Women and girls in STEM: Verity Normington

From a mining area in South Australia to Geoscience Australia, geologist Dr Verity Normington's career path wasn’t always easy.

Dr Verity Normington is Executive Officer to Geoscience Australia's Office of the Chief Scientist. She's also a 2020 Australian Science Policy Fellow and one of Australia’s Superstars of STEM.

Verity has overcome many barriers as a woman in STEM living with a chronic illness.

While retaking year 12, she discovered a love for earth science. She was the first in her family to finish high school. She went on to put the ‘Dr’ in ‘Dr Normington’ by getting a PhD. Now, she uses her passion and expertise to contribute to research, policy and science communications.

[Music plays. Dr Verity Normington is seated on a chair at the Education Centre of Geoscience Australia in Canberra. Behind her is a wall and table displaying various facts, rocks, images and other items related to earth science.]

I’m Dr Verity Normington. We're here at Geoscience Australia today, and my role at Geoscience Australia is the Executive Officer to the Office of Chief Scientist.

My family come from a mining area in South Australia where there are green and blue rocks all over the ground. 

[A box apparatus appears containing different rocks, lined up in rows and exposed to lighting that illuminates their colours in varying degrees of blue, green, yellow, orange and other colours which indicates what element composition they may have. Dr Normington continues to speak in the background.]

So when you're a kid, you might pick up a rock and go, ‘This is a really cool colour.’

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

As a geologist, you're not actually doing that much more, you just know more about what the things you're looking for. 

[Dr Normington and a colleague is looking into the box apparatus with the rocks illuminated and showing different colours. Dr Normington’s voice over continues in the background.]

So you know that that green-blue colour is probably copper.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

I failed year 12 actually, and went back and did high school, or did year 12 again. And they offered geology as a class, which wasn't something that I was able to do at the first high school I went to. And within 3 weeks of doing the geology class in year 12, I had changed all of my plans and I was going to become a geologist. 

[Illuminated rocks in the box apparatus appears again with Dr Normington is in the background talking with a colleague. Dr Normington’s voice over continues.]

As I started doing my undergraduate and went through, we got exposed to government geologists, that work for state governments or the federal government. And I realised that that was actually the pathway I wanted to go.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

So one of the things that excites me the most about working in earth science and being a geologist is that you can actually affect change in society. A lot of people think about geology as just digging stuff out of the ground – we do so much more than that.

[A graph or scan appears briefly showing waves of earth tremors, while Dr Normington’s voice over continues in the background.] 

Things like helping people, if an earthquake happens…

[Image goes back to her speaking, followed by a moving image of what appear to be tectonic plates in white, red and blue appearing on a television screen on the wall.]

 …we can use modelling to predict which houses will fall down and which ones won't, and those types of things that are really, really important to everyday society and save lives.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

I guess one of the things that probably has shaped who I am as a geologist and as a person working in the, in the sector, is that I'm the first person to ever finish high school for my family, and definitely the first person to ever get up to the point of having a PhD. I also have had to overcome a pretty serious chronic illness, which has meant at times that I haven’t been able to work for 6 months at a time. But I think all of those things shape you to become a better person because you then have empathy and sympathy for someone else going through that.

[Dr Normington appears speaking with a colleague, while her voice over continues in the background.]

I've been really lucky, I have been in some situations where I've felt underrepresented as a woman in earth science and in geology, but most of the time, I don't.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

There have been times where I've been the only woman as part of a field party, and what that means is that you do have to, if you're setting up your swag for the night, you have to have a little bit of a think about where were you going to set that up compared to everybody else and those sorts of things. But I've been lucky and privileged that I've worked with people that understand that. But then there's been other times where I've been the only woman at a meeting with people and no one is speaking to me because they’re only speaking to the man. And that's frustrating, but you have to find your own way to overcome that. 

[Fossil remains and bone fragments of prehistoric animals in a glass display case is briefly shown, followed by Dr Normington continuing to speak.]

One of the biggest influences on my career journey has actually been joining a professional society and volunteering for them. So I'm almost at my final stage of being a director for the Geological Society of Australia, as their, I'm one of their Executive Directors…

[Dr Normington appears speaking with a colleague as they go through the various display cabinets of rocks, crystals, minerals and other geological specimens exhibited at Geoscience Australia’s foyer, while her voice over continues in the background.]

… and that has opened up my world in the geoscience community, to so many more people than I would have just through working.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

And obviously parents, and my parents and my family were massive supporters of me just being inquisitive as a child. So I think parents are a massive influence on a child or students being comfortable enough to pursue their passions and whether that is science or something else, I think that's very important.

And the other important thing is the, how passionate and how enthusiastic teachers are. I was lucky enough to have someone that said to me, ‘No come and do Honours, do that extra little bit of study afterwards.’

And that actually led me into my PhD. And my during my PhD, I was fortunate enough to get a job with  the Geological Survey…

[Dr Normington appears speaking with a colleague while her voice over continues in the background]

… so that's how that sort of, becoming a geologist into going into work came along. 

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

If I was going to do anything differently, I would try and be more confident in myself as a younger, less, less experienced scientist or geologist. 

[Dr Normington is walking with a colleague through Geoscience Australia’s display of rocks, minerals, crystals and other geological material exhibited at the foyer of their building while her voice over continues.]

There are lots of people that said, ‘Ah, you've got a chronic illness.’

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

‘You need to stop trying to chase this dream because you can no longer do it.’

And I would absolutely tell myself not to listen to them, because if you're passionate about something there's always a way to do it. It might not be that straight linear path.

[Image of tectonic plates in white, blue and an orange snake-like path appears on the screen] 

It might have to be around and it might be a big snake, but do it anyway. 

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

I talked about having a chronic illness and there are ways that organisations can help people with chronic illnesses or any disability, whether that be a visible or an invisible disability or illness. And it's things like, when you're onboarding someone to say, ‘Look, is there any way that we can make it more easier or accessible for you to be at work.’ Particularly if they tick that box saying,  ‘Yes, I'm disabled’ or ‘Yes, I have a chronic illness’ on their form, having that conversation is really important.

So there are many people that want to do STEM or want to be scientists, but they don't have the accessibility. So there's some horrible statistics, something like only one in 20 children who go to high school in remote areas, think they can go to university…

[Dr Normington is with a colleague looking at grey earth material on a screen]

… because they don't see it as an accessible path for them.

[Image returns back to Dr Normington speaking.]

So I think it's really important that we also, while thinking about diversity of who we already have, who are missing out on because they don't think it's for them. So I think we need to do a lot more work on saying, ‘Yes, you can, these are the pathways for you to do it and these are the support networks you have to get to that point you want to be.’

Don't listen to people that tell you you can't and just stay true to yourself and take your opportunities. There's absolutely nothing wrong with putting your point forward, that's what science is about. It’s about an exploration of ideas. 

And if you're not doing that, from a very early stage in your, in your scientific career, then you're probably doing yourself a disservice because everybody has something to say and it's always valid.

[Video ends with a final panel showing the STEM Equity Monitor abstract artwork bordering the panel, the Australian Government crest and the monitor’s short URL: industry.gov.au/stemequitymonitor]