Skip to main content

Sharon Robinson

Sharon RobinsonWhat drew you to science rather than more traditionally accepted societal roles for women?

I have been interested in the natural world and concerned about the environment for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories of this was being really concerned about the Torrey Canyon disaster. This oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Cornwall, England in 1967. At the time it was the largest vessel ever wrecked. I can remember going to the beach and getting big blobs of oil stuck to my skin and clothing. The media was full of pictures of sea birds covered in oil. I was horrified and this became my first school science project.

Later in Cornish primary school, my interest in all aspects of science was ignited by a really enlightened headteacher who invited a group of trainee teachers into our classes to do small group science experiments. I still remember building electric circuits and playing with magnets. We literally had one science teacher to six pupils - an amazing opportunity! In addition to this amazing teacher, my parents and grandparents always supported me to follow my passion in learning and so I never felt science was something that girls should not do.

What were the two main obstacles you encountered in your career as a woman and how did you overcome them?

In general, I think I have been incredibly lucky to have had great mentors and to work with people who are encouraging and supportive. If that is not the case, I advocate moving to somewhere where you are appreciated. I have been fortunate that that has been possible for me and realise that this is not always easy.

There have been times when people have assumed that there are things I would not be interested in, or that I wouldn’t be able to do. I am quite stubborn, and I hate those assumptions. So, I always try to show that I can. I am not easy to put off! But it can be quite wearing and often means we have to work harder to succeed.

During my childhood, gender roles were quite fixed, and I remember being told that Brownie Guides (girls) did not need to know about knots, only Cub Scouts (boys). I found this ridiculous and even told the Prince of Wales (the current King Charles) when our Brownie pack was introduced to him. Our Guide leaders did not appreciate my forthright attitude, but I think Charles was amused.

But now as a leader myself, I also try to ensure that we encourage diversity in science and I celebrate those opportunities where I can actively facilitate a path into a science career that might have been closed off in the past because of bias. It’s really important that we accept that people work in different ways and diversity makes science stronger. I am part of a leadership programme for women with a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) background called Homeward Bound. Through that I try to help others to develop their leadership potential so in future we lead and do science in a more inclusive way.

What sacrifices have you had to make to get where you are today, and do you have any regrets?

I really enjoy both my research and teaching the next generation about these topics that I find so fascinating. Science has allowed me to work on questions that I find intriguing and to work in field sites around the world, including Antarctica. I have also worked with so many amazing colleagues. Obviously, I have worked hard but I think I am incredibly fortunate to have had such autonomy over what I do, who I work with and where I work. Antarctic research is incredibly international and I love that I have colleagues in so many countries. My only regret is that climate change and other human impacts are changing the globe so much. I worry that the animals, plants and ecosystems I have been fortunate to see and work with are disappearing. Future generations of humans will not be so lucky unless we urgently act to curb those impacts on the natural world.

What advice, or encouragement, would you give to young girls and women who are considering a career in science?

I would encourage anyone to follow their passion, into science or whatever else they love. It is particularly important that we encourage girls and young women into science and engineering because they are still underrepresented in the STEM fields. Parents, schools and teachers are all really important in encouraging children into STEM because we need as many brains as possible working to create sustainable solutions to save our environment for future generations.

What has been the highlight - or most memorable event - of your scientific career to date?

Going to Antarctica has got to be the most memorable part of my science career so far. My research there allows me to see penguins, seals, whales, icebergs and enormous glaciers – up close; as well as the lush green mosses that I work on. Even though I have been on multiple research visits, every time I go, I am just awe struck with how beautiful the environment is. Last year I was awarded a medal from the Australian Government for "significant service to science, particularly the study of Antarctic environmental change", and that was also a very special moment. It highlights that you can follow your dreams – go to amazing places, have fun, a rewarding career, great friends and colleagues from all over the world and all walks of life, AND get recognised for it as well!