Two women challenging how we see the world

Professor Elisabetta Barberio is leading the pursuit to discover dark matter at the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory.

To mark International Women’s Day, we profile two women who are working to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive world for women in science.

Professor Rachel Webster and Professor Elisabetta Barberio from the University of Melbourne are two leading physicists on the cusp of changing not just how we see the world but our universe.

Professor Elisabetta Barberio

How have you been able to make things more equitable in your professional and personal life?

Elisabetta Barberio

As the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics, I was pleased to be able to seed women only academic positions in the Physics departments of the universities of Sydney, Adelaide, and the Australian National University. We also aim to have quotas for women employed through the Centre – a positive action that can help increase women’s representation. There is a lot to do in this space, but all of us can do our bit and change the culture. Little gestures can go long way.

One example of my advocacy work was when I was on an international panel to award an important research prize. I decided to argue in favour of a woman who had important achievements which had been undervalued by one of the male panel members and highlighted to other members of the panel why she was a worthy winner of the prize. The woman won the prize, which she richly deserved. I am very proud of speaking up, as I feel that if I had not spoken up, the other member of the panel would not have considered her as a candidate for the prize.

Can you give an example of a time you have had to challenge bias or stereotypes as a leading scientist in your field?

I am an Italian woman in an Anglo male-dominated field in Australia. My leadership style is very different from the traditional Anglo male norm. I am often judged on my personal style rather than my achievements. In my professional life I have been told that I am emotional when I am just being passionate about my work. However, this passion has its benefits, and it is this very passion that has mobilised people of the Northern Grampians Shire, the Stawell Gold Mine and a team of researchers from several universities around Australia to support the construction of the first underground physics laboratory in the Southern Hemisphere.

As a woman on the verge of one of the biggest scientific discoveries - how do you think this will impact STEM for women in the future?

Role models are very important, and it is often said that you cannot be what you cannot see. In our centre, we try to highlight the women leading the search for dark matter to school students and the wider community. In Stawell, since we started the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory (SUPL) project, the number of women picking up physics in the local high school increased. We are working closely with these students, and others across Australia, to introduce the women at the forefront of scientific discovery and normalise the idea of women in physics.

Any words of advice for women in STEM who are trying to challenge bias, stereotypes, or discrimination in their field?

It is not easy, but you should trust and back yourself, and be courageous and tenacious in following your passion. Never underestimate support from friends and family or colleagues. Create a safe “circle” of friends with whom you feel safe and supported and seek out mentors who will support you along the way.

Professor Rachel Webster

Rachel WebsterProfessor Rachel Webster has had a stellar career teaching and researching astronomy for more than 20 years. She is leading a project supported by Regional Development Victoria (RDV) in the Latrobe Valley to unlock the region’s geothermal potential.

How would you explain the field of physics and what made you interested in astrophysics?

Physics is using fundamental rules and understandings about nature to describe the physical things we see every day.

I love the ability to describe and understand the things that I observe and that’s what really drew me to physics.

As an astronomer my work focuses on some of our biggest questions - how did the universe begin, how does it evolve and how can we explain the things we see in the sky?

Studying physics can lead to many careers but remains male dominated. What are some of the most interesting careers you have seen your female physics graduates pursue?

Because physics is such a fundamental science, it means you can actually take what you learn and apply it almost anywhere. The female students that study with me have gone onto incredibly broad careers - like bioinformatics, meteorology, astronomy, climate science, economics, STEM outreach and education. They go in all sorts of directions because they have this very strong fundamental understanding of how the nature world works, and can solve very difficult problems in many fields.

How do you think we can make physics more accessible for women?

It’s something I have worked very hard to change along with others around me. Sometimes we have a big impact and sometimes we don’t. Unfortunately, I think the pandemic has discouraged some women from studying science – and instead they are choosing what they perceive as safer or simpler options.

There is also a perception that physics and maths are very difficult and my response to that is that they are difficult for everyone – men and women alike. However, you can master them, and when you do, there are so many things that you can do with those skills.

The female students I have taught are outstanding and have done incredibly well. They have gone out and made a difference in the world and I think that’s the message that we need to get across to young women – that physics is a discipline where you can really solve some of the most wicked problems that are facing the world today. It's worth persevering – yes, it’s difficult, but once you master it, there’s so much you can do.

Tell us about what you’re trying to achieve with the Latrobe Valley Smart Geothermal Industrial Loop?

We know that there is a huge reservoir of heat below the Latrobe Valley and in other places in Australia as well. But what is very special about the Latrobe Valley is that we believe that resource is closer to the surface and hotter than in any other part of the country. The heat is near the surface because of the brown coal deposits – and that’s the part that is really fascinating. It turns out that brown coal is a really effective insulator – it traps heat beneath the coal. In the Latrobe Valley and across about 6,000 square kilometres of Gippsland there is a huge aquifer that has temperatures of about 60 to 70 degrees. This heat is located about one kilometre below the surface, which is relatively close. Getting to that heat requires drilling and because drilling is the most expensive part of the project – the closer you are to the surface, the better. So, the questions we’re exploring with this project are how we can use that resource sustainably and for the benefit of the community in the Latrobe Valley.