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16 May 2023 7 min read

Despite appearances there are no flies on Dr Helen McFarlane expertise in structural geology.

Diversity brings benefits that flow through our organisation’s culture directly to the bottom line.

It’s smart business. Especially in the business of smarts.

Companies that promote diversity see dividends in innovation-led revenue (Forbes, 2020).

Gender balance within R&D teams positively promotes radical innovation (Diaz Garcia et al, 2014).

Which is not surprising.

Drawing on a mix of talents and skills, academic and innate, from both men and women, provides a wider knowledge base to innovate and find novel solutions to complex challenges.

Yet women are still largely under-represented in STEM.

Since launching our action plan in 2018, we have been actively addressing gender balance through the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative.

We have taken action to address barriers and provide opportunities that support women in their science career. And it is paying off.

A bedrock of talent
Research Director, Dr Sandi Occhipinti leads CSIRO’s mineral discovery and exploration research program

CSIRO has Australia’s largest R&D team dedicated to mining and mineral resources. Our talent pool is rich.

For a field traditionally dominated by men, we have increasing representation of women at all levels, working to solve the greatest challenges facing the resources industry.

Research Director of the Discovery program, Dr Sandi Occhipinti has seen the transition from being the only women in the room to becoming a leading advocate for gender balance.

“When I began my career, it was hard to be heard and I really had to prove myself and deliver,” reflects Sandi.

She now leads a multidisciplinary team of 90 researchers helping companies leverage fundamental science into mineral discovery.

“Exploration is getting harder, and companies are hungry for ways to explore with greater success,” says Sandi.

Eighty per cent of Australia’s bedrock is hidden beneath a deep blanket of sedimentary cover making it harder to find critical mineral deposits below the surface.

Sandi is solution-focussed.

She also has the experience to understand what can work.

She has worked with Geological Surveys and large miners like Anglo Gold before joining CSIRO.

Her time in industry gives her the insight to be able to direct a program of research that delivers impact.

“I’m really passionate about creating connectivity between industry and research,” says Sandi.

“We are creating new systems, processes, and tools that exploration companies can use to target more accurately. Success is having people using techniques we have developed.”

An evolving landscape


Dr Helen McFarlane is a structural geologist helping SME’s discover new mineral targets

Dr Helen McFarlane is a structural geologist working in the Discovery program.

Her passion for geology and nature has enabled a career that has taken her to inspirational landscapes around the world.

Field work is an essential part of the job. And she loves it.

But picture-perfect moments in the outback are a side benefit to her real purpose.

“I apply technology, tools and thinking to study the structural architecture and tectonic history of an area. Understanding the geological processes that have created or affected the mineral system of interest gives us clues to where orebodies may lay.”

“I help companies understand how integrating multi-disciplinary datasets, especially in 3D, can rapidly advance their structural understanding and exploration progress. Listening to clients and developing projects to address their challenges and questions, often in underexplored regions, is really satisfying.”

Helen also finds satisfaction mentoring younger students and empowering other women in research.

On occasion that has meant - respectfully – challenging local customs.

“I was working in a part of South America where women working underground are considered ‘bad luck.’ Through negotiation with the company, I was able to go underground to work and take along a local female geologist who was previously denied access.”

Critical chemistry


Joanne Loh is channeling her inner Indiana Jones to uncover the secrerts of critical minerals for energy storage.

A talented chemist, Dr Joanne Loh has established an impressive career as a pure scientist.

She explains her path to working in resources started from student visits to refineries at university.

“This was chemistry in action. It was large scale. It was the ‘real world’ - I wanted to be part of that,” Joanne says.

She wanted to do work that made a real difference. In more than 20 years with CSIRO, she has.

And one of her proudest career moments came with a world first.

“We were able to solve the mystery of why and how hydrogen was produced during the Bayer process (refinement of bauxite ore into aluminium hydroxide). It is obviously a hazardous by-product. By understanding how it was produced, it was possible to make the process safer.”

Now, Joanne spends less time in the lab and more time managing large projects and partnerships.

