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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.

After considering almost every career under the sun, Gold Coast local Amanda Tauber settled on studying a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at Bond with the help of her trusty QTAC booklet and some very unique selection criteria. She began her undergraduate studies on a scholarship, which then saw her progress to an honours degree, and finally, a PhD in medicinal chemistry, which she’s currently pursuing.

Amanda’s journey to balancing research, study and teaching at Bond hasn’t been simple, but it’s been worth every new challenge and late night in the library. We sat down with Amanda to hear more about her evolving love of teaching, her research, her advice for girls aspiring to a career in science, and why she thinks STEM is ‘like magic, but cooler’.

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

I never knew what I wanted to ‘be when I grew up’, and to be fair, I still don’t. Originally, I wanted to be a checkout girl at the supermarket because I thought it was awesome they got to scan things all day and keep the money that ended up in the till. It was a very sad day when I realised that wasn’t how it happened… Then, in no particular order, I wanted to be a criminologist (influenced by TV shows Criminal Minds and Castle), to work in 3D animation and design (thanks to all of the behind-the-scenes footage from The Lord of the Rings), to go into prosthetics (after watching The Last Leg’s coverage of the Paralympics and a stint down at the University of Melbourne for Science Week) and, very briefly, to become an author (but my spelling and grammar was shocking, so that idea went down the drain… thank goodness for Grammarly).

Ideas came and went, but the end of high school meant a choice had to be made. I decided to rip out the pages of the QTAC booklet that featured degrees I could never see myself doing. ‘Teaching and education’ was the first section to go – which in hindsight, is pretty ironic, as ‘teaching and education’ now make up the best parts of my day. But, at that stage, I had zero patience and couldn’t for the life of me see that as my career. So, this continued, and I arrived at ‘engineering and biomedicine’ (and the rest of the booklet went in the bin). Long story short, I ended up at Bond University studying biomedical science on a scholarship.

From there, my path was a bit more linear. The program really gave me an opportunity to figure out how the world works, breaking it down to each atom and molecule. Chemistry allowed me to combine a desire for understanding how the world works with my passions for engineering, animation – by designing virtual laboratories– and even authorship as I worked on a range of publications. Sadly, I still haven’t worked out how scanning things and obtaining pools of money could slot into my life’s path…

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

I’m going to cheat and say it’s been all of my educators along the way – I can’t pinpoint just one. Yes, the initial interest in my hobbies often came from media, but my passions have always been encouraged and influenced by my educators. From my early years’ teachers in New Zealand, to those along the way who’ve given me the space to pursue my own passions.

Then, at St Hilda’s School here on the Gold Coast, I was taught by some incredibly talented individuals who have an immense love for what they do. These educators have been integral in encouraging so many women and girls to pursue careers in STEM, and without their support– in particular, Mrs Caughley and Mr Ward – I really wouldn’t be where I am today.

What is your current role, and how did you get there?

I’m currently in the final stretch of my PhD in medicinal chemistry, and I’m also a tutor for a few of the undergraduate subjects here at Bond. I love the balance between research and teaching, from being in the lab, where you’ve got to figure out lots yourself, to teaching, where I can say, ‘hey, I know this stuff – let’s get through it together’.

My research journey kicked off in my second year of biomedical science, where I took a lab subject with Dr Stephan Levonis, who is now my primary PhD supervisor. It was the first time I truly felt like I wasn’t just doing an experiment to show that I understood the learning objectives, but was genuinely working out its intricacies. It was also the first time I really understood that a career in science didn’t have to exclude the love I’d formed for engineering in school. I then teamed up with Dr Levonis (or Steve, as I call him) and began Research Project A. Eventually, this turned into honours, which then turned into an (almost) PhD.

The teaching journey happened concurrently, and rather accidentally at first. A friend in biomedicine needed someone to cover her private tutoring shifts, and put my name down, which is how I got my start. From there, I’d already gained some teaching experience, so when I started my honours I dove straight into tutoring chemistry for living systems. Although it surprised me (and my mother, if you recall that ‘teaching and education’ were my first career options to go!), I absolutely loved it. Being able to help chemistry ‘click’ for students is incredibly fun, and gives me a way to pay forward the passion and inspiration that helped me get to where I am today.

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

It’s exciting! To put that in a more eloquent way, one of the main reasons I was drawn to science is that it brings colour to the world. It’s what drives the little complexities of life, from the amount of work that goes into taking a single breath, to the physics that allows us to throw a fancy tin can (a plane) across the ditch. There’s so much ‘awesomeness’ to the world, and STEM gives us the key to unlock the door to see – and develop – how things work.

It's also the people you meet. STEM is so diverse, there are people working on every research project imaginable. Often, we think about science as the big things – cancer, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, bubbly potions in a lab – but it’s the small parts that make all the difference. I’m so lucky to be able to see people talk and work on things they’re passionate about; it’s a pretty cool day and age to be a part of STEM and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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

It’s been great, at all levels of my STEM journey. Some of my best memories from the early stages of my research pathway were late-night writing sessions with some of the other girls pursuing PhDs within the Faculty of Health Sciences & Medicine. I value these friendships so much, and they eventually become connections that will follow you throughout your career.

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

Don’t listen to the naysayers – STEM is magic, but cooler. If there are people who make you feel wary to pursue any career that you’re passionate about, STEM or otherwise, they’re not the kinds of people you want in your life! YouTube is a great resource for finding like-minded science lovers, and one of the best ways to learn about the things that excite you too.  

For anyone interested in research, you’ll often hear ‘pick a project you’re passionate about’. Although this might factor into it, in my experience it’s always about the people – the supervisors and collaborators you work with. You’ll fall in love with practically anything if you’re doing it with a supportive team around you, and the best project in the world can be miserable if you don’t have the right support.

If you do feel comfortable with the people around you – mentors, academics, potential mentors – tell them about your passions, and listen to their stories. You never know what might spark an interest or where you might be able to make a connection.

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