STEMM Profile: Raffaella Demichelis | Senior Research Fellow | Curtin University | Perth | Western Australia

Dr Raffaella Demichelis [photo: Curtin University]

“Perfection does not belong to our world – unfortunately – and learning to deal with the fact that conditions are rarely ideal is key to achieving goals. There is always something to learn in every situation. Many of my best outcomes and most creative ideas are the result of overcoming difficulties I did not expect”

I completed my PhD in 2010 at the University of Torino in Italy, and I joined Curtin University for a post-doctoral appointment in September 2010. In 2013 I was awarded an Early Career Curtin Research Fellowship and I am now the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship.

I study how minerals form in systems as diverse as coral reefs and the human body, and how they interact with various chemicals. I do so by developing virtual models able to reveal the atomic details of mineral growth and reactivity. Developing these virtual models is quite demanding in terms of resources, that is why I am a massive user of our national super-computing facilities at NCI and Pawsey. My goal is learning how to harness and mimic the rich chemistry observed in our environment, which can help addressing numerous challenges. For example, my work can offer insights into the mechanics of carbon dioxide sequestration and coral reefs preservation; how kidney stones, bones and shells form; and how to control scale formation in industry. In 2015, in recognition of this work, I was awarded the international Caglioti Prize by the Italian Academy of Science.

I also contribute to develop software and computational tools for the simulation of minerals that are used by many academic and non-academic research laboratories worldwide.

I am passionate about science communication and outreach. Since arriving to Australia I have volunteered much of my time to visit school, mentor high school students to possible STEM career paths, and organise scientific events for the general public.

What one thing do you feel that all (public and scientists) can do to most help the position of women in (Australian) Science?

Be the change.

Acknowledge that the issues women are facing in the workplace are everyone’s problems, not just women’s. Embrace the idea that there are several different leadership styles, all potentially successful. Free your mind from stereotypes and prejudices, they belong to the past.

Many workplaces are taking actions to implement this change. However, good policies on equity, inclusivity and diversity are not the solution. A cultural change is the solution.

It takes generations for a cultural change to happen, but this one has already started a while ago. It is time to fully live the change.

If you have done a PhD – what are your transferable skills? How did you identify them?

Being an academic today means being good at much more than just research and teaching. Many are the transferable skills we develop while doing our main tasks: communication, project management, human resources management, critical thinking and problem solving, to mention only a few.

I realised this when I was offered a job in industry. They were interested in my technical profile, but what made me stand over the crowd were my communication and soft skills. I declined the offer, but this experience boosted my self-confidence and made me aware of my many “hidden” skills.

What is the most important advice you have ever been given?

“If it happens that your project does not get funded – for it can happen – don’t think that it’s because it isn’t good enough or you are not good enough. There’s unfortunately not enough funding for all those who deserve it”. I was told this by two senior colleagues, independently. This is one of the reasons why failing twice on getting a DECRA did not stop me. I was born stubborn, but thinking about this advice helps me believing in myself and not giving up every time my stubbornness gets tired.

If you have had a career disruption, how did you manage to stay productive during this time – what helped you the most?

I have had two career interruptions due to maternity and long periods of part time work. I am happy about my life choices, but they are having a massive impact on my career. To overcome this challenge, I invest in human relationships. My highly collaborative attitude allowed me to establish productive and long-lasting partnerships with my colleagues and with scientists in other institutions. I am still part of a great network of very supportive people and this helps me keeping up with my research and is often a source of new opportunities. 

What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in STEMM?

Learn to make the best out of what you have. This includes making the best out of your failures too.

Perfection does not belong to our world – unfortunately – and learning to deal with the fact that conditions are rarely ideal is key to achieving goals. There is always something to learn in every situation. Many of my best outcomes and most creative ideas are the result of overcoming difficulties I did not expect.

LinkedIn: Raffaella Demichelis

Twitter: @raffademichelis

Facebook: Raffaella Demichelis