International Women’s Day 2022

Happy International Women’s Day 2022!! This year the theme of the day is #BreakTheBias, this is an important message to us all as we all carry unconscious bias with us.

At TMOS we are dedicated to addressing gender equity and equality in our centre and we are working hard to achieve it. As part of our celebration International Women’s Day our IDEA Officer Greg interviewed Professor Ann Roberts to discuss her outstanding career, the importance of female representation and her advice for people wanting to have a career in STEM.

Click here to watch the interview.

"I think we do actually have a much better appreciation of the challenges that women are facing and trying to create a more diverse space in which people can work and succeed. And that actually has enormous positives just in terms of, not just how people feel at work but also the quality of people’s work.

Transcript of Interview:

Greg – Welcome everybody to our first Idea Chats. My name is Greg Dennis, and my pronouns are         he/him. To begin with, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I am on today, the Wurundjeri and the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nations. I pay my respects to their elder’s past and present and extend that to respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. I’d also like to acknowledge that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

So, I would like to welcome my first guest to Idea Chats, Professor Ann Roberts. Welcome, Ann. If you would like to introduce yourself.

Ann – So hi, Greg. I’m up here at the University of Melbourne. I’m in the School of Physics. And we’re on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. So yeah, it’s nice to get in touch.

G – Perfect. Thank you for joining me today. So, to start off with, I thought if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself, just what you’re up to, how’s your day been, all those sorts of things.

A – Okay, well, this is being recorded in the week before semester one starts. So, things are very hectic. We actually had a very interesting school reboot day yesterday just to kind of get to know each other in person again. So that was, that was very good. But I obviously teach, so this is a very busy time for academics who do teaching research. But, of course, I’m a chief investigator in TMOS. So, the research keeps moving along. We’re welcoming new PhD students, new master students, and actually a new research fellow soon. So, all of these things are moving along. So that’s what’s keeping me busy at the moment.

G – Thank you very much for giving your time then. I didn’t realize you had such a busy week. So, to begin with, what I thought we could do is just ask some fun silly questions just to get to know you a bit better. So, first off, what is your favourite colour?

A – Okay. My favourite colours are blue, but not, not all blues. There’s some blues I don’t like. I’m thinking more the sort of grey blue, slate blue type colours.

G – Oh, cute, yeah. My favourite colour to wear is blue and usually, oh, and my nails are blue today.

A – Yeah, I noticed that.

G – And usually I do, like if I wear colour, I will do blue head to toe for some reason.

Okay, second, what is your ideal holiday destination?

A – Okay, so I’m one of these people that likes doing things on a holiday, which can be frustrating for members of the family. So, I like going places where you go for a hike. So, places that have really interesting from a point of view of the natural world or like hiking. But I also love places of historical significance as well. So, I’m always keen to get out there and look at things.

G – Have you done Kosciuszko?

A – Yeah, walked up it? Yes, several times, in fact.

G – Oh, wow.

A – Yes. In fact, I think the first time I went up Kosciuszko I was a fairly young child. And I think at that time you could actually drive almost all the way. And you just had to walk up that last bit of the summit. But more recently we’ve done it via Thredbo and the chairlift.

G – Oh, nice.

A – No, a beautiful walk.

G – Yeah. It was one of those interesting things. My father was a geography teacher, and he was like, “It’s one of the most fragile ecosystems within Australia.” Hence the walkway now. But it’s such a beautiful, and I didn’t realize how easy the walk is. Like when you’re sort of like, “Oh, I’m going to like climb the highest mountain in Australia.” It’s like, “Oh, I’ve just walked.” And it was like, okay.

A – There were people doing it in thongs.

G – Yeah. I’m pretty sure I was in like Converse. So, it was like not actually a hike hike, but that was fine.

Tea or coffee?

A – Definitely tea. I really don’t like coffee and I don’t like coffee-flavoured things either.

G – Good to know.

A – No tiramisu, no coffee cake.

G – So when you are having a bad day, what do you do to make yourself feel better?

A – Exercise. So, any kind of exercise, going for a walk, going for a run or what passes for running in my world. It always, always ends up clearing the brain and makes me feel much better.

G – How did you go with lockdown without being able to get out of the house too much?

A – Well, we’re always allowed to go out and do walks and go for runs and things like that. So that was, yeah, it was a bit challenging, but, you know, we got to explore a lot of our local neighbourhood, which we hadn’t done before. So that was actually kind of interesting. And I’ll, in fact, I will always look back on that just being able to, you know, my husband and I just having a lunch break and then just going out and roaming up down Moonee Ponds Creek.

G – Oh, cute. What is something about you that people would be surprised to know?

A – Well, there’s probably lots of things, but the one I’m happy to reveal is the fact that I was thinking just recently, for some reason I’ve gotten into 1930s recordings of Italian opera.

G – Oh, wow.

A – Those sort of strange scratchy sounding recordings, and they’re very evocative. So, you know, the sound quality’s not good, but that’s part of the charm and it sort of makes you think of another time, another place.

