Rowena Ball

STEMM PROFILE: Associate Professor Rowena Ball | Applied Mathematician and Physical Chemist | Australian National University | Canberra | ACT

Associate Professor Rowena Ball

“I gave the kids a maths extension activity involving fractals. I related it to important Indigenous country and knowledge, and just loved seeing the delight on their faces

Rowena Ball is Associate Professor in the Mathematical Sciences Institute and the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University. From 2010 to 2014 she held an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. She is an applied mathematician and physical chemist with broad research interests and achievements in nonlinear and complex dynamical systems, origins of life, primordial RNA replication, thermochemical instabilities, pH oscillators, decarbonation of fuels and flue gases, combustion theory and modelling, and thermodynamic analysis and optimization of processes.

Rowena is a founding participant in the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network, and a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. She has a passionate interest in Indigenous scientific and engineering knowledge and heritage, and in encouraging young Indigenous people into STEM-based careers. She has published influential public policy papers on Indigenous engagement with STEM, and maintains a science blog with an Indigenous focus for students at remote Indigenous schools.

Rowena undertook a science degree part-time by distance education, while she had three young children and was working as breadwinner to support the family. After graduation in 1993 with First Class Honours and the University Medal she undertook a PhD, and graduated in 1997. After a postdoctoral stint in the UK she joined ANU in 1999, with an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship. She currently has active research collaborations with labs in the UK and China.

What is one thing you would change to improve the gender balance in senior ranks of scientists?

Selection Committees, Search committees, Promotion committees, Invited Speaker committees and all other career-influential panels and committees must have at least as many female members as male members. It is not good enough to have a single ‘token woman’ on such committees.

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

Do the best science you possibly can, and publish it. Whatever else constrains you – young children, elder care, not being able to travel, restricted networking opportunities, sexism in the workplace and society – your brilliant track record will stand out and you will be rewarded for it in your career.

How do we keep more females engaged in scientific careers? How do we retain women?

We need to have a National Royal Commission into the Stolen Careers, with wide powers to subpoena and cross-examine witnesses, and – crucially – order institutions to pay compensation for women’s stolen careers.

Who and/or what inspires you to achieve?

Initially it was my children. I decided to educate my kids and send them to uni and lift them out of intergenerational poverty permanently, and I would begin by educating myself, to set them an example. Now it is science itself and the scientific method that inspire me.

What are you most proud of in your science career?

Currently I am most proud of the role I played in a STEM camp for Aboriginal schoolkids at Dubbo in Oct 2015. I gave the kids a maths extension activity involving fractals. I related it to important Indigenous country and knowledge, and just loved seeing the delight on their faces.

Follow Rowena on Twitter: @RowenaBall