Rachel Popelka-Filcoff

STEMM PROFILE: Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff | AINSE Senior Research Fellow | Flinders University | Adelaide| SA

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Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff [Image: Ashton Claridge, Flinders University]

“… I am encouraged and supported by my husband, who does the majority of the childcare and home responsibilities. This allows me to travel and develop my career. He also is my advocate”

Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff is an Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) Senior Research Fellow in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Flinders University.

Rachel’s research program uses radioanalytical and spectroscopic methods for the application to cultural, environmental and forensic questions. Her work is to the first comprehensive characterisation of Australian Aboriginal natural mineral pigments on cultural heritage materials, including ochre, by several advanced analytical methods. She also analyses uranium materials by a variety of methods for international nuclear forensics projects, and has worked on several classes of materials for forensic projects.

A significant portion of her research is based at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), as well as collaborations with other forensic and cultural heritage institutes and universities.  Rachel holds a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology and Classics from Washington University in St Louis (USA), a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Missouri (USA), and completed a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, USA).

Rachel has received awards for her research including the South Australian Tall Poppy of the Year in 2012, which recognises the top early career researcher in the state. In 2015 she was recognised in The League of Remarkable Women in Science. She has also had her research profiled in several scientific and general media outlets such as Cosmos Magazine, Chemistry in Australia, and Chemistry World, and several radio interviews.

Rachel is the Vice President/President Elect of the Society for Archaeological Sciences, and is on the editorial board of Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Rachel recently finished her term on the executive committee for the Early to Mid Career Researcher Forum for the Australian Academy of Science, and was recently appointed the Secretary of the Analytical and Environmental Division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

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Rachel’s research characterises Australian Aboriginal natural mineral pigments on cultural heritage materials [Image: Ashton Claridge, Flinders University]

 What was the key thing that helped you get to where you are today?

My family. As a child and young adult, both of my scientist parents supported my interests and ideas and encouraged me to aim high. My parents are of the civil rights generation in the U.S. that helped promote women’s rights, and both my father and mother self-describes themselves as feminists. Today I am encouraged and supported by my husband, who does the majority of the childcare and home responsibilities. This allows me to travel and develop my career. He also is my advocate.

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

Awareness and representation. Women need to be well represented in roles as invited speakers, awardees, visiting professors and in leadership positions, and therefore women’s contributions are recognized. Therefore, the importance of women’s contributions naturally follow, as women rise into the senior ranks, where the representation on these decision-making committees is vitally important and eradicates stereotypes.

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

There is no reason that you cannot do anything you aspire to, and if there is a barrier, advocate a way to change it. My daughter currently says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up, and maybe my son will be too. I hope that in my lifetime my daughter will be able to have equality with her colleagues and not even consider that being a woman scientist is unusual (as it can be in many places).

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance?

Promote flexibility and equality. If working time guidelines can be flexible, then both men and women can make the most of work time and family time as the needs arise. Therefore everyone can balance children, elderly family members etc. as the situation arises, promoting balanced roles in the workplace and the home.

What inspired you to science? Have you always liked science? What do you love most about science? 


One of the major inspirations about science to me is the ability to discover something that has never been observed before, and in the case of archaeological science, to discover something about our humanity that can only be interpreted through science.