Taking science to a wider audience

As a special guest at this year’s convocation at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science, Dr ASTHA SINGH talked about her new career in science communication

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, upon whose ancestral lands the University of Sydney is built.

I’d like to acknowledge Ms Dorothy Hoddinott AO, Dean of the Faculty, Professor Trevor Hambley, guests, friends and most importantly, all the graduates and their families here.

What a proud moment for all of you graduating here today, after all the hard work you have put into every assignment, exam, project, lab experiment, data analysis, thesis and what not! I think you all deserve a big round of applause – shall we?

It was not so long ago that I myself sat here, in these very seats, in my own graduation gown. Just like I did then, some of you are probably wondering, where to now?

I’d like to say to you, the future looks bright.

Here’s something put out by the Education Council that I read recently:

In today’s fast-changing world driven by technological change, the strategic skill sets inherent in STEM subjects are in high demand. Many exciting, high paying, and interesting career paths have grown in Australia for STEM graduates. Over the years to 2022, the second largest jobs growth will be in professional, scientific and technical services…. the 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey shows that STEM graduates have higher than average employment rates.

Science as a career is not limited in its choices anymore. What we need to do, is to choose the right fit for our own selves. When we follow our heart and do what we enjoy, it sets us on a path to professional as well as personal success and satisfaction.

For me personally, the life sciences have always been fascinating. As I worked towards my PhD in Plant Pathology, I came to realise what it is that I most enjoy about science: explaining it to people in layman terms. It came from the simple explanation of the way broccoli smells. (You see, I smelled like broccoli soup for two whole years, working with this vegetable in the lab on a daily basis!) Of course the fact that I am a chatterbox and have always enjoyed meeting and interacting with people, also helped greatly.

This innate passion has led me to where I am today. I currently manage the Australian arm of the world’s leading science communication program.  It is called FameLab, and I hope you have heard of it. A science talent show which gives participants three minutes to present science, engineering and technology concepts, it engages as well as entertains. The program involves searching for innovators, and giving them opportunities to build on their science communication skills.

The huge multidisciplinary overlap of the STEM fields in this program is awe inspiring, and I am thoroughly enjoying taking science to a wider audience.

As I look back on my learning experiences both at university and at work, I find three important life lessons that I would like to share with you.

  1. Do not be afraid of failure: it is but a stepping stone to success. Wear it like a badge of honour. This University was gracious enough to provide all the support I needed to stay focussed, in the form of guidance as well as financial aid. Things didn’t always go my way during those PhD years, but I am not the first research scholar to say that! And even after, as I decided to manoeuvre my career into something different, all I got initially was a series of knockbacks. Those moments though, became a foundation for resilience and endurance, and motivated me to soldier on with the career pathway of my choice.
  2. Never stop learning. During my time in this University, I was encouraged to pursue various learning and development opportunities of my choice. I am glad to say that I have taken this desire to learn, and the courage to ask questions, beyond the walls of university, constantly challenging myself with new opportunities and ideas. I don’t need to tell you that it is the simple desire to discover, that fuels science. For myself, I hope to maintain a childlike curiosity even as I grow into my sunset years!
  3. There is no bias in this world, we make our own prejudices. As an international student, I came to realise early on that it is our attitude and response to circumstances that ensure how connected we become in a new place with new people. I am guided by a wonderful saying in the Sanskrit language: “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam”. It means that the world is one family, and that is how I viewed my significant others at university. I strongly believe that diversity and inclusion open doors to empowerment and future leadership, for everyone. You will all have different circumstances but no matter what they are, Australia has and will continue to provide equal opportunities and a great start-line for a promising future – so give it all you’ve got!

As you finish your study here and embark on your new lives, you will look back at the University of Sydney with much fondness. For me personally, these are hallowed grounds. They welcomed me into this country eleven years ago, a bright-eyed youngster eager to embrace the world. They supported me through the years of struggle – the fun times and the not-so-fun times, the failures and the ultimate successes. In this very place, I learnt the Australian way of life. To this day, when I visit the University’s Camperdown and Darlington campuses, I am filled with a deep sense of respect; it’s almost as if I am at a temple of worship.

This was my story, but today is all about you. Today marks a sense of accomplishment for you, and as you stand at the threshold of your new ‘fully adult’ lives, I wish you a lifetime of curiosity, the courage to ask questions, and the opportunity to pick from a variety of exciting paths ahead.

This is an amended version of Dr Astha Singh’s address to students