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Scholarship targets STEM careers and women leaders

08 August 2016

Alexandra Schumann Gillett Supplied WEB 0

Alexandra Schumann-Gillett (above) is a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship recipient. Alex uses computer simulations to study what are termed “off fats” present in the brains of people immediately before they get Alzheimer’s disease. However, her research is not her only passion. Alex also received her scholarship for her work to increase gender diversity in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine).

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and, according to the statistics, affects up to 70 percent of all people with dementia.

The disease damages the brain, resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour. The biggest risk factor for having Alzheimer’s disease is increasing age. Three in 10 people over 85 have dementia.

Scientific research—in particular computational chemistry and structural biology – is a passion for Alex. From 8am to 5pm each work day (and often at weekends) she can be found setting up and then analysing the results of her own simulations, reviewing the literature in her field, as well as reading and analysing studies in her subject.

Valued at up to $120,000 over, typically, 2-3 years, Future Leaders Scholarships are awarded annually for research or coursework studies at graduate level. For Alex the scholarship has provided a much needed top up to her university stipend, making the move from Queensland to Canberra to complete her PhD studies at Australian National University in the Research School of Chemistry more possible.

“The scholarship provides me with financial assistance, but it has also meant I now have the opportunity to travel overseas. I am hoping to attend a biophysics conference in Edinburgh in 2017 which is considered one of the best. I am also hoping to approach and work with a multidisciplinary research team working from diverse angles on Alzheimer’s,” says Alex.

In April this year Alex attended a leadership development program held by AGSM at the UNSW as part of the scholarship. She found it invaluable, helping her work leadership aspects into her study and research. The program also put her in contact with the scholarship alumni, which has provided her with varied and different channels of input and ideas.

“Increasing diversity in STEMM has to start at home and when people are young,” says Alex.

“We need to change the language around how we talk about maths and science. For example: the stuff about science being only for intelligent people. Science is another way of thinking about the world in which we live, another language to explain how we see the world. Science is a tool - a different language we use to describe the world around us.

“Of course,” she continues, “forcing someone to do something or be interested in a subject that does not interest them won’t work. People have to be engaged.

“Diversity and transparency enrich all fields. The presence and representation of women in STEMM in my experience remains low both here in Australia and internationally. It’s what interests me about the SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) pilot being run in Australia,” she finishes.

Future Leaders Scholarship: open until 31 August, 2016.

In the ongoing effort to increase diversity and open career opportunities for women in STEMM, Westpac is partnering with Vogue Australia later this year to bring Vogue Codes. For more, click here.

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