Women and girls in STEM: Xia Hua

Dr Xia Hua is a mathematical biologist and senior lecturer at the Mathematical Science Institute at the Australian National University.

Her work uses mathematics to solve problems in biology. 

This innovative approach to interdisciplinary research has helped Dr Hua decipher biological questions through equations. That includes her PhD thesis on frog evolution and a collaborative study modelling changes in Indigenous language.

[Music plays. Dr Xia Hua in her office at the Australian National University appears on the screen. There is a window and a white board with mathematical equations in the background. On the lower left side a label appears stating: 

Dr Xia Hua

Senior Lecturer

Mathematical Biologist

Australian National University]

[Dr Xia Hua speaking] So my name is Xia Hua. I'm a senior lecturer at the Mathematical Science Institute at Australian National University.

[Image appears showing the entrance to the Hanna Neumann Building at the Australian National University, which is where the Mathematical Science Institute is located.]

[Image appears of Dr Xia Hua speaking in her office.]

So I'm a mathematical biologist, which means I use mathematics to solve problems in biology. 

I was born and grew up in China, and I was actually taught in a very traditional Chinese way.

[Photo of Dr Xia Hua in graduation robes with her parents appears briefly, then image returns to Dr Xia Hua speaking in her office.]

As Chinese, we were taught not to stand out, to be modest, which is in contrast to the Western culture, because being able to sell yourself is one of the key skills that you have to develop your career.

[Image of Dr Xia Hua walking along an office corridor with a colleague appears briefly, then the image returns to her speaking in her office.]

I always know that I love science. I'll become a scientist one day, I know that for sure.

I hate math throughout my high school. And the reason is just because the maths was taught in such a boring way, they didn't actually tell you why mathematics is useful.

And I tried to solve this frog evolution problems for my PhD thesis, and I just realised I couldn't solve it without using mathematics, because we can abstract the concepts in biology, picking out the factor that we can model as numbers in equations, and so that we can just control those factors on papers. And it doesn't really matter how long evolutionary take.

[Image appears of Dr Xia Hua writing an equation on a whiteboard and explaining it to her colleague standing beside her in their lab.]

For us, it's just a parameter and that is time in the equation.

[Image returns to Dr Xia Hua speaking in her office.]

STEM is actually a very rewarding areas. For example, my recent collaborative study on language evolution, we use mathematics to model the change in Indigenous language.

Our study just raised such a great social attention to the importance of multilingual education to keep our Indigenous language strong.

There are actually more aspects of diversity than gender or cultural differences. For example, me, as a female scientist with Chinese background working in highly interdisciplinary area.

Often time, people say, ‘Oh Xia, you are female, you are non-Western background, it must be so hard for you to stay in STEM.’

I think interdisciplinary research is another bigger, but often ignored issue in diversity. It's a diversity issue because you need to respect the researchers with different approach to solve problems. 

[Image appears of Dr Xia Hua with another colleague working on a mathematical equation on a board, then it returns back to her speaking in her office.]

People here are all very collaborative, they are all very open minded. You don't get stuck in one area forever, you talk to people in different disciplines, learn from them, and help them with their research too. 

[Image appears of Dr Xia Hua speaking to her colleague showing a crochet explaining how it relates to a mathematical concept.]

And this way it can bring innovations to both disciplines.

[Image returns to Dr Xia Hua speaking in her office.]

So good mentorship is very important. And it's not just about you sitting here waiting for a good mentor to find you, you need to be aware of the opportunities of the people around you.

[Image appears of Dr Xia Hua standing next to a bulletin board showing the first pages of various research papers she co-authored and published.]

And once you find the opportunity you need to get yourself ready to grab the opportunities.

[Image returns to Dr Xia Hua in her office speaking.]

So I think it's not just about ANU, it's actually most Australian university. They have one of the world's best parental leave policy.

So I chose half pay full year, which means I can just finish all the breastfeeding period before I come to work, which would save lots of time and efforts for me.

[While she is speaking, a photo of Dr Hua smiling and carrying her newborn baby appears on the lefthand side of the screen]

[Image returns to just Dr Xia Hua speaking in her office.]

And the other thing is that, all the research school at ANU, we target at 50/50 female and the male ratio in the candidates of any job positions. And also research school like Mathematical Science Institute, we even offer a female only position and female only fellowships. That, I think, helps a lot to keep gender balance in STEM.