very strong boundaries to ensure that the distressing nature of this work doesn’t seep into your personal life. But I am very lucky to have some fantastic colleagues here at Southern Cross and across Australia who have been very intellectually generous and supportive of my work,” she says.

Anna Scott shows how sea anemones are a litmus test for climate change

Dr Anna Scott

Dr Anna Scott is happiest when she's either in the ocean or studying things that live in it. This passionate marine scientist and lecturer at Southern Cross has been researching sea anemones – that form an iconic symbiotic relationship with anemonefishes – for more than a decade.

Her research has provided the first scientific description of the sexual reproductive biology of host sea anemones, and she is using this information to develop methods for captive-breeding. This is particularly important given that these anemones are highly prized in the marine aquarium trade and collected from reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, these anemones bleach just like corals do, so Anna has also been documenting how these animals respond to our changing climate by determining bleaching thresholds, and how protective mechanisms are used to counteract stress and changes in their distribution and abundance in the field.

President of the Australian Coral Society, the world’s oldest society dedicated to the study and conservation of coral reefs, Anna divides her time between the reefs of the world and the unique environment of the Solitary Islands Marine Park near the University’s National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour, where the world’s highest published density of anemonefish and sea anemones is located.

Kirstine Shrubsole is giving a voice to thousands of stroke patients

Dr Kirstine Shrubsole

Aphasia is a devastating condition affecting up to 38 percent of stroke survivors. It affects all aspects of communication including speech, comprehension, reading and writing. Southern Cross University researcher and clinical supervisor Dr Kirstine Shrubsole is teaching fellow speech pathologists how to use Communication Partner Training in their professional practice in hospitals cross southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales, the culmination of her PhD research into aphasia treatment which clinicians describe as 'game-changing'.

“My passion is providing evidence-based speech therapy services to people who have communication impairment after stroke. There are many challenges to providing evidence-based services, which led me to return to university after 10 years in hospitals to research how to improve services in speech pathology and stroke.

“Once I started down this path, I found I had the best of both worlds – researching best practice and helping speech pathologists to change their practice for the better.

Kirstine has regular contact with world-class researchers and collaborates nationally and internationally. “There are so many amazing opportunities. In speech pathology, most of the researchers I work with are other women.  We support each other and usually end up being friends as well. 

We understand that many of us juggle family lives and young children, and there is sometimes a lot of pressure to succeed. The biggest challenge for me is learning to say 'no' if I am working on too many projects, and also to remember to ask for help when I need it. Southern Cross University is so supportive of women researchers, it has been an amazing start to my research career," she says.

Niloofar Karimian investigates a ubiquitous metalloid that can have a toxic impact

Dr Niloofar Karimian

A neighbour of arsenic on the periodic table, antimony is used in a multitude of industrial products – from ceramics and rubber to clothing and even aircraft. As an environmental contaminant however, antimony can have fatal consequences for wildlife and long lasting effects on the landscape. Scientists are only just beginning to understand how it enters waterways and soil and one of the researchers at the forefront of this investigation is Dr Niloofar Karimian.

“Antimony comes from the Greek word antimonos, which means 'against loneliness'. It’s a poetic reference, but it reflects the fact that antimony is usually found in compound form and rarely in its metallic state. We don’t know that much about how it behaves in the environment but we need to understand more, as it is present in so many products from every aspect of our lives,” she says.

After finishing her Masters in Soil Chemistry and Fertility in Iran, Niloofar moved to Australia to pursue a PhD in Environmental Geochemistry at Southern Cross GeoScience (SCGS). She was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal for her outstanding PhD thesis in 2017, which was recommended by examiners as an exemplar for other PhD students in the geochemistry field. She is now employed as a postdoctoral research fellow at SCGS.

Her research is at the cutting edge of innovation in applied and fundamental aspects of environmental geochemistry and mineralogy. "My research focuses on how climate-driven mineral formation and transformations affect the mobility and bioavailability of a range of toxic trace metals and metalloids (including arsenic, antimony, and chromium). I’m using state-of-the-art equipment such as synchrotron technology and focusing on developing sustainable remediation strategies for land and water contaminated with toxic metals," she says.

Kate Neale shows the value of therapeutic horticulture in all walks of life

Dr Kate Neale

From collaborative research with young people to gardening therapy, Dr Kate Neale is breaking ground, both metaphorically and physically. Building on her research with young people with disability and a passion for gardening, Kate has created a program of research exploring the benefits of time spent in greenspaces.

She has written award winning therapeutic gardening programs, explored gardening as a means of student wellbeing and participation, and presented professional workshops on therapeutic horticulture involving people with disability for the Singapore National Parks. In partnership with disability service ARUMA, Kate is piloting a research project exploring the benefits of therapeutic gardening for realising NDIS outcomes.

“It has been incredible to work with a wide range of people in a variety of contexts to understand how gardening has changed the lives of people who feel socially isolated, experience food insecurity or may not otherwise have the opportunity to spend time in green spaces, but who may benefit from it,” says Kate.

With 31,000 followers and counting, Kate is a social media superstar. “Instagram has been the most incredible way to connect with people in the field and industry partners keen to pursue research and better understand the importance of gardening in people’s lives. @mylittlesheshed has always been about ‘Kate the gardener’, but I think that people have seen my genuine passion for gardening, and it blossomed from there," she says (no pun intended!).

