Capturing the emotion in science

Publication date
Friday, 23 Sep 2016

Art and science are often thought to be polar opposites. Science is objective and logical by definition, whereas art tends to be emotional and expressive. The Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), Professor Sue Stocklmayer AM believes this needn’t be the case and that capturing the emotion in science is the key to engaging young girls, in the physical sciences in particular.

“Science is generally not about people, but it could be. Take a rainbow for example. It’s a mystical magical beautiful thing. You can understand the science of it but you need to understand that other layer as well, to understand that rainbows have all these connotations in humanity. Why can’t we have that in science?”

Her penchant for infusing humanity into science stems from her father.  “My father was an engineer and a professional artist. He was always experimenting with art and science so I got this art-science mixture very early. He and my mum – who had a professional career in days when that was slightly less common – encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be.”  Her family’s support inspired Sue to pursue an education in the physical sciences, in a time where women and the physical sciences were also considered to be polar opposites.

Sue needed to travel to the local boys’ high school in Lusaka, Zambia, for physics and chemistry classes, because they weren’t offered at the girls’ high school. “Before you even start, there is a message,” she exclaims.  These messages followed her into the classroom. “We had a bloke teach us chemistry who refused to even speak to the girls in the class; he would write on the board what he wished to say. Needless to say we didn’t do very well that year.”

“I’ve seen science, almost from the beginning, as being an unduly gendered kind of a world.  There were these weird things going on that sent a powerful message – ‘this is not where you are meant to be’. And yet, on the family scene and from the teachers in the girl’s school I attended there was a lot of encouragement to be there.”

Despite the difficulties studying science in secondary school, Sue continued to study physics and chemistry at the University College London’s Zimbabwean campus in Harare, then known as Salisbury. “There were only two women in my degree. Our physics professor used to say to us almost every week ‘I don’t know what you women think you’re doing here’. I remember thinking ‘I’ll show you’.”

After graduating, Sue worked in the male-dominated industrial chemistry labs of the Zambian copper mines. “Not only was I the only woman, but I was also the only university graduate. The rest of the employees had technical qualifications, so they despised me on two counts,” she explains. The environment was tough, but she gained valuable lab experience.

After several years in the labs, Sue and her husband returned to Zimbabwe where her husband commenced his PhD in geology. The family followed along on his field trips. “I had my two sons and I would travel out to the bush with my husband and live in a caravan in the middle of nowhere with no facilities.” As her sons started to get to an age where a remote lifestyle became unsuitable, Sue based herself in Harare while her husband went bush, travelling back periodically. “It was a bit like being married to sailor, I suppose,” she muses.

While in Harare, Sue was asked to develop a practical science distance education program. “At that time Zimbabwe had a distance education program but it had no science. The students couldn’t do O-level and A-level science exams.”  The ZIM-SCI program was launched in 1981. The program was developed and run by a dedicated team from a range of cultural backgrounds using local plants, everyday materials and resources repurposed from industrial sites.

“We believed in hands-on science, which at that point was not really being practiced anywhere. We had to be a bit revolutionary and write a program that an untrained tutor could administer. Plus we couldn’t send out dangerous chemicals, we couldn’t send out glassware – it would break. We threw away the text books because they all dealt with conventional science. We had to think what the science actually was, how we would deal with it in a village environment where they had no running water, no electricity, where they had nothing really. It forced us to think outside the box.”

The program was well received by tutors, students and by the government. “It was an exemplary program – hands-on, relevant, culturally sensitive, all those good things.”

Sue recalls a trip to a remote school, where she saw ZIM-SCI in action. “We went into the classroom with this lovely teacher who had my book on the desk. The teacher asked the class who could define pressure? This little girl with her hair all plaited in squares stood up and said ‘pressure is all the particles banging on the walls of the container’ and I thought she’s actually got it! It was so good!”

“It showed you can do this, you can do it with simple resources. You don’t need to have all that flashy equipment. It’s deeply underpinned my philosophy of doing science.”

The quality of the program was recognised by the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, with a significant funding injection in its early days. In later years, when the incoming Mugabe Government promised universal education, the ZIM-SCI team was asked to implement the program countrywide.

But where the new government had created great opportunity for Sue’s work, international funding for her husband’s work as a geologist had dried up due to political concerns, forcing the family to emigrate. “We never thought we would leave but it became impossible for my husband to work, we had to go.” Her husband got a job with BHP in Australia and in 1982 the family immigrated to Perth, Western Australia.

“I knew I wasn’t going to see Zimbabwe plonked down in another country,” Sue says of her expectations of Australia. “In Africa you have all the wild animals which you miss. But someone in WA said you need to do a mental switch – it’s the wildflowers that you celebrate here. And it was good advice.”

While she settled her family in Australia, Sue taught high school physics. Wanting to better her understanding of the Australian education system, she enrolled at Curtin University and completed a Graduate Diploma in Applied Science and a Master of Philosophy, focusing on gender issues in science, before completing her PhD as a mature aged student.

Sue first came to Canberra to present a conference paper. “I was up against a well-known presenter so there were just three people in my audience. One was a friend, the other I knew and I had no idea who the third lady was. But I thought ‘I have come all this way from Perth, I’m going to give it my best’.”

When she returned to Perth, Sue received a phone call from the unknown lady, who was in charge of the National Girls in Science Initiative. “I ended up doing three projects with the Girls in Science Initiative which was fantastic.  It just goes to show that you shouldn’t think because there are only a few people in the audience that you won’t give a fantastic performance because you never know who those people may be. They can change your career – they changed my career.”

Sue worked with the Girls in Science Initiative and several other projects while still at Curtin, developing a wide network of people interested in communicating science to the public. Sue was told by a colleague about a position at ANU to develop a master’s program in the new discipline of science communication and was encouraged to apply.

“In the interview I gave them a bound book. It was a vision for a Centre. It was about bringing people in to expand the vision. Along with the strategy for the Centre, I included the things I’d learnt at Curtin – the collegiality, the nice atmosphere for students, the wine and cheese nights. The appointment process took a while – no one really knew what a science communicator might look like – but they appointed me.”

Now Sue has realised her vision as the Director of CPAS and has established herself as a leader in the field of science communication. Her extraordinary contribution to the discipline was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 and by her recent appointment as Australia’s first Professor of Science Communication. “It is nice to be recognised and it’s important for science communication as a discipline. But when all is said and done, who could want a better job? It’s got the theatre, there’s the art, interesting multicultural and gender issues, the science of course. It brings all these different things together.”

“I have a habit of saying that I have been very lucky. But I read somewhere the other day that girls always say they are lucky and boys always say they did it on their own account, so maybe I shouldn’t say it,” Sue says.  “But the thing is – I believe it. I really think that I am incredibly lucky to be here.”

This profile written for the Gender Institute as part of their ANU Inspiring Women project. To read more profiles of inspiring women around campus, go to the Gender Institute's website.