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Women in STEM: Eleanor West

From the frontlines of COVID-19 care to space exploration, climate change research and so much more, there are brilliant women making huge strides in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) around the world. So, we’re zeroing in on a few of them; in particular the wonderful women on our own doorstep here at Bond University.

Eleanor West’s interest in science started in school at a young age, and has since blossomed into her vocation. We spoke to the PhD candidate, who’s studying neurourology (the link between nervous system or spinal conditions and the bladder) and pharmacology, about her involvement with STEM, what inspired her to take this path and her advice for girls wanting to forge a similar path.

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Can you tell us a bit about your journey to getting involved in STEM?

My journey into STEM started during school. I was introduced to many different varieties of STEM in my formative years, and this cultivated my enthusiasm for science in high school and university. In high school I studied chemistry and biology and from these subjects, I developed my understanding and love of biological sciences. So, when the time came around to apply for university, I had no doubt about what I wanted to study.

I applied for a Bond University scholarship and was fortunate to receive a place in the Bachelor of Biomedical Science cohort starting in 2015. My career aspiration at that stage, like many other people who do biomedical science, was to go into medicine. However, the best thing about my undergraduate degree was that I was introduced all the aspects of biomedical science and I discovered that there were many other pathways that I could take besides medicine.

One subject, Advanced Bioscience Laboratory, was the first introduction to laboratory work that I had during my degree, and it gave me a completely different insight into the field than I had imagined. This subject spurred my interest in research, so after completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to undertake an honours research year in the Bond University Centre for Urology Research. A few of the lecturers from my studies became my supervisors and mentors, and I became invested in urology research. Towards the end of that year I decided to continue my research career and enrol in a PhD.

Eleanor presents at the World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto in 2018

Was there anything – or anyone – in particular that inspired you to follow a career in science?

I don’t think there has ever been someone that I can pinpoint in the scientific field or beyond that has solely inspired my scientific career. Instead, there has been many different people in different periods of my life that inspired me to take the next step in my journey. My parents were my inspiration to always do what I love. My high school biology teacher was an amazing and knowledgeable scientist, and inspired me to take the next step into a science-based university degree. My lecturers and tutors during my undergraduate degree showed me what they loved about their subjects, and the supervisors for my postgraduate degree inspire me every day with their expertise and love of learning and discovering.

What is your current course of study, and how did you get there?

I am currently wrapping up my PhD in neurourology and pharmacology. During my honours degree, I fell in love with the urology field, but when the time came to decide what path I wanted to take in my career, I thoroughly investigated my options. I spoke to my now-supervisor Russ Chess-Williams after having him as my secondary supervisor during my honours degree. I had always found his area of work interesting, and after learning about his interests in neurourology I decided to undertake my PhD in this area. Neurourology has been a challenging and exciting area of research thus far, and I feel so fortunate to have stumbled upon such an amazing topic to invest my time in. 

Eleanor (at far right) and her fellow Higher Degree Research students

What’s your favourite part of working in a STEM field?

I think my favourite part of STEM is the opportunities it gives me, allowing me to work with and meet so many people with a diverse range of interests. It’s very easy to get caught up in your own area of study, especially when it fills your every waking moment, so being able to speak to people from different disciplines within STEM is refreshing and eye-opening. I’ve met so many people from all over the world, all of whom are doing amazing things in the scientific community. This encourages me to work harder knowing that I’m also making a contribution, however small, to the world of research.

What has your experience learning from and collaborating with other women in STEM been like?

I have three supervisors for my PhD, two of whom are magnificent women who’ve contributed immensely to the world of science. It has been a privilege to be their PhD student and witness their approaches to work and research firsthand. Throughout my degrees, I’ve been constantly surrounded by amazing female researchers at different stages of their careers and studies. In what has been, and remains to this day, a typically male-dominated field, it’s a great feeling to walk into a lab full to the brim of female researchers ready to impart their knowledge and wisdom.

How do you think we can inspire more women and girls to get involved in STEM?

I think that we need to show women and girls that a career in STEM is just as achievable as any other career path. It’s hard to be inspired without seeing the outcomes and results, so I think we also need to make it undeniably clear to future generations by giving women in the field a platform to exhibit their achievements in STEM.

Eleanor attends the SIG conference in Sweden

Do you have any advice for young girls who might be wary to express an interest in STEM subjects or career paths?

I’ve always believed that anything is achievable if you have enthusiasm and are willing to do the work. I loved going to school and learning, but I also didn’t receive the best grades or top marks. What made a real difference in my journey to becoming more involved, and to building a career in STEM, was my enthusiasm and love of science. So, my advice is not to be scared of something because it seems unachievable – do the work and show people that you love what you do, and this unbridled passion will get you where you want to be.

One other small snippet of advice from me is this – be open to everything. Explore different fields, talk to experts in those fields, and seize the opportunities that come your way. Keep an open mind and do what you love. 

Why do you think it is important for women to be represented in science?

I think that women have different outlooks and opinions to men. Genetically, biologically, physically, emotionally, and mentally we are different to the male population and these characteristics have an impact on everything that we do. Why wouldn’t it be important to represent what is essentially half the world’s population (if not more) in one of the most impactful and important fields in existence? Women contribute a different side of the story, and it desperately needs to be heard.

We’ll be sharing more from incredible Women in STEM around Bond University as the year goes on – keep up to date by following us on social media.

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