Beatrix Potter, pioneering scientist; using whales and fish to trace emerging viruses; travelling back in time; and uniting women in earth and environmental sciences

Macquarie University, Media releases

Female scientists have played a critical role in many scientific discoveries throughout history, but their contributions have often been overlooked.

Ahead of International Women’s Day this Thursday, Macquarie University scientists are celebrating the work of forgotten women of science through history; explaining how their work today is changing the world; and making the case for why women in earth and environmental sciences need to stand together.

  • Lesley Hughes researches the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. Now she’s celebrating the work of Beatrix Potter and other pioneering but forgotten women of science, through the exhibition Hidden Figures of STEMM.
  • Evolutionary biologist Jemma Geoghegan is using whales and fish to better understand how new viruses emerge.
  • Kira Westaway uses glowing grains of sand to travel back in time. Her work has transformed our understanding of human evolution.
  • Volcanologist Heather Handley’s research into volcanoes in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ is improving our understanding of volcanic hazards. She’s also the co-founder and chair of new network Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences Australasia (WOMESSA).

More on each of these stories  below.

Beatrix Potter and other pioneering but forgotten women of science

What do the discoveries of plate tectonics, sex chromosomes and the role of carbon dioxide in the greenhouse effect all have in common? They were all discoveries made by women.

Marie Tharp mapped the mid-Atlantic ridge, thus vindicating the theory of plate tectonics, showing how the continents were moving.

Nettie Stevens discovered sex chromosomes, the pieces of DNA that determine the sex of individuals.

And Eunice Foote discovered the greenhouse effect, by recognizing the link between carbon dioxide concentration and global warming.

As for well-known children’s author Beatrix Potter, she was also a talented mycologist—someone who studies fungi. Beatrix meticulously observed fungi growing and made hundreds of scientifically accurate paintings of different species during her lifetime.

Macquarie University’s Distinguished Professors Lesley Hughes and Michael Gillings have collected the stories of these women and many other great female scientists for a photo exhibition entitled Hidden Figures of STEMM.

Using whales and fish to trace emerging viruses

Using whales and fish, Dr Jemma Geoghegan is better able to understand how new viruses appear.

Viruses are abundant in marine and freshwater environments and it’s likely that fish harbour a greater diversity of viruses than any other class of vertebrate.

These viruses could be the ancestors of viruses that will infect a broad range of hosts, including humans.

Marine mammals, such as whales, share this aquatic environment and so provide an opportunity to study viruses across different host types and draw comparisons with their terrestrial counterparts.

Travelling back in time

Using glowing grains of sand, Associate Professor Kira Westaway is able to travel back in time and discover the past evolution of the human race.

She’s established that Homo floresiensis (‘Hobbit’) lived in Liang Bua, western Flores until 60-50,000 years ago, and humans were living in Southeast Asia at Tam Pa Ling, northern Laos and in western Sumatra between 48-73,000 years ago – pushing back the earliest evidence of their arrival by approximately 20,000 years.

Uniting women in earth and environmental sciences

While she’s improving our understanding of volcanic hazards in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Associate Professor Heather Handley is also looking at how to better support all women working in earth and environmental sciences in Australasia.

She’s the co-founder and chair of Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences Australasia (WOMESSA).

The new network, which will be launched on International Women’s Day, aims to unify women across these fields, whether they’re working in academia, government or industry.

“Women are often underrepresented in earth and environmental sciences,” says Heather, “so there is a need to support women working in these fields by building a supportive community. We hope this will also facilitate greater collaboration.”

“In particular, we want to support women at critical stages of their career that often leave employment, such as early career researchers and those with carer responsibilities.”