Women and girls in STEM: Ella Burgun

Ella Burgun is a second-year biological science student at RMIT in Melbourne. She shares her love of marine biology, her desire to become a teacher, and her thoughts on how STEM workplaces can better support women and LGBTQ+ people.

Ella Burgun is a second-year biological science student at RMIT in Melbourne. She participated in the National Youth Science Forum in 2019 and came back the next 2 years to help deliver the program as a Student Staff Leader.

Ella works with children and young people, teaching them all about STEM and mental health with organisations such as Code Camp and the Highway Foundation. She hopes to take the skills and knowledge she’s gained through her work into the scientific community.

As a queer woman in a field largely dominated by men, she hopes to encourage others like her to pursue their passions and what makes them happy, no matter the status quo.

Photo of Ella Burgun

What is your chosen STEM field and what attracted you to it?

My chosen field is biology, but I’m discovering that I hold a specific interest in the ocean and what dwells within it.

I’ve always been interested in science from a very young age. I remember my brother bought me a children’s chemistry kit when I was 8 or 9, and it was the first time I really thought about how things work and why. I have always tried to understand the world we live in, and I was lucky enough to have parents who were happy to help me satiate that curiosity.

Biology, for me, has been the key to understanding why we work the way we do, how we relate to one another and how we fit together as a society. It’s now led me to want to pursue marine biology. I was so shocked that we know so little about 71% of our earth’s surface and we have no idea what rests at the bottom of the ocean. That’s the kind of research I want to be doing, where I can help discover the unknown and answer some of the big questions that we have about our planet.

I have been working with children and young people for the past few years, in the hopes to introduce them to how awesome and amazing STEM can be. I love my work, teaching children how to code and all about scientific skills, as well as camps that introduce primary school kids to technology and using science to solve real-world problems.

I’ve always been attracted to learning and teaching science and STEM and I have tried to pursue that in my studies and in my career. I hope to be that person who can open young people’s minds to what STEM can do for our future, and I want to continue learning more about how and why we work the way that we do.

In which sector do you see yourself working in the future, and why?

Growing up I always thought that studying science meant you had to pursue research and sit in a lab for the rest of your life. I also thought that the career I decided outside of high school would dictate my career and interests until I retired. Now, I can see that my interests and talents are very multifaceted and that I don’t have to do one thing forever.

At the moment, I am interested in pursuing secondary education and teaching young people about how amazing STEM can be. Many of my friends could tell me that their like or dislike of science was influenced by a specific teacher or class in school. They might not have been taught in a way that helped them learn, or maybe they were taught all the boring history of STEM.

I know that the main reason I love science so much is because I had people who encouraged me and showed me how truly wonderful the world of STEM is. The fact that a love or hate of STEM could boil down to a specific person or experience makes me so sad. I hope to be a teacher who encourages people to pursue their passions and can open people’s eyes to how vast science is and how there is something in there for everyone.

What particular barriers do think women and non-binary people in your field face? How do you overcome these?

In 2019, women made up less than a quarter of students studying STEM. There are few or no statistics for non-binary, transgender, or gender non-conforming students.

Men make up the majority of students studying science, as well as the majority of those pursuing science outside university and school. This means there are very few role models for us to look up to and that the environments that we are walking into are often unwelcome and full of harassment and abuse. We are stuck in a cycle where – because these environments continue to be unwelcoming – young people feel no desire to seek out a career in STEM.

Alongside all of this, there are systemic hurdles that continue to hinder our progress, like the gender pay gap and the recognition of different genders and sexualities in workplaces across Australia and the world.

To counter this, we need to highlight the communities of women and non-binary, transgender and gender non-conforming persons who are pursuing STEM. There need to be representatives of our communities who work with current bodies and committees to change workplace environments and systems that are prejudiced towards us.

For members of the LGBTQ+ communities, harassment is an even more complex issue than it is for women. Many non-binary, transgender and gender non-conforming persons face abuse that can range from being dead-named and ostracised to sexual harassment and abuse. Workplaces need to undergo anti-sexual harassment training that involves specific education for dealing with sexual harassment cases surrounding the non-binary, transgender, and gender non-conforming community.

Finally, policies need to be put into place to hold institutions accountable for their actions and for training and educating their staff. If all of this can be put into place and encouraged, I think that we will start to see more diversity throughout STEM and in other fields.

Do you see yourself growing your career in Australia or overseas?

I can see myself growing my career in both Australia and overseas, though I see more opportunities for me outside of Australia. I think that there will always be a part of me here, but I know that there is also a whole world of opportunity for me to see.

With a career in STEM, I think it is important to push the boundaries of what we know and what we are comfortable with. This also means connecting with people with different opinions and knowledge. To stay in one place for the rest of your life and not seek out other perspectives on life is to limit your perspective of the world. So, I think that taking my knowledge and life experience to other places and people around the world is important to the development of my career and, in turn, my impact on the scientific community.