Meet STEM graduates doing PhDs 

PhD student
University of Sydney PhD candidate Madhavi Patterson is researching the evolution of the Great Barrier Reef.

Are you looking for postgraduate study options in STEM? Australian universities offer an overwhelming range of pathways – including PhDs

A postgraduate degree in anything STEM-related will set you up for ultimate career adaptability – and nope it’s never too late! According to the National Skills Commission, by May 2024, employment in STEM occupations in Australia will grow by 11.7% (or 301,500 people), compared to 7.5% for non-STEM jobs.

But with so many different postgraduate study paths, choosing between diplomas, certificates, masters degrees and PhDs can be overwhelming. Here we introduce to four STEM graduates who have gone on to do a PhD. 

Vanessa Zepeda, PhD Candidate (Astrobiology), QUT

PhD Student
The Little Mermaid inspired Vanessa Zepeda to study marine biology, now she’s searching for life beyond.

Vanessa Zepeda, who originally hails from land-locked Arizona, USA, says she “fell in love with the ocean” after watching The Little Mermaid movie, and dreamed of being a scientist ever since she was a little girl.

After high school, she moved all the way to Hawaii, to study a Bachelor of Science majoring in marine biology and microbiology. And while she may not have found mermaids, the degree opened her eyes to exciting possibilities.

“My journey as an undergraduate exposed me to all the sciences and my love for biology grew from life on Earth to the possible existence of life in the cosmos,” she says.

So, turning her gaze from the ocean to the stars, Vanessa signed up for a Masters, this time with a focus on astrobiology – the study of the formation, evolution and future of life beyond Earth.

As part of her Masters project and with the help of a mentor, Vanessa had the opportunity to undertake not one but two internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she worked on developing new ways to find signs of life preserved in rocks from Earth and meteorites. During her JPL internship, that same mentor introduced Vanessa to NASA scientist Dr David Flannery, who is also a Professor at QUT in Brisbane, Australia and was on the hunt for PhD students.

“The rest is history!” says Vanessa, who is now in Australia, completing her PhD in astrobiology under the supervision of Dr Flannery.

Read Vanessa’s full pathway here.

Elaiza Luker, PhD (Materials Engineering), QUT

PhD student
Elaiza Luker is a QUT PhD candidate researching the structural integrity of materials used in concentrated solar power (CSP) plants.

Elaiza’s interest in STEM and engineering sparked at a young age – she was always asking her dad (a car mechanic) lots of questions about how things worked. Then in high school, she did science and maths subjects and became interested in their application.

After school, she received a scholarship to study engineering at QUT, which opened up a wide range of opportunities. “Eager to explore the diversity of engineering beyond the classroom,
I joined university clubs and participated in various programs,” Elaiza explains. “These programs and opportunities not only allowed me to develop an interest in energy and renewable technology, but also a passion for engineering.”

Elaiza went on to share this passion with other students and peers through work as a
Student Ambassador for QUT and as a committee member of QUT’s Girls in Engineering Making Statements (GEMS).

With a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) in the bag, Elaiza went on to work as a technology consulting analyst, learning about retail, distribution processes and market reforms within the energy industry. It was here she gained a better understanding of the energy industry and realised the step towards more sustainable energy is challenging but necessary. This lead her to pursue a PhD on a topic that focuses on advancing renewable technology.

Read Elaiza’s full pathway here.

Scarlet Kong, PhD (Materials Science), UNSW

PhD student
PhD student Scarlet Kong is harnessing shape-changing materials to send soundwaves through the deep

As a PhD student, Scarlet works with defence industries to design next-gen piezoelectric materials for underwater sonar systems. When you squeeze these materials, they produce an electrical charge. And if you apply electricity to the materials, they change their shape!

“We’re enhancing this shape-changing property to use in sonars,” Scarlet says – which gives ships and submarines the ability to ‘see’ underwater, for instance.

A fascination with understanding and controlling materials led Scarlet into her current career.

“Materials science and engineering is looking at how materials behave and how we can change their properties,” she says.

During her undergrad degree, Scarlet scored a six-week US research exchange through UNSW, which opened the door to her PhD project. She encourages other students to seek out opportunities to gain experience outside of their coursework.

“That’s where you’re going to get the most out of your uni journey,” she says.

Read Scarlet’s full pathway here.

Madhavi Patterson, PhD (Geocoastal Research Group) The University of Sydney

PhD student
University of Sydney PhD candidate Madhavi Patterson is researching the evolution of the Great Barrier Reef.

Madhavi kicked off her tertiary studies at the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science, which soon turned into a Bachelor of Arts and Science when she realised her favourite subjects were geology, geophysics and geography. She got really into art history and archaeology too, always favouring field-based units that involved fewer sit-down lectures and more hands-on, outdoor opportunities.

It was one of these practical field courses that led Madhavi to coral cay One Tree Island – an almost-deserted tropical island about 100km off the Queensland coast, operating as a University of Sydney research station – which inspired her to seek out work as a research assistant on coral reef studies. She also picked up a volunteer position as an artefact analyst on an archaeological site nearby, by which time she had become seriously passionate about – and invested in – marine and coral environments.

Flash forward a few years of study and Madhavi is in the final stages of wrapping up her PhD – still at the University of Sydney – which is focused on understanding the growth and demise of the Great Barrier Reef. She works in the University’s Geocoastal Research team which means loads of travel and fieldwork to collect samples along with dedicated research days.

“Within the space of a year I usually manage to fit in a visit to the reef and divide my time between various labs – including some overseas – offices and conferences,” she says. “I’m lucky to be in a discipline that allows me to do work in a variety of places.”

Read Madhavi’s full profile here. 

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Cassie Steel

Author: Cassie Steel

As Refraction’s digital editor, Cassie Steel spends her days researching robots and stalking famous scientists on Twitter.

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