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Advice for building a career in STEM + sustainability

People passionate about sustainability share their advice and aspiration for future careers in STEM + sustainability

At this year’s QUT Sustainability Week, students were super lucky to hear from five STEM pros who have combined their expertise in science with their passion for sustainability, carving out careers combating climate change, preserving our reefs, mitigating disasters  and securing our future food.

Our amazing STEM + X panel was made up of:

Erin Evans, CEO of Life Sciences Qld: entrepreneur and consultant with a PhD in biotechnology, now advocating for the sustainability of Australia’s life sciences sector.

Brett Lewis : Earth and Atmospheric Scientist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at QUT, using videography to share his work on coral biology, behaviour and adaptation.

Sagadevan Mundree: World-leading expert in agricultural biotechnology, working on solutions to food scarcity.

Kate Watson: QUT grad working at PSC (Power Systems Consultants) fulfilling her dream to combine engineering and sustainability in the renewable energy sector.

Kate Helmstedt: QUT researcher and Associate Professor of Mathematics, using maths to guide smart ecosystem management.

WATCH the full event

If you want to work in sustainability and make a real difference, here are some of the top tips from our panel on future careers in STEM + sustainability…

1. Sustainability is getting more important in a wide range of careers

It’s going to take more than just scientists, engineers and mathematicians to solve the complex problem of sustainability, says Dr Kate Helmstedt, and that means more people will need to choose this as a career path.

“We really need to develop innovative solutions to these problems. It’s not just going to be one mathematician like me, or one IT person or one scientist sitting alone solving these problems. It has to be this collaborative venture.”

And, Kate says, sustainability is becoming more embedded in jobs that don’t necessarily have ‘sustainable’ in the title.

“Ten years ago our mathematics graduates thought what maths company might I work for, or can I work for the maths department of one of these bigger companies, and then there was a shift to every company wanting a data scientist. 

“So we started seeing mathematicians embedded into just normal companies that weren’t focused on maths. And I feel like right now that shift is happening in sustainability — you don’t necessarily have to work for a renewable energy company, or strive for that from day one of your career and study in sustainability.”

2. Build networks as early as you can

It can probably be said of almost every career, but networks matter!

Kate Watson, who did four internships before getting her dream gig in renewable energy, says in the end she got her job through a university friend.

“When you’re at uni, they often talk about the need to network with professionals, build all these amazing relationships which are great and they are really important to do. But it’s also important to network with the other students around you. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got my job.”

3. Communication skills matter

If science is your thing and you’re worried about our climate emergency, then you’re also going to need to polish those communication skills!

Dr Erin Evans has made a successful career of this after realising early on in her career that she wanted to leave the lab and go out and engage people on issues that mattered to her.

“I’ve really focused on a lot of what are called soft skills and really lent into those,” Erin says.

“I can remember key times during my career, or some kind of conversation or initiative that I wanted to get across the line and actually taking the time to bring people with me was more important.

“I realised that some of the things that bring people along are not just the facts. People are moved by their emotion, and they’re moved by feeling included. And being the technical expert isn’t always the best way to do that,” Erin says

Likewise, Dr Brett Lewis uses his videography communication skills to share his work on coral reefs in an effort to better engage people on the science.

“If I create a pretty video, then that means that more people are engaging with that, therefore they are passively engaging with science and information and knowledge.”

4. Consider a career in government helping make things more sustainable

As governments around the world look to the need for increased sustainability, Erin says they will benefit from hiring more people with a scientific background.

“The ability to move from one area to another within government, to be able to work at that systemic level, I think, provides some really fascinating careers,” Erin says.

‘You get to ask ‘how are we going to make policies that will make a difference to the environment that will make a difference to people, animals?’.”

5. Since COVID, we care more about where our food comes from…

…and that means there will be more careers in sustainable food, says Professor Sagadevan Mundree.

“Suddenly we are paying more attention to: Where did this food actually come from? Who grew this? Was it grown sustainably? And this has lent and created many career opportunities,” Sagadevan says.

“For example, if we just take a look at how to grow something successfully, we’ve got to be able to manage diseases, pests, and an important resource like water.”

For more on how to combine STEM with your passion, hobbies and interest (we call this your STEM + X), check out the QUT STEM + X Guide.

For more STEM career videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel!

This article was produced in partnership with QUT.

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