Kate believes the best way to grow therapeutic horticulture as a discipline is through collaboration with industry professionals, academics and practitioners in the field. But privileging the voices of people whose lives we seek to impact must be central to that work – and sitting in a garden, hearing those stories, is where Kate is happiest.

Woman sampling river water

Naomi Wells is tracing nitrogen's path from land to sea

Dr Naomi Wells

Stable isotopes, rivers, and cow pee: they may not seem connected, but for Dr Naomi Wells, these are the ingredients of geek heaven. Naomi is a biogeochemist and Southern Cross lecturer whose research has impacted the global understanding of how nitrogen — a critical agricultural fertiliser and ubiquitous aquatic contaminant — moves from land to sea.

“As a scientist I’m always trying to figure out how the world works. My passion is using high-end ‘cool’ science to help solve real-world problems,” she says.

Naomi is passionate about the power that natural variations in the stable isotope composition of critical elements like nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen have to help us understand the world around us. She is bringing new instruments to Southern Cross as part of an Australian Research Council project that will help measure nitrogen stable isotopes in ‘real time’. She's also bringing regional leaders in isotope science to the University this winter as the chair of the Australasian Environmental Isotope Conference.

Before coming to Southern Cross University Naomi ran projects to measure the ecological recovery of urban rivers after an earthquake; to identify and develop methods for calculating how New Zealand dairy farms impact water health; as wellas cleaning up groundwater pollution under historic industrial sites. She’s now starting to apply similar methods to understand what happens to our local streams when they dry up, flood, and maybe even catch fire.



Hanabeth Luke is finding the right mix for a healthy agricultural future

Dr Hanabeth Luke

Dr Hanabeth Luke lives and works in the sweet spot where society, land, industry and community intersect. Part social scientist, part environmental scientist, her research focuses on drivers of on-farm decision-making across Australian farming systems, including barriers to the adoption of new innovations and changing approaches to land management.

She has conducted four years of research with the Australian macadamia industry, and is presently implementing surveys in farming regions in every Australian state. Every survey is co-developed with local farming groups.

During her Honours year and PhD, Hanabeth focused on social dynamics within the growing social movement responding to coal-seam gas (CSG) industry developments in Eastern Australia. Specifically, her PhD focused on social license to operate, including the role of community input into government decision-making for land-use planning and natural resource management, with ten papers from this research having been published.

She is excited to be coordinating a new, world-first course at Southern Cross University in Regenerative Agriculture. She also has two young children, Tristan and Connie, and is also proud to be a ‘first in family’ home grown Southern Cross student.

Gloria Reithmaier shows how mangroves can help our carbon problem

Gloria Reithmaier

Born in Bavaria and now living in Australia, PhD candidate Gloria researches mangroves – or our muddy climate warriors as she terms them – and their capacity to store and cycle carbon. Gloria is a passionate believer in the power of science communication. Most recently she was a participant in the national Pitch it Clever competition 2020, an annual challenge where researchers have to condense months and often years of work into a two-minute video.

The art of communication has been an integral part of her academic journey. After an undergraduate degree in geoecology and a Masters degree in global change ecology, Gloria worked in an environmental education centre, developing sustainable lifestyle programs for schools. For her PhD she choose Southern Cross because of its excellent coastal and marine research team, which is known even beyond Australia. 

"Compared to Europe, research in Australia is very family friendly and the working environment is much more relaxed. However, the scientists are also incredibly passionate and successful.

“I enjoy working in STEM very much, particularly the adventurous fieldwork is the favourite part of my job, but female scientists are still underrepresented in this field, even at a progressive institution like Southern Cross” she says.

Razlin Azman investigates better ways to solve food and nutrition security

Razlin Azman

Razlin Azman wants to improve nutrition security using one of the world's most hardy and versatile crops, the bambara groundnut (Vigna subtrerranea). This minor legume is known for being drought and heat tolerant, grows on marginal soil and provides inexpensive plant-based energy, protein and minerals to the rural poor that cultivate the crop in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South East Asia.

Her PhD research at Southern Cross University focuses on developing a research pipeline to better understand the nutritional composition of underutilised crops like the bambara groundnut so that these crops can contribute more significantly to global food and nutritional security. "Working with underutilised crops means we are dealing with crops that are marginalised in favour of cash crops by research and industry. For example, bambara groundnut occupies the same agro-ecological niche as peanut, but it is displaced from farming systems in favour of groundnut. You have to be creative, you have to curious, and you have to learn to comfortable with being uncomfortably outside your research comfort zone," she says.

Her interest in plant science and food crops started when she worked on the improvement of canola at the Plant Biotech Institute of the National Research Council of Canada during her undergraduate degree. This interest deepened when she worked at Crops for The Future (CFF), the world's first research centre dedicated to underutilised crops. There she was introduced to minor crops such as bambara groundnut. While at CFF, she managed agricultural development projects operating in Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Ghana.

Whether it's food and nutritional security, underutilised crops or plant-microbe interaction, she is passionate about communicating her research. "This quote from Marie Curie sums up what it means to be a contemporary researcher for me: 'You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right'."

Southern Cross University honoured with Athena SWAN Award for gender equity committment.

Read the media release


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