Dr Holly Tootell, Dr Yee Lian Chew and Dr Marian Wong recognised by Science & Technology Australia

Three University of Wollongong (UOW) academics – Dr Holly Tootell, Dr Yee Lian Chew and Dr Marian Wong – will be named today (Thursday 3 December) among Australia’s official Superstars of STEM.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews will officially announce those chosen for Science & Technology Australia’s (STA) Superstars of STEM program in 2021-22.

STA has chosen 60 women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from across Australia to be Superstars of STEM and have their research put in the media spotlight.

Dr Tootell is a socio-technical researcher who looks at how young children can be more involved in information technology design processes. In particular, she is interested in pre-school age children and their choices around what makes good human-computer design.

Known within the scientific community as “the Worm Lady”, Dr Chew uses the roundworm C. elegans, an organism with a compact brain consisting of only 300 brain cells, to study chronic pain.

A behavioural ecologist, Dr Wong studies the social behaviour of fish and the impact of changing environments on their behaviour. Her goal is to highlight the incredible behavioural and biodiversity of fishes and the importance of maintaining this diversity in marine and freshwater ecosystems.

Science & Technology Australia Chief Executive Officer Misha Schubert said the program gave women in STEM stronger skills and confidence to step into expert commentary roles in the media.

“The Superstars of STEM program sets out to smash stereotypes of what a scientist, technologist, engineer or mathematician look like – these powerful role models show girls that STEM is for them,” she said.

Technology from a child’s perspective

Dr Tootell, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing and Information Technology, said the unique perspective she brings to technology design helped her selection as a Superstar of STEM.

“Engaging with young children in this space is challenging but so rich with insight and commentary that is often not heard outside the family or care environment,” Dr Tootell said.

“Children are big consumers of technology from a very young age. A focus on the very young consumers allows us to understand better the ways they want to use the technology, and to think about things from a child’s perspective, rather than our adult viewpoint.

“I look forward to highlighting the important voice of young children in technology-based discussions.”

Dr Tootell said that what she loved about working in IT was that people were a necessary component of any information technology artefact.

“Without the people, the technology has limited meaning,” she said.

Learning from worms

Dr Chew, from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, is no stranger to talking about her love for worms. She has spoken at numerous public events about her worm research, including Cambridge Science Festival in the UK, public lectures at the Museum of Victoria and Campbelltown Library, and Soapbox Science Sydney in 2019.

“The worm model is not only incredibly accessible for experimental biology due to its small size, ease of growth and amenability to a variety of technological tools, but it also presents a more practical and ethical model for large experimental studies requiring many animals,” Dr Chew said.

“I am not afraid to use a soapbox, a ‘unicorn horn’ hair accessory or a large poster of a worm image, to send my scientific message across to the public.”

Dr Chew said that as a migrant woman of colour, she hoped her visibility as a scientist had an impact on the future careers of young people of diverse backgrounds.

“Science should be accessible to everyone. Many people do not see science as a career path for them because the science experts that they see on television or hear on radio are not diverse,” she said.

“I hope to become a public advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion through my leadership roles both at the institutional and university level by working with other STEM professionals to deliver practical solutions for women and people of colour in STEM.”

Understanding animal behaviour

A senior lecturer in the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, Dr Wong was drawn to behavioural ecology from a young age, spending many childhood hours watching animals, and says she “grew up on David Attenborough documentaries”.

“In particular, I am drawn towards the behaviours that animals display when they interact with each other in their social groups,” Dr Wong said.

“The field of Behavioural Ecology takes my love of natural history to a whole new level, by enabling me to answer ‘why are they behaving this way?’ through the lens of evolutionary biology.

“It enables me to  see how general principles of behaviour apply across the whole spectrum of life on earth, be that in bacteria, fish, birds, mammals and in many respects, humans. This can truly be mind-blowing.”

Dr Wong wants to use her position as a Superstar of STEM to communicate science to an audience outside of academia and to inspire her own students to be role models for their peers and their own future students.

“I’m looking forward to sharing my passion for animal behaviour with a wider audience. I have many research students at the moment who are young and passionate about their work, so another key motivation for me is to show them that they too can speak out about themselves and their work in a way that captivates.”