Whenever Dr Noushin Nasiri talks about her father, her face lights up.
Renowned for his zest for life, he always has a question to ask about the world, she says.
“The questions are very simple first but then you realise that it’s very difficult to answer,” she tells SBS News.
When Dr Nasiri was young, growing up in a small Iranian city near the Caspian Sea, she remembers coming up with innovative answers, only to have them challenged again by her father’s hypothetical scenarios.
It was these creative brain exercises she says sparked her fascination with science and has led her to where she is today, heading up the NanoTech Laboratory at Macquarie University’s School of Engineering.
“I believe he planted the seeds of curiosity in me. He taught me never to accept anything as a fact but to look for the scientific reasons behind them,” she says.
Dr Nasiri was the recipient of the NSW 2019 Young Tall Poppy Science Award, which recognise the achievements of Australia’s outstanding young scientific researchers and communicators.
Her research today is focused on nanostructured materials – which have dimensions of only a few nanometres – for health, energy and environmental applications, including wearable electronics.
He taught me never to accept anything as a fact but to look for the scientific reasons behind them.
– Dr Noushin Nasiri on her father
Stimulating curiosity is something Dr Nasiri believes needs to happen when girls are around the age of six in order to increase female participation in areas like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the future.
“I encourage my students to seek answers to basic but challenging questions, but I believe it’s mostly the parents’ job because by the time they get to my classroom they’re at least 18 years old.”
And Dr Nasiri says to tackle the gender divide in Australia’s STEM workforce, parents and teachers first need to understand the importance of having gender diversity in all practices.
They then learn how to encourage girls to take up careers in STEM with a different approach they’d use to encourage boys, she says.
“Women are 50 per cent of the population. If we are not including them in STEM, we are losing that 50 per cent of potential.”
“Sometimes women have a different way of thinking, so if we’re dealing with grand, real-world problems and we’re aiming to offer innovative solutions to these challenges, we need people who look at things from different perspectives.”
Dr Nasiri believes sexism is the biggest hurdle stopping more women from pursuing careers in STEM.
“The world is changing but as a female researcher I still face lots of this unconscious bias and stereotyping which I see as a barrier in my career.”
Dr Nasiri says she has faced discrimination when doing things like applying for grants, dealing with investors for research, and even when putting female students forward for opportunities.
“We are expected to be caring, warm and very flexible, and if we’re assertive about what we want, we might be considered as bossy, cold and sometimes even aggressive.”
But her male counterparts are described differently when they fight for their ideas, she says.
“They’ll receive positive feedback about how confident and assertive they are about what they want to do … how they’re passionate about their dream project.”
When she was a child, Dr Nasiri says she remembers taking note of the people at the top, and learning from those in leadership positions in her country.
In Australia, she says the state and federal governments need to address the need for more female researchers in science by setting an example.
“The government can promote women’s leadership first in their own team, so younger generations can see the possibilities of being female leaders in future.”
Noushin also says tackling the gender pay gap, not just in STEM but across industries, is also a no-brainer.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science is marked on 11 February 2021.
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