Women and girls in STEM: Rachel Iglesias

Rachel Iglesias is a veterinarian and epidemiologist. She talks to us about her roundabout career journey, the challenges of balancing family with a career, and why diversity leads to better science.

Rachel Iglesias is a veterinarian and epidemiologist at the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. She works to protect Australia from serious animal diseases and is ready to help control outbreaks if they occur.

In recent years Rachel has worked on everything from white nose-syndrome (a fungus that grows on the skin of bats while they hibernate) to an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis (a virus spread by mosquitos that causes disease in pigs, horses and people) in south-eastern Australia.

What inspired you to pursue a career in your chosen field?

My journey has definitely been a circuitous one, and I definitely subscribe to the saying that life is a journey, not a destination.

I've always wanted to be a vet. That's something I remember from very early on in life. But I probably hadn't really thought about what I might do beyond actually becoming a veterinary practitioner after I finished studying.

By the time I got to university, I was fully committed to a career as a wildlife vet, and I had my entire future planned out in that space. But sometimes things don't work out quite the way you want. So, you know, if you're not successful for a particular role, your journey doesn't follow the path that you had planned and you have to accept you don't always have control over those things.

I spent 4 years in private practice and was getting a little bit bored and thinking it was time to pursue a new challenge. But I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I was looking around at different opportunities and found the role in epidemiology in the department. I was very fortunate to be successful because it was exactly the sort of role I was looking for. And I've never looked back.

What excites you about the future in this field?

I'm not sure ‘excites’ is the right word, but there's going to be a lot to do in my field in the next few years and for a long time into the future.

African swine fever was first detected in China in 2018, and since then it's been spreading through Southeast Asia. More recently we've detected lumpy skin disease and foot and mouth disease in Indonesia. And in Australia we recently had an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis to deal with.

All of these are threats to livestock industries and animal health in Australia, and some of them are risks to human health. So there's going to be a huge need for talented scientists in animal health fields to help prevent these threats in the future.

How has the career progression of women in STEM changed since you started your career? What impacts have you seen in your field?

Veterinary science is one of those sectors where there's been probably an overrepresentation of women for quite a long time – probably at least 20 years. The cohort that I went through university with were around 90% women, and we're just now starting to see that flow through into more senior roles. The Animal Health Committee (one of our senior committees in Australia, made up of chief veterinary officers of states and territories and also the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer) is now the majority women, which is fantastic to see. And it's great for people coming through because they can see that those opportunities are open to them now.

But I wouldn’t assume that always flows through to other areas in the profession. There are still challenges for women who choose to stay in practice and definitely challenges for women working in academic roles.

What do you think are the main barriers and opportunities for girls and women to have a career in STEM in Australia?

I think, for me, the major barriers for women are concerned with the way that we have to balance our work life and our family life. There's quite a big time commitment, and also I guess a mental load commitment for having a family. That time and that mental load that you spend on your family is time that you can't be spending working on your career.

And that can make it quite difficult when it comes to any sort of competitive process – any time that you're being compared with others. If those others don't have those same commitments, they're much more able to have done more things, travelled more, pursued other opportunities, and thus look a lot better on paper. That's going to continue to be a challenge and I don't know quite how we get through that.

I think a great opportunity for women in more senior roles is to support other women and create a space that's safe for women and other underrepresented groups to come into. Even though our challenges might not be exactly the same as other diverse groups, we still understand what it’s like to have other commitments so we can't spend the time and the energy we’d like pursuing a career. Acknowledging that and ensuring there are spaces for people who have multiple responsibilities is a really great opportunity for the future.

Why is diversity in STEM important?

We spend a lot of time in STEM working to be objective. We look to identify sources of bias and manage or account for that bias as much as possible.

Bringing diverse, underrepresented groups into STEM can make sure that different questions are asked and different solutions are proposed. That's something we really need to do to make sure STEM is serving the needs of the whole community, not just those who can make a career within the field.

What can inspire more girls and women to choose STEM careers?

I think what would inspire more women and diverse groups to take up roles in STEM is thinking about how it can benefit them and their communities, and the different perspectives they can bring to help solve problems in different ways or better meet the needs of their communities.

I think if they can do that, they'll be inspired to take up those roles and try and solve those problems for the people around them.

What advice would you give girls and women who want to be part of the sector?

Go for it! Be bold, be tenacious. Be ready to pursue non-linear career pathways, take different opportunities and see where they lead.

But also, don't be your own critic, because other people will do that for you. Just be ready to ignore what everyone's saying and go ahead and do the things that are important to you.