One is the India-Australia Critical Minerals Research Partnership.

This strategic alliance has a clear aim to unlock critical minerals supply chains for global decarbonisation.

“My move into management roles means I’m now in a better position to develop the skills and growth opportunities of my team to help Australia build critical minerals momentum,” she says.

“No career is a straight path. My advice is to always be open to opportunities. Have courage to step outside your comfort zone.”

Space for change and innovation

Senior research scientist, Dr Jane Hodgkinson fully endorses Joanne’s sentiment.

Jane left school at 16 and worked her way onto the trading floors of London. But this was not her passion.

Night classes and a degree in geology led her to move to Australia, complete a PhD and create a successful career at CSIRO.

Dr Jane Hodgkinson smiling with lunar landscape image in background
Dr Jane Hodgkinson is looking to space to improve mining on Earth

She leads a team in mining geoscience and is passionate about getting value from every grain of rock mined and moved.

“I start from a view that nothing is waste,” Jane says.

Jane is an ‘ideas’ person, grounded in practical execution, who cheerfully admits she has found her tribe at CSIRO.

“I’m part of a team that is looking at how lunar resources can support human exploration into space. The moon is a pristine environment. I’m working on in-situ resources utilisation that needs to operate remotely, safely, with low impact and low waste,” she says.

“And whatever we develop for better resource utilisation in the lunar environment means we can do better back on Earth.”

Sustainability is a core motivator in all her work.

She has previously developed modelling tools for understanding environmental impacts of mining as well as climate change impacts on mining.

Science: a universal language?

Dr Bita Bayatsarmadi is an emerging agent of change, in her science and in her leadership.

Dr Bita Bayatsarmadi is developing renewable energy technologies to decarbonise the mining industry

As a chemical engineer leading the electrolysis team in mineral processing, her research is helping to decarbonise the mining industry through renewable energy.

Bita is a co-inventor of novel green hydrogen-based electrochemical technology that can directly help Australia achieve emissions reductions targets.

“Replacing high emission fossil fuel with clean burning and renewable hydrogen fuel in steelmaking processes for instance, or to power truck, cars and trains, is one way the mining industry can begin to lower emissions,” says Bita.

Bita began her career in Iran as a process engineer in the petrochemical and gas industry.

Moving to Australia saw her shift her focus towards renewable technologies.

A move that has brought success and awards but also challenges.

“Communication was the biggest thing I had to work on. English was a new language, and it was the biggest barrier to overcome,’ she says.

“I had great support from supervisors and colleagues who set me up for success. To become brave, find my voice and use it to get more projects.”

And Bita feels her experience only makes her a better leader in our multicultural, multidisciplinary organisation.

“Science does have a universal language but it’s the language of expression that can hold us back. I can recognise when someone may be silent because of a language barrier and encourage that team member through mentorship and coaching. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to grow and shine.”

Data matters

Dr Zsanett Pintér recently joined our Mineral Characterisation team, as an experimental geoscientist with expertise in analytical techniques.

“This is my dream job!” says Zsanett.

“I get to operate highly specialised and state-of-the-art instruments that detect major and trace element composition of minerals. This provides essential data for every stage of the research we do across the mineral value chain.”

After completing her first degree in Hungary, Zsanett studied and worked in academic research at universities in Germany and Australia.

Joining CSIRO has given her the stability she craves for her family and life.

It also offers an opportunity for a lifelong career in science.

“I have the chance to really dig deep into the instruments and push them to the limits to deliver the best possible analytical data” she says.

And accurate data sets are the foundation of science excellence. Something she can be assured will always be needed and valued.

Dr Zsanett Pintér is getting the best analytical data possible from our specialised mineral characterisation instruments

Australia’s got talent

One thing that unites all our female researchers is exceptional talent, passion for their work and an inclusive culture that nurtures their ability to flourish at all stage of their careers.

And while initiatives like SAGE that address gender balance are welcome, each woman unanimously desires to be evaluated on merit and not gender.

Happily, they report they have found it so at CSIRO.

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