G – Yeah, I’ll have to try and find some then. One of my favourite opera singers is Maria Callas. And like I saw that there’s a documentary about her, and I really want to watch it. But I’ll have to do that.

A – I’ve never seen that. I think this goes back further. It goes back to the time when they’re on those old records. So, you get that sort of.

G – Warble?

A – That kind of haze that’s static across-

G – Yeah, I love that.

Okay, so now for some serious questions. Okay, so what have been your top three career highlights to date?

A – Okay, well, I’m actually still really really proud of the work I did with Ross McPhedran at the University of Sydney when I was a PhD student. And it might seem a bit weird, but I do still go back and delve into my thesis, and it was pretty theoretical. So, we developed algorithms and codes to calculate certain things and, you know? And I’ve updated them and, you know, written, you know, MATLAB versions of them. So, the fact that, and that is actually still quite, quite useful now. So that’s one thing I’d say.

Another thing is that probably about 20 years ago I was working with Keith Nugent who was here at the time on something called quantitative phase imaging. And what doing that did is it actually really highlighted how much information is actually carried by light. And so, on one level, getting that information out seems really obvious. But seeing that we could actually extract that information using fairly straightforward approaches was actually quite impressive. And to see, you know, one of the great things about optics is sometimes you can see something pop out at you, and I guess imaging in particular.

And over the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve been focusing on sort of meta photonics, meta optics, and that’s actually involved revisiting some of the big concepts from my early work and then pushing it into new approaches. And I guess some of the applications that, I guess I quite like talking about are things like structural colour. And again, even though you understand the principle, seeing a colour sort of pop out from basically some textured aluminium and glass, for example, is really, really delightful.

G – Yeah.

A – And even more recently, and again it kind of connects back some to some of the earlier work on phase imaging, is we’ll review some of the ultra-compact meta optics to permit to real-time phase contrast imaging of live cells. That’s also a game changer. So, I think that’s a highlight, or a highlight, and particularly something over the, in the past few years.

G – That’s amazing. So, you keep revisiting your thesis.

A – Yes.

G – Like for me it’s like one of those wonderful things like when I was studying, I studied design, and we always had research journals. And like we were always told never get rid of anything. Like basically if you’re in design you’re a hoarder because you would always go back to the work that you had done. And so, I think that’s one of those important things. Like a lot of people do their work and then go, “Cool, I’ve done that, and I’ll move on.” But being able to revisit and I’m assuming possibly even get to a point of actually, what’s the word I’m looking for? Putting into practice some of the theoretics you were looking at back then?

A – Yeah, so yeah, some of the theoretical aspects of it. But obviously now at that time, you know, we’ve really shrunk down things. So, at the time, the contexts were very much about microwaves, millimetre waves, the far infrared, so in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum where the wavelength is relatively long. But what’s happened over the last decade or two is now we have, you know, precision nano fabrication. We can do top down or even bottom up kind of self-assembly of nano structures. And what that means is some of those concepts that were envisaged as being for, you know, very long wavelengths, and some of the technologies there are obviously very important. The concepts can be scaled down to short wavelengths. But what’s actually very interesting about that too is that with all the developments in meta optics, that’s actually now informing development back at the longer wavelengths. So, there’s this very interesting interplay, I guess, across the electromagnetic spectrum of these concepts. And the fact that we now have a, you know, have the capacity to design things that, you know, can be, the concepts can be used at many different wavelength regimes.

G – Oh, that’s amazing. Okay, so since receiving your PhD in physics from the University of Sydney, what positive changes have you seen in the field?

A – Well, when we think about from a technical point of view, you know, I was just discussing the fact that we can now do things that we just couldn’t do before, you know, the technology just didn’t exist or was completely inaccessible. So, we can really play around with some of these concepts at much shorter wavelengths.

And the other thing is that we actually have computers now, so we can actually design devices at, and, you know, model them and then, you know, if we fabricate them we can study them and then we can try and understand, you know, if they’re not quite what we, not behaving quite the way we expect, we can try and understand why. And also, there’s also now the rise of machine learning and advanced optimization processes that’s really sort of pushing things even harder. So that, I guess that’s from a technical point of view.

But I guess, you know, from a more sociological point of view there, you know, there are far more women in the field. You know, when I was an undergraduate, I was often the only woman in the class or one of only two. And it was actually a bit of a shock coming from an all-girls high school to this very kind of male environment. And again, you know, I was always sort of coming into areas where I was the only woman. So, when I came to Melbourne, I was the only female academic at the time. So fortunately, that was followed by the employment of more women.

So, but yeah, so it was kind of interesting, and, you know, and I was involved In initiatives in trying to create much friendlier environments for women at the time. And I think we do actually have a much better appreciation of the challenges that women are facing of the challenges that women are facing and trying to create a more diverse space in which people can work and succeed. And that actually has enormous positives just in terms of, you know, not just how people feel at work but also the quality of people’s work.

