You know what? I’m going to be a scientist

Kate Thorburn
Published 11 Feb 2019 
by Rebecca Spindler 
about   
<br/>Bush Heritage's Executive Manager Science & Conservation Rebecca Spindler at our Nardoo Hills Reserve in regional Victoria.
Bush Heritage's Executive Manager Science & Conservation Rebecca Spindler at our Nardoo Hills Reserve in regional Victoria.

Why is it important to have days like Women and Girls in Science?

Women have always been engaged in science – they have incredibly inventive brains and they contribute enormously, but in the public record it’s often the men that get the awards. When you go back through the history books it’s the men who are lauded – they're the ones that get the Nobel Prizes and are in the publications, often with the support of a team that includes star women.

There are a few standouts like Marie Curie – unique individuals who really stood their ground – but it’s so unusual to hear a woman credited for a ground-breaking achievement in the past, although that's utterly changing now.

We have magnificent women in science, both in terms of generating new knowledge and applying that knowledge, just like we do in Bush Heritage every day to make the world a better place.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

No, I had no idea. I was going to be everything – metallurgist, fireman, counsellor… my parents were really concerned about me in Year 11 because I had no concept of what I wanted to do!

They sent me off to do some IQ and psychometric testing and the man at the testing centre said that the last thing I should be was a scientist because all scientists sit in labs and they don’t talk to people and 'You are a people person so you shouldn’t do that'.

I instinctively knew he was wrong because very few scientists who closed themselves up in a lab and didn’t interact with people would succeed as a scientist or as a person. Scientists need to figure out the applications of their work and you can’t do that without interacting with others.

So I said to mum and dad, ‘You know what? I’m going to be a scientist’.

Did women play a big role in your career development?

Absolutely. I was totally in love with physics in my last year of high school so I enrolled in Physics at Melbourne University.

The course was not for me so I dropped out immediately and floated into zoology, which was great. I loved it. I ended up with a PhD and my supervisor, Professor Marilyn Renfree, was phenomenal. She held me to a high standard but that was the best training I could have possibly had.

The other significant boost occurred during my first year at the Smithsonian Institution. The budget was really lean and the Smithsonian’s Women Committee gave me the biggest grant they’ve ever given so I could get one specific piece of equipment. That piece of equipment allowed me to generate lots of papers and it put me on that cycle of credibility.

That show of faith and support where it was most needed has been a consistent theme throughout my career – I have been super lucky and am very grateful. I try to invest in people in the same way that people invested in me, and have very rarely been disappointed.

What part of Bush Heritage’s scientific work are you most excited about in 2019?

The best thing about science is finding the right people to work with. Our people are amazing, top to toe, and we have fantastic academic collaborators. I’m looking forward to helping those relationships grow and making sure that we’re working with the best possible people that we can.

Also, supporting our ecologists and land managers who are working so hard every single day, and helping them demonstrate that they’re really achieving great impact and breaking through some barriers.

Last but definitely not least, can you fill us in on your upcoming study trip to the United States?

I’m very lucky to have won a scholarship from the Stanford Australia Association to go to the Stanford immersion residential business school over in California later this year.

I’ll be looking at organisation renewal and change management. That’s really helpful for Bush Heritage because we have many systems that help us measure and report the impact that we’re having on ground, but those systems are a little bit outdated. We need to update them and make them easier to use and we need to integrate with all the new technology that’s coming forward for conservation management.

<br/>Bush Heritage's Executive Manager Science & Conservation Rebecca Spindler at our Nardoo Hills Reserve in regional Victoria.
Bush Heritage's Executive Manager Science & Conservation Rebecca Spindler at our Nardoo Hills Reserve in regional Victoria.