Chief Women: Naomi Koh Belic

PURE POWER:

NAOMI KOH BELIC ON THE CREATIVITY OF SCIENCE 

A true Chief Woman, this Sydney based scientist is passionate about discovering the new and challenging the old one experiment at a time.

 

We caught up to talk about the challenges she faces, on speaking up for what’s true and why Science allows her creative side to flourish.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself- what do you do? Where do you live? And what gets you up in the morning?

I’m a Gold Coast gal born and raised, currently living in Sydney. My oversized giant ball of fluff (Rufus) meows and paws at my face to wake me up every morning. Most day’s you’ll either find me in the lab desperately trying to finish the final experiments of my PhD or I’m curled up on the couch, surrounded by snacks as I write my thesis. My research is focused on isolating stem cells from fat and studying their proteins. There are few things I love more than talking about my research or science in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to host a series on ABC and feature as a biology expert on Discovery Channel. I’ll take any opportunity to hop up on stage and rant about unproven stem cell therapies being offered by predatory clinics, in fact I’ll be at the Powerhouse Museum on the 15th of August doing exactly that as part Ockham’s Razor.

 

Have you always had a passion for science or is this something that developed later in life?

If I’m being completely honest, I stumbled face first into a career in science. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved science my whole life and I owe a lot of that to the hands-on experiments we did in primary school. But I loved art, English and history just as much as I loved science in school. I got my first “bad” grade when I was 14, I was told if I got anymore of these they would revoke my academic scholarship, so I convinced my parents I needed to move to this shiny new public selective science school. Only once I was there did I realise they didn’t even offer art or history as subjects, so biology and chemistry became my main focus. I moved to Sydney to get my Bachelors of Biotechnology, partly because the degree sounded cool, and partly because at the big age of 17 I whole-heartedly believed I was ready to move cities on my own. I decided Spanish would be a great subject, that was a spectacular failure. I took up a summer research project to compensate for that failed subject, and that’s where I fell in love with research. I graduated with first class honours, started my PhD, and now I’m looking for a post-doctoral position with the goal of one day starting my own lab.

 

I think a career in science is perceived as a bit of a boys club, would you say this has been your experience, or is this perception a bit outdated? And why do you think it is important to have women in scientific research?

It’s is a boys club. Specifically a crusty old white boys club.

While it’s nice to think gender stereotypes no longer persist in science, that unfortunately isn’t the case. Women make up nearly half of undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine degrees, yet when you look at high level academic positions across these disciplines, only 20% of those are held by women. I attended a seminar that compared scientific research to the film industry because of the similarities in gender inequality of senior positions. 82% of the recipients of one of the largest medical grants here in Australia were men, of those men 84% of them worked in exclusively male only teams. 

There is no denying gender disparities in science, but we need change that encompasses all marginalised communities. We need to ensure the conversations we are having are not gender essentialist, racist, classist or ableist. Scientific research doesn’t just need more women, we desperately need diversity, intersectionality, equity and inclusivity. There are countless studies that demonstrate how beneficial diversity is, we know diverse teams are smarter, we know companies that have diverse workforces financially perform better. We know diversity works.

 

What’s been the best part of your research journey so far?

The best part of my research journey is that I know despite all of its challenges, I want nothing more than a long, fulfilling career in academia. I’m addicted to the way research makes me feel.

You see, the beautiful thing about research is the that you truly get to delve into the unknown. Curiosity is allowed to flourish, and creativity is encouraged. You have the opportunity to investigate something in a way that nobody else ever has.

When your experiments eventually work, you’re able to discover something entirely new. And when your experiments don’t work, you’re back at the drawing board, problem solving, challenging your understanding, and discovering new ways to test your hypothesis. The freedom to pursue knowledge is without a doubt the single best part of scientific research.

 

What do you think has been one of the most challenging parts of your journey?

My entire PhD has been tough to say the least, but the hardest part is not being able to share that. Naturally I am a very open person, I pride myself on my ability to be vulnerable and to share that with people. Like many other academics I’m not able to be as transparent as I would like to be because of the ramifications this could have on my career. The challenges I’ve faced in academia are not unique. There is a mental health crisis in graduate education, PhD students are more than six times as likely to experience depression or anxiety than the general population. To combat this, I work with PhD Balance to foster a community where fellow graduate students can share their stories, their struggles, and showcase their resilience.

 

What are the changes that you would like to see in your field?

Oh boy where do I even start. 

Science is for everyone. I would really like to see the barriers to science knocked down. Scientists need to ensure that we make science more accessible to our entire population. We need better education in our school systems, more role models for these children to aspire to, affordable graduate and post graduate education, liveable stipends for post graduate students (fun fact: PhD stipends in Australia are below minimum wage), decent wages for postdoctoral researchers, increased job stability, healthier work life balance, a shift towards collaboration rather than competition, better mental health support, equity, diversity and inclusivity.

 

Do you think people should be more aware of the work that you do?

People need to be more aware of science in general. While there is scientific consensus that climate change is real, and that vaccines work, climate change deniers and anti vaxers are rampant. We need the general public to better engage with science so that we can shift the conversation in our communities, and ultimately have policy that reflects science. I encourage everyone reading this to get a little more science in their life, whether that means you follow a few scientists on Instagram, subscribe to a science podcast, drop in to your local museum, head to an observatory, attend a live science show, pick up a science book, or do all of the above and let yourself get caught up discovering the world around you.

 

Want to follow Naomi's journey? Check her out here: 


Instagram: www.instagram.com/naomikohbelic
Website: www.naomikohbelic.com
Twitter: twitter.com/naomikohbelic

 

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