Relentlessly curious by nature, Professor Kay Latham found school boring – until the moment she discovered chemistry and saw a whole new way of understanding the world.
“Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do. Here was this new approach, this new way of thinking. It was visual and artistic, and I loved the quest for evidence.”
Latham was the first person in her family to go to university – let alone get a PhD – and it was a diminutive but passionate high school chemistry teacher that set her on the path towards a research career.
At RMIT, she now pursues her own passion for knowledge as well as championing the push to bring more women into research leadership roles and narrow the gender gap in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.
What’s your research focus, and what impact do you hope to make with your work?
My work usually involves growing and analysing crystals, and then trialling them for specific applications.
I am very interested in the relationship between the structure of materials (how they are held together) and the properties of materials.
This led me to the field of crystal engineering, which is literally selecting components that have particular shapes, specific patterns of connecting to one another and specific properties (such as reaction to light) in order to construct larger scale materials with particular properties.
One of the main areas I’ve worked on are devices for capturing solar energy – sustainable energy sources.
But the applications of my research have been as diverse as antimicrobial drugs for chickens, the processing of cheese, and materials for separating different types and sizes of gas molecules.
What drew you to this field, and this specialisation?
I was inspired by another scientist, and I was lucky to work with him to earn my PhD. We are still in touch some decades on and follow each other’s careers and family events.
Have there been any surprising or unexpected outcomes from your research? And what excites you most about your work?
I am a “serendipity junkie”! A rogue or unexpected result, a chance meeting – these things have fashioned my career. Seriously though, these occasions have lead me into new and exciting fields of research, rich collaborations, or have just changed my thinking and set me along my next path.
I am still excited by crystals. From that first bright-blue copper sulphate crystal I grew in a jam jar, to the discovery of a new material that has finally crystallised out after months and months of patience. It is such a visual reward.
Did you always love science growing up? Were there any particular “Eureka” moments that made you realise this was the career for you?
From a very young age I was always making, designing and building things. I was fascinated by plans, patterns and instructions. I questioned everything. Until I was introduced to science - chemistry, I was pretty bored at school.
But, suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do. Here was this new approach, this new way of thinking. It was visual and artistic, and I loved the quest for evidence.
How important are mentors and role models for young girls considering studying STEM?
Female role models are vital. Seeing is Believing is Becoming.
As the product of a family with no tertiary education history, and no scientist role models, I never would have considered this career without the inspiration of my Year 7 Chemistry teacher.
A woman with a doctorate, who although tiny in stature, had tremendous presence and was obviously passionate about her subject.
My husband has also been a tremendous support to me. He has always encouraged and facilitated me in my career. He has been my toughest critic, and my most loyal fan, depending on what I needed at the time. I owe a lot to him.
If young girls don’t choose science and maths at school, they’re largely shut out of opportunities to study and pursue these careers. Do universities have a role to play in changing this at the school level?
Absolutely! Not only through school outreach programs and science experience events but also through our research.
RMIT is involved in an exciting research project to encourage more girls to study STEM in school. We’ll be working to provide girls with hands-on experiences exploring STEM skills in creative activities. Student teachers and current teachers will also be coached to build their STEM skills, so the work can continue beyond the life of the project.
Embarking on a career in a largely male-dominated field can be challenging. What advice do you give your female graduates as they head out into the workforce?
Yes, being in a male-dominated environment can be intimidating at times, but for the most part this has not been a problem for me.
I have worked with some great people along the way. Men who have been very strong advocates for women, and appreciate equality and diversity in the workforce.
My best advice is to stay true to your goals and yourself. Don’t let anyone de-rail you from this.
Across Australia women make up less than a third of STEM academic and research staff, and are under-represented in senior roles. They also make up only 16 per cent of university and VET graduates in STEM fields. What’s RMIT doing to change these statistics?
RMIT has long been committed to creating a more supportive and inclusive workplace, and to boosting the number of female graduates in science, maths and technology.
There’s a range of programs and initiatives, from scholarships supporting research and study, to a network connecting female researchers at all career levels, and a mentoring program that brings female students in male-dominated industries together with industry professionals for one-on-one career guidance and advice.
In terms of the research workforce, our most significant initiative recently was joining the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Athena SWAN pilot to improve gender equity and diversity in the science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) disciplines.
This means we’ve committed to the Athena SWAN Charter’s 10 principles and we’re now working towards the first stage of accreditation - a Bronze Institutional Award – by collecting comprehensive data on gender equity at RMIT, examining gaps and weaknesses, and developing and implementing plans to improve gender equity for students and staff at all levels.
I’m the lead contact at RMIT for the Athena SWAN Charter, and it’s been great to see the commitment and enthusiasm from the working group on this project. We know that gender inclusive workplaces attract the best scientists, and we want that competitive edge!
Athena SWAN has been operating for 10 years in the UK and has shown significant results in improving gender diversity, and bolstering women’s leadership roles within STEMM institutions. Australia is now following suit with this model.
Some people might say the reason young girls don’t pursue science and maths is just because they’re more interested in other things – how would you respond?
I think that’s nonsense! Though I do think that girls are very susceptible to the opinion of others.
Society is still peddling the idea that girls are not good at maths, when in fact in primary schools they are often at the top of the class and well above boys in their ability and performance.
Something seems to happen in those middle school years , where girls start reacting to those old stereotypes – withdrawing from mathematical and scientific pursuits and moving to the arts. There is pressure to conform – all their friends are doing arts – this is where the isolation starts.
So we need to work in this primary/middle year space to maintain the confidence of girls in their ability, to stress the need for STEM skills in all jobs in the future, and to make sure successful female role models are highly visible in organisations and the media.
Professor Kay Latham is the Deputy Dean of Learning and Teaching in the School of Science, and the immediate past-president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) of Victoria.
Story: Gosia Kaszubska