Graduates encourage other females to explore STEM subjects

When Timia Osman and Taylah Brennen began studying at the University of Wollongong, they were two of only a handful of female students among their cohort.

“In our first year, we had a couple of subjects that overlapped with engineering,” Timia said. “We would walk into Hope Theatre, and it would be full of men, with only about 10 women in the whole theatre.”

Now, the two young scientists, who both graduated with a Bachelor of Medical and Radiation Physics Advanced (Honours), said there are many benefits for young females who entered the traditionally male-dominated fields of science.

“I’ve always loved science and especially physics at high school,” Timia said. “I wasn’t interested in pursuing medicine directly, but I thought this degree would really bring together the medical and physics elements together in an interesting way.

“Contrary to popular belief, I find physics to be very creative. You have to problem-solve and think outside the box. It gives you the opportunity to be scientific and logical, but also to use your creativity. You’re never bored.”

Taylah, who hails from Sanctuary Point on the NSW South Coast, said studying physics has changed the way she views the world.

“In life, there are always questions that you want to be able to answer, about the world around us. Physics helps you to answers those questions, it’s applicable to everything,” the 22-year-old said.

During their third year of study, Timia and Taylah both undertook a work placement at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, which provided them with an intimate look at the world of radiation physics.

They were given the chance to explore the paths available to medical physicists in a hospital setting: radiation oncology and diagnostic imaging.

Taylah said the opportunity reinforced that she was on the right path in her choice of study.

“In science-based fields, university gives you the theoretical background, but it’s not until you get out into the workforce that you can put your skills to work,” she said. “The clinical placement was an amazing experience, because it made me realise that I was exactly where I wanted to be.

“In my case and in the case of other females from rural backgrounds, it seems hard to choose a science because it means leaving home and moving to the city. But UOW is so supportive of females entering sciences from rural areas and provide amazing scholarship and support opportunities.”

During their time at UOW, Timia and Taylah embarked on a trip to Japan – Timia also travelled to China – through the Australian Government’s Vocational Education and Training Outbound Mobility Program, which supports higher-education students to undertake study tours overseas. Through the support of UOW’s Centre for Medical Radiation Physics, Timia also presented her research at a national medical physics conference in Sydney this year.

Timia, who is from the Illawarra, said she always wanted to study at UOW because of the calibre of degree on offer, but she never dreamed these opportunities would be available to her as an undergraduate.

“Both these experiences were just amazing. I think it shows that a little bit of hard work and willingness can lead to so many opportunities and open so many doors, especially for us girls in the sciences.”

Post graduation, Taylah and Timia will both be pursuing PhDs at UOW, through the Centre for Medical Radiation Physics. Timia will be studying nuclear imaging for oncology patients, which will focus on how best to diagnose and deliver radiation therapy to ensure people with cancer are receiving the correct treatment and appropriate dosages.

The decision to build a future in oncology research was inspired by her late grandfather, who was born in a tiny village on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

“My grandfather was very poor,” 22-year-old Timia said. “He wanted a better life so he moved to Australia. He started from nothing and worked extremely hard his whole life, eventually saving up enough money to buy a bottle shop in Albion Park.

“I looked up to him my whole life. Unfortunately he died from cancer when I was in Year 10, so that eventually guided me down the path towards medical physics. I wanted to work in radiation oncology in hospital and be able to help people with cancer. He played a big role in encouraging me to achieve my potential.”

For her part, Taylah will be working on a project to visual where radioactive seeds that treat cancer, known as brachytherapy, have been placed in a patient with cancer in order improve their outcomes and, in turn, make the treatment safer and more effective.

Both students are committed to using their studies and their passion for physics to make a difference in the world.

Taylah said it is “really rewarding” to be involved in oncology research and said she would encourage all young women with a love of science to consider physics as a career option after high school.

“Coming out of high school, there weren’t a lot of females who wanted to pursue a career in science. Often it’s about ‘where are my friends going? What are they going to study?’

“But I think if you have a passion for science, medical physics is really interesting and such a rewarding path.”

Photo: Taylah Brennen and Timia Osman. Credit: Matt Estherby

Words by India Lloyd. Originally published on UOW Newsroom