In December 2015, the United Nations passed a resolution to recognise on February 11 each year women’s contributions to the field.
The UN’s research showed females “continued to be excluded from participating fully in science”, with the number of science graduates significantly lower than males.
That doesn’t mean women have not excelled in science — far from it.
The ABC spoke to a number of Australian female scientists and researchers at the top of their field.
Michelle Simmons has been tasked with creating the next supercomputer that could change the face of international business, weather forecasting and drug design.
While traditional computers complete calculations in sequential order, the quantum computer will complete the tasks simultaneously, potentially resulting in a device millions of times faster.
Right now, the quantum physicist is busy assembling her team at the University of New South Wales, having recently being granted $46 million through government and corporate funding.
Professor Simmons said the goal was to create a commercially available quantum computer in the next decade.
“I think everyone recognises it’s a transformational change in the way computers operate,” she said.She likens the international race to build the quantum computer to the space race of the 20th Century.
“The rationale for expanding now is we are leading internationally and for a number of years I’ve felt that if we don’t keep that lead, the money will be transferred overseas.”
The computer will not be a pocket-size device, but neither will it be like the first supercomputers that took up an entire room. Professor Simmons said it would be something in between.
“My focus has been that we build something practical,” she said.
Professor Simmons said she would like to see more women working in quantum computing, but does not believe she has faced barriers or obstacles because of her gender.
“I’d encourage more women to go for it because it’s a great field,” she said.
“It’d be nice to have female colleagues around but in terms of the research, when you’re working at the cutting edge everyone is part of the team.”
Dr Rachael Dunlop believes Australian scientists should communicate better with the public, which in turn would lead to much-needed funding.
“The brain drain in this country is real and it’s going to have a huge impact on us,” she said.
“In terms of the return on investment for medical science, the return is three or four-fold. Economically it makes no sense to cut money from an industry that is making money.
“I think we have a responsibility to explain to the public what we’re doing. Sometimes when our funding gets cut, we haven’t got the support for the public.”
Dr Dunlop was optimistic about equality in her field, saying the gender split was about half.
“That’s not to say there’s not inequity. Women aren’t paid as much and there’s not as much mentorship that goes on,” she said.
Dr Dunlop is a visiting associate at Macquarie University, and is working in conjunction with the Institute of EthnoMedicine in Wyoming, USA, on more motor neurone disease research.
Further work is needed to determine what exactly causes the disease, but scientists do know its prevalence is higher in coastal areas where there is greater exposure to the toxic algae.
“It probably requires a faulty gene, combined with the toxin, combined with something like a head injury,” Dr Dunlop said.
Nicknamed Dr Rachie, Dr Dunlop regularly writes about health in the media, is the vice-president of Australian Skeptics Inc and has an active presence on social media.
She is also a passionate pro-vaccine campaigner, and said she was “infuriated” by the anti-vaccine movement.
“The myths they perpetuate could lead to illness and, in the worst case scenario, death in children,” she said.
“We need to maintain trust in the public health initiatives and they undermine that.”
University of Queensland researcher Janet Lanyon has spent more than 30 years researching dugongs — docile creatures known as the “ladies of the sea”.
Dr Lanyon leads a research team that examines the mammals along Queensland’s coast — an area where population numbers have fallen in recent decades.
“Dugongs are dependent on seagrass … if something leads to degradation of seagrass then dugongs are in strife,” she said.
“They’re susceptible to being captured in nets, harvested for food, they get hit by boats and there may be health issues as well.”
While regular water pollution is a hazard, events such as floods and cyclones also cause problems for dugongs because sediment washes into their habitats and can kill seagrass.
Over time that has led to small genetic differences between groups.
Dr Lanyon’s team, which has assistance from Sea World, is now conducting further genetic research in Queensland.
“We have a fantastic team of volunteers. The same people have been working with me for years and they’re so dedicated,” Dr Lanyon said.
Getting dugong samples can be quite the process if researchers want in-depth information such as faecal samples or conducting ultrasounds.
The animals need to be caught and then hoisted onto a boat, where they stay for about half an hour and are then released.
“Once you capture them they just sit quietly in the water, many will try to get away from you in the first minute or two,” Dr Lanyon said.
“They’re pretty docile, like cows in a way.”
Tamara Davis first became interested in space when she saw Halley’s Comet as a child.
Thirty years on, Professor Davis is working with Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt and several hundred of the brightest international minds to find out more about dark energy.
A relatively recent discovery, dark energy suggests the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate.
Professor Davis’s speciality is measuring how soundwaves from the early universe have affected gas patterns millions of kilometres away.
“Once you have measured these soundwaves in the distribution of galaxies, it’s like laying grid paper over the universe,” she said.
“You can measure how much the universe is expanding and you can measure how fast galaxies are growing.”
Professor Davis believes dark energy could hold the key to extraordinary technological advances on earth and in space.
But she admitted the researchers’ “a ha moment” had not quite come yet.
“We’ve discovered anti-gravity, so if we can harness that maybe we will have new forms of propulsion,” she said.
“Maybe we will have a way to make a new type of clean energy.”
Professor Davis said she had felt nothing but support from male colleagues, but said being a female in the astrophysics field had been challenging.
Finding work-related female role models was tough, and she believed there were sometimes subtle biases that make it harder for women.
“Sometimes when I’m the expert in the room I’m not the person called on to answer the question,” Professor Davis said.
“But I just get on with it … I’ve never felt any slight.”
Alice Williamson says the outbreak of the Zika virus, and news a vaccine is years away, is proof scientists need to work together more.
Finding cures for diseases or designing drugs can often be a top-secret project, with groups of competitive scientists working independently of each other around the world.
Dr Williamson, a malaria specialist at the University of Sydney, is part of a project aiming to buck the trend.
She is part of the Open Source Malaria group, trying to find a new treatment for the disease before strains of the parasite that resist existing medication reach Africa.
“If this resistance spreads where the majority of cases are, it would be a real disaster so we need to have a medicine ready. There is a real urgency,” she said.
Open Source Malaria members publish their research in real time and make the data available — a policy Dr Williamson said would hopefully reduce overlapping and scientists making the same mistakes as each other.
It means lucrative patents may be forfeited, but for a disease like malaria — which had an estimated 438,000 victims in 2015 — but Dr Williamson said scientists had a “responsibility” to produce affordable cures.
“If we don’t put patents on our drugs and we find something good, hopefully we can get it to market as soon as possible,” she said.
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