Focusing on gender equity in STEM

Microscopy image of lactating mammary gland tissue

By sharing a new-found love of microscopy, UNSW Sydney medical researcher, Dr Krystyna Gieniec is championing equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Dr Krystyna Gieniec joined UNSW Medicine & Health’s EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science just over a year ago, and her contributions to the scientific community have already drawn attention locally and globally. Despite being new to the microscopy scene, her work has so far garnered awards in national and international imaging competitions, facilitated discussions on issues around gender equity, and invitations to share her insights with international audiences.

These opportunities and accolades arose from The Illuminators: Scope for Change, a microscopy exhibition Dr Gieniec curated for UNSW’s Diversity Fest 2021, with funding she secured from UNSW’s Division of Equity Diversity and Inclusion. This visually captivating collection of microscopy images and videos showcased the research of 27 scientists, who all identify as female, from UNSW and affiliate institutes. It was the most visited event during the week-long virtual festival, and the collection is currently featured on the homepage of the SAGE Athena Swan Award. It also attracted the attention of members of the microscopy community on the other side of the world, leading to an invitation to discuss the exhibition in a post on UK-based microscopy community blog, Focal Plane. This blog post was published on International Women’s Day 2022.

In a new essay, just published in the Journal of Cell Science, Dr Gieniec writes about the perspectives on gender equity in STEM that she gained from interacting with other women microscopists who contributed to this microscopy exhibition.

Women do not always have the same opportunities that their male counterparts, and many experience discrimination based on their gender and their appearance.

The idea of The Illuminators exhibition was borne out of her desire to help others see for themselves what she herself recently discovered about the wonders of microscopy, coupled with wanting to improve the landscape for women in STEM.

“I was doing a lot of microscopy training at the time. I was just fascinated because I had limited experience with microscopy before, and I’ve just been obsessed with microscopy ever since,” said Dr Gieniec who is a postdoctoral researcher in the Calcium Signalling research group headed by Dr Felicity Davis in the School of Medical Sciences.

She was enamoured by the visual beauty of microscopy, as well as by the power of this technology to answer questions about living systems, as she explained in an invited editorial published in the March 2022 issue of Biochimica Biophysica Acta Molecular Cell Research. This piece followed up her winning entry to the imaging competition for the cover of this journal.

“While the exhibition at UNSW was directed at a local audience, it’s the idea of finding creative ways to showcase the work of women in science. This is an example of how we can do quite creative things to promote the visibility of women that could be implemented on global scale,” Dr Gieniec said.

Apart from shining a spotlight on women researchers, and their research activities, the initiative also facilitated some important conversations amongst the participants, in the lead up to the exhibition.

“It really became evident, even in this small group, that a lot of younger women researchers felt like they were alone in their experiences of being affected by gender bias in the workplace. And they felt like they didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Through this event, I was inviting them to talk openly,” said Dr Gieniec. “It really invigorates you to hear people talking about their own experiences, to see the emotions, the personal stories. It’s always more motivating.”

This is not the end of Dr Gieniec’s commitment to equity diversity and inclusion in STEM. After being invited to join a self-assessment team in the UNSW SAGE Athena Swan Program, Dr Gieniec will now start tackling on issues affecting the LGBTIQ+ community.

“For the next two years, I will be working with the committee to actively promote equity diversity and inclusion issues, developing and tracking initiatives to make UNSW a better community for everybody,” said Dr Gieniec.

[Feature image: Microscopy image of lactating mammary gland tissue by Krystyna Gieniec; Copyright 2022 BBA Molecular Cell Research, Elsevier]

Date Published: 
Tuesday, 17 May 2022