180K to support women changing our world

Thursday 08 March 2018

Two female researchers in Queensland have been awarded strategic grants as a step forward in closing the research and academic gender gap.

The winners of Mater Research Strategic Grants for Outstanding Women were awarded on International Women’s Day to Associate Professor Katharina Ronacher and Professor Josephine Forbes, both Group Leaders at the Mater Research Institute – University of Queensland.

Chair of the Gender Equity Working Group at Mater Research Associate Professor Allison Pettit said the grant scheme provides funding for two awards per year.

“Each award provides $45 000 per annum for two years to support the research and career progression of high potential female researchers at Mater.”

Dr Pettit said the barriers for women are multifactorial.

“Combining motherhood and being the primary carer with being a clinical or biomedical researcher is demanding.  Research can be quite unforgiving and the attrition rate is high for women.

“The Australian Academy of Science has recognised that women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers, but just 17 per cent of senior academics in Australian universities and research institutes,” said Dr Pettit.

“In light of this, this grant has the potential to make a real difference in the career progression of Mater Research female research academics.”

With three children aged ten, eight and six, Dr Ronacher said the grant will reduce the pressure of balancing home and work life.

“With the grant money I have been able to recruit another staff member who can assist in my research work around stopping the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in Australia; so it’s a huge help. Funding that is consistent over two years allows enough time to truly make a difference in our research,” said Dr Ronacher.

“My research looks at why patients with diabetes are more susceptible to tuberculosis, the development of new therapies and assessing how big the problem is in Australia – the rates haven’t declined over the years despite good control programs.”

Having recently relocated from South Africa with her husband and three young children, the grant was awarded to help provide a substantial career boost.

“Resettling a family and setting up a brand new lab are major career challenges that impact on productivity and trajectory and we are excited to be able to support Dr Ronacher in enhancing her national reputation,” said Dr Pettit.

Similarly Dr Josephine Forbes is balancing a young family and a high-level research career.

“My husband is a fantastic contributor to our family but as a mum you have to be very innovative about how to use your time. It becomes particularly challenging for a woman at this level, where you are a professor and a group leader and you have to sustain the funding for your group and your own funding, in balance with home life. It becomes very difficult.”

Dr Forbes explains her research in the midst of a global diabetes pandemic, with a third of patients with diabetes going on to develop cardiovascular and kidney disease.

“We’ve recently discovered that kidney disease starts much earlier than previously appreciated. We’re particularly interested in the function of ‘cell power stations’ which are called mitochondria. We know that young people aged 15-25 have evidence of dysfunction in these cell power stations but we may be able to detect this in 10-15 year olds, and start treatment earlier to prevent progression.”

Dr Pettit said women in research need to be recognised for their contributions to discovery and research translation.

“Women need to be equitably compensated and have confidence in progressing their career even if they choose to be a primary care giver. An important part of this cultural shift will be achieving gender balance in assuming the carer load and consequently avoiding our male colleagues being disproportionately disadvantaged for taking on some of the burden,” said Dr Pettit. 

Dr Forbes shared advice for early career female researchers:

 “Stay balanced – make sure you don’t forget about the rest of your life because the person that you are contributes to the type of research that you do and the quality of that research.”

The Mater Research Strategic Grants for Outstanding Women are proudly funded through Mater Foundation’s generous donors and supporters.

Mater Research is committed to supporting women in research and was awarded the Employer of Choice – Small Business at the 2017 Women in Technology Awards