Celebrating women in STEM with our Chief Scientist
Issued: 1 Mar

Queensland Chief Scientist Professor Bronwyn Harch shares her insights into her love of science, grown through farm, family and female inspirations.

Farm life inspired a young Bronwyn to be curious

Science was all around me as a child growing up on a farm. The relationship between the weather and natural events like floods and droughts and the ability to grow food was always a discussion point – between Mum and Dad and us kids.

Every phone call included Mum or Dad asking people about their local weather; every farming consultant who visited the farm was about application of specialist science knowledge for growing crops, using fertiliser, pesticides or not using them; the bank manager talking to them about borrowing money to grow their business; the interplay of the machinery and their engineering and their purpose of increasing the farm’s productivity.

And of course, understanding the impact of the sun on hot days, on not only vegetables and livestock but also the impacts on yourself. It was understanding the world I lived in – and it was appreciating that this was actually ‘all science’ that made me very curious.

On reflection the first ‘mathematician’ I knew was my Mum. When she was packing vegetables into the packing crates, she showed me I didn’t need to count every cabbage or cauliflower. There was a pattern to the packing arrangement and that is how she showed me how the times table worked ‘in real life’.

Dad was the first ‘chemist’ I knew – mixing chemicals to address specific pests and diseases. I eventually learnt it was also about ‘atmospheric physics’ regarding the best time of the day to spray chemicals and the seasonal context for adding fertilisers into the cropping cycle.

Influences and inspirations

L-R, Bronwyn Harch and Prof Janet Chaseling, Griffith University

My undergraduate university statistics lecturer, Prof Janet Chaseling at Griffith University was an amazing scientist. I loved attending her lectures because she used examples that were across many different science fields, including animal and plant science, forensic science as well as health science.

She painted such a rich background for how statistical science was relevant to every field of endeavour that it inspired me to further my interest in data analytics. And her stories always included collaborators and faraway places. I was mesmerised about the travel she did for her research. I grow up in a very small country town and she showed me that statistical sciences could have me interacting with extraordinary people from different science backgrounds and I could travel the country and globally. She started my passion on multidisciplinary science collaboration.

Since then, I have met amazing female scientists on a very regular basis. Women looking to reduce the nutrients in runoff into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon; those working on robotics that help with surgery; working on soil samplers for Mars Rover missions; and developing ways to recycle electronic waste and recycle clothes into new products. Women are also working on new ways of propagating avocado trees using tissue culture; using new materials to create flexible electronics for TVs ; and understanding the health benefits of First Nations peoples’ bush tucker foods - the list is almost endless.

But remember not all scientific practitioners have the title ‘scientist’. I refer to my hairdresser as an amazing chemist. If she gets the chemistry wrong many people would be upset at their bad hair days!

Thank you, colleagues

Professor Bronwyn Harch

It’s Queensland Women’s Week, and I want to shout out to those women who’ve been wonderful role models, mentors, and sponsors, and my female friends and peers working in all aspects of science – from medicine and health, to agriculture and conservation, education, communication and research administration, big data and cybersecurity, government policy, energy and transport, space and archaeology… your work is making a difference locally and globally!

In 2023, Queensland Women’s Week will be held from 5 to 12 March, celebrating the achievements of Queensland women and girls.

We have a lot to celebrate in Queensland with many science and innovation leaders being female. The majority of Vice-Chancellors of our universities, the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, Chief Advisor Procurement and Queensland Government Architect and three Ministers in the science, STEM education and digital economy space are all women.

Research suggests, and I can validate based on my own experiences, having diversity in leadership, brings about better decision-making, enhanced efficiencies and greater productivity. In my view, decision-makers need to be deliberate to make gender equality happen.

If you know extraordinary women in any science field, give them the recognition they deserve! The 2023 Queensland Women in STEM Prize is now accepting applications until 24 March 2023.

You can read more about Professor Bronwyn Harch’s career achievements in her biography.