G – I do find it quite interesting that like, so obviously with International Day, Women’s Day of the 8th of March, we’re still having this conversation though, like there is still a need to have an International Women’s Day like however long afterwards that this topic is still one that is consistently talked about. Like for the fact that the government’s like, “Oh, we need more women in STEM.” And it’s like, how is it still going? Which is what, something that I find really interesting. But it’s also good that now the conversation is more going around how can men be better as opposed to sort of like putting all the onus on just women or women doing the work to get women in. It’s like how can men do better in their work to make sure that women are actually like uplifted and given space? And I think that’s like moving forward something that’s really focused on.

What else? So, if you could go back to a previous version of yourself to give some words of wisdom, when would this be, and what would you say?

A – Oh, I guess go right back and just particularly when I was a PhD student and in postdoc and early academic. And I guess the main thing is just to be, I guess a bit braver. So, you know, I guess I had a bad case of imposter syndrome. And so, yeah, pushing through and succeeding would’ve been a lot easier, and in fact, a lot more fun if I cared less about what other people thought. And in fact, in hindsight I doubt other people really cared that much anyway. You think people care more about things than they really do.

G – Yeah, and I think that’s the funny thing. Like the contemplation of the fear of others stopping you is like consistent through all walks of business and life in general. And I think it’s one of those things that once you get to a point of realizing that people are really focused on their own stuff and aren’t really thinking, well, not necessarily thinking about what you are doing, it’s just sort of like quite liberating to be like, “Oh, well this is what I want to do.” And people like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” Like they’re not gonna shoot you down. Or if they do, they’ll ask a question or. So, it’s I think the fear that you put in yourself is far worse than the actual realization ever is.

A- It’s very much the dance like nobody’s watching.

G – Yeah. And so, what advice would you give students wanting to pursue a career in STEM, especially young women?

A – Look, I guess my main advice is that they probably have no idea where a career like this will actually end up. And I mean that in a good way. And careers building on STEM are appearing and evolving so quickly that so that by the time someone who’s now studying actually finishes, there’s probably gonna be new opportunities that neither the student nor, in fact, other people will have even thought about.

So, and the other thing is the great thing about careers informed by STEM is that they’re always going to be interesting and you know, they’re going to foster lifelong learning and which, you know, really, I think for me anyway, is the most important thing about work. It has to be stimulating.

G – Would you suggest, possibly, making sure that you build a network around you? Sort of, I know that a lot of the time having people to bounce off or having people who you can talk to about things or even just people in different fields, like building a network of people who you can rely on and also discuss with, would you say that’s quite important?

A – Yes, although I think, you know, as a student, one of the, actually, one of the nice things about being a student is that you have a network there at that time. So, and, you know, you’re kind of embedded with these people and I think that’s fairly organic. So in fact, hopefully, you know, having good friendships with those, with your fellow students, that’s actually quite important, I think, in terms of, you know, bouncing ideas around and also, you know, developing your understanding of the discipline itself.

And again, that’s, that comes back to thinking about areas where people are underrepresented because it can be harder to, you know, establish those kind of friendship networks that are really gonna stand during good stead in terms of building up that confidence and getting ideas about where you might want to go.

G – And I guess that sort of comes back to like a quite a a large concept of like diversity and inclusion in general is for then people with that privilege of sort of being a majority making sure that they are the ones who reach out to other people and make them feel welcome and connected, because obviously that first step is always the hardest. And so if you as a person who’s sort of got a lot more privilege in terms of the space you’re in, if you take that step for them that’s sort of breaking down that barrier straight away.

A that’s sort of breaking down that barrier straight away. coming out of the pandemic, and this is going to be an issue for undergraduates at the moment is that we do have students coming into their third year of university who have barely set foot on campus.

G – Yeah.

A – And that has been incredibly disruptive to those networks. So, you know, I think as an academic, those of us who are academics I think will need to be very mindful of that and make sure that we create opportunities for students to, you know, build those connections that really haven’t happened.

G – Well, I think all of us are just a bit out of it in terms of socializing in general. I remember the first time I went out to see friends after lockdown and I was sort of like, “Hello, how are you?”

A – What do we do now?

G – I’m like, “Stay away, but I want to hug you, but go away.”

And finally, what are you enthusiastic about for the future of your field?

A – Okay, look, the field of meta optics is really exciting at the moment. And so, on the one hand, a lot of the ideas that have been already established are actually moving beyond proof of concept into, you know, products and, you know, commercialization more generally. And then on the other hand, there are still new ideas being generated to create some really exotic effects with light. And so that creates a really interesting kind of environment to be working in because I think what’s gonna happen is that there are going to be established pathways to go from ideas to implementation that we’ll be able to take advantage of.

G – Amazing. All right, well, thank you so much for your time today, Ann. And thank you all for joining us for our first Ideas Chats. Please tune in next month when we’ll be discussing another topic. Thank you. Bye.

A – Thank you.

About the author/s

Ann Roberts

Ann Roberts is a Professor in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems. Professor Roberts has diverse research interests in physical optics and has made significant advances in the theoret ... more