Sam Miles is a PhD candidate in medicinal chemistry at The University of New South Wales (UNSW). She is also one of the supervisors for the CSIRO Virtual Work Experience Program that’s delivered as part of the STEM Community Partnerships Program (STEM CPP).
The Virtual Work Experience Program aims to provide an alternative way for students to engage in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) activities and develop general capabilities such as teamwork, communication and negotiation skills.
The students also learn about what it’s like to be a scientist and an academic.
"It helps to demonstrate a range of careers, workplaces and people in STEM to convey the diversity of these disciplines and motivate students to pursue their passions.
"The virtual program allows students to experience highly technical roles that would not be safe in-person or not accessible given the limited locations.
"This is the case for my role as students would have to undergo substantial training and inductions to be in the lab space," explains Sam.
The program is run over three days using an information and communications technology (ICT) solution while at school.
The groups include up to five students who participate in collaborative STEM projects, including tasks linked to real-world research and industry challenges.
Demystifying STEM careers
For Sam, the program helps to reveal the work done in STEM and conveys the value of this work. It also demystifies the possible careers and demonstrates the employability of STEM graduates.
"It's an opportunity to talk about your work and inspire others," she says. "It also dispels unhelpful myths and stereotypes about the workers or responsibilities in these fields so that the true value and benefits, as well as possibilities, can be better understood."
Further, the program increases student work experience choices by removing geographic constraints or cost barriers and provides prospects to complement existing schoolwork.
Fostering a better understanding
Kirpa, a Year 10 St John XXIII Catholic College student, recently participated in Sam's medicinal chemistry and drug development virtual experience project.
The first session included an introduction to STEM careers and chemistry, followed by a scenario where students had to imagine they’d been hired by a pharmaceutical company.
The second day was about research and planning, and day three was for practice analysis and reflection.
During her time, Kirpa completed the designated tasks independently, researched her chosen topic, and put together a presentation on antibiotic resistance.
"I love science. STEM is really fun," Kirpa says. "It was interesting to find out how bacteria grow."
The final presentation gives students a chance to present their research and findings to the supervisor and cohort and to answer questions about their work.
"Each time, I am blown away by how they embrace the 'scientific quest' to come up with a question and answer - which is at the heart of all scientific endeavours," Sam explains.
"As I try to convey the freedom and exploration within academic research, it’s also lovely to see students learn about their own skills and time management and start forming independent opinions about what is 'good' or 'efficient' working without external assessment," she notes.
A chance for knowledge exchange
Throughout her time participating in the program, Sam has experienced her own professional development. She's learnt how to prepare tasks, use different platforms and better understand community interests in her area of research.
Sam has also been able to improve her presentation skills due to the feedback and experiences of the students.
"It is teaching me how to communicate my science and motivate a team to reach mutual goals,” she says. "It is also incredibly humbling to share my journey and enthusiasm with young students."
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to engage with students at a critical stage in their career journey in a way that researchers often have little to no chance to do," Sam says.
Inspiring the next generation of innovators
Sam sees her access to education and STEM disciplines as a privilege. And she wants to encourage other STEM professionals to experience the benefit of inspiring the next generation.
"Many people can think of one or two people who critically influenced their careers or enthusiasm for their work. By participating in this program, you can be that person for a young student," she says.
"Whether it's prompting someone to consider a STEM career or just fostering a better understanding of STEM, this impact could be lifelong.
"If more professionals humbly engage in this practice, we can build a more scientifically literate and evidence-focused world," Sam concludes.
In 2022, STEM CPP has had 44 students participate in the Virtual Work Experience Program.
The program, part of the CSIRO's Generation STEM initiative, aims to inspire students to follow their passions in STEM.