Professor Maria Forsyth: Greek Australian mentoring the next generation of engineers

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Finalists in the 2023 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes have been announced and among the list is Greek Australian Professor Maria Forsyth.

Professor Forsyth is a finalist in the University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers. She is being recognised for her commitment to developing Australia’s capability in materials science and engineering through mentoring students, postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers. 

Ahead of the Eureka Prizes awards night on Wednesday, August 23, The Greek Herald sat down with Professor Forsyth to hear about her career and the influence of her Greek heritage on her life.

Professor Maria Forsyth with her mum and dad.
  1. Congratulations on being named a finalist in the University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers. How does it feel to be recognised?

I am incredibly grateful and honoured to be recognised for essentially doing what I love – working with young researchers, helping to fuel their passion for doing meaningful science, and constantly learning from them as well.

  1. Tell us a little bit about your Greek heritage / upbringing.

I was born in Samos, Greece, and spent my first couple of years in a village called Paleokastron not too far from the main port, Vathy. My family name is Fragoulis. We migrated to Melbourne, Victoria, when I was two-and-a-half years old. My father came in 1966 and my mother and my older brother came by ship in 1967. Neither of my parents had much of a formal education but, like most immigrants, they were very determined that my brother and I would do well at school. 

My upbringing in Melbourne mainly revolved around Greek social and family circles, spending my early primary school years in Richmond, which in the 1960s and 1970s had a very large Greek population. I remember Type Street in Richmond was almost entirely Greek and we had freedom to be out on the street (not so many cars then) and play with the other children. There was a real sense of Greek community. We lived around the corner from Agia Triada on Burnley Street and went to Greek school there. 

My mum and dad worked really hard – mum in the weaving factory working most weekends and doing overtime, and dad doing several jobs including as an oyster opener and cleaner. Eventually we moved to the eastern suburbs, mum and dad started their own wholesale seafood business back in Richmond and I spent every summer working in the ‘fish shop’ – a tradition I continued into my adulthood, every Christmas week until fairly recently. Even my own kids went to help during Christmas rush. 

I went to Blackburn High School which was a really good public school with excellent caring teachers. I was really encouraged and inspired in particular by the maths and chemistry teachers but also my VCE English teacher. I was always good at school and loved reading and learning in general. A bit of a geek. It gave me a sense of identity and purpose. 

Being a girl raised in a traditional Greek family back then, it wasn’t really expected that I would go to university. But when I received my marks in VCE and made my decision to study science and engineering my parents, eventually, were ok with it. I think the choice to study engineering was a challenge for my parents – they could understand studying medicine but why engineering? As I wasn’t interested in biological sciences back then, I resisted the push to do medicine. I think the decision to study for so many years was also a challenge for my parents. For them, security for a young woman was to get married into a good family. But I did go to university to do a double degree in engineering and science, eventually swapping to straight science (as I found it more fascinating) and doing a PhD in Chemistry.

Professor Maria Forsyth.
  1. You work primarily in the field of materials science and engineering. How did you come to be interested in this field?

I loved chemistry and maths at school and I actually thought I wanted to do computer programming or mathematics – our school received the first Apple computers with 5-inch floppy disks which we were all fascinated with. But I had an amazingly awesome chemistry teacher in Year 12 – Janet Forster – and she really encouraged and inspired us in the subject. 

Back then, the marks to get into a science degree at university were lower than what you needed to get into engineering and so you were encouraged to go for the ‘harder’ discipline. This is not advice I would give younger students now! 

I went to university to do a double Engineering/Science degree with the intention of specialising in Chemical Engineering and Mathematics. In first year, after taking the chemical engineering unit one semester and the materials engineering unit in the other semester, I realised that there was more chemistry in Materials Engineering and so I swapped my engineering major. This meant that in second year of my double degree I studied Materials Science and Chemistry, both of which I really enjoyed – especially understanding how atoms and molecules came together to make useful materials for real world applications.

At the end of second year, one of my chemistry lecturers, Dr Ivan Wilson, offered me a research assistant role over the Christmas holidays. I fell in love with research and decided then and there (at the age of 19) that I wanted to do a PhD. I then had the dilemma of what to do since I was enrolled in a 5-year double degree program. Luckily, I had some great mentors who advised me that maybe it was best to focus on Chemistry as that was what I was enjoying most, and so I swapped to a straight science degree. My research always had a materials focus and always had a purpose – for example understanding behaviour and properties of materials used for optical fibres or energy technologies.

  1. As a female, what advantages and/or disadvantages do you face in your field of expertise?

When I came back to Melbourne after a two-year postdoctoral position in Chicago, I went to work in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (or DSTO as it was called then). In all honesty, I found this very, very challenging, male dominated environment and I had very few if any role models. I know this has changed in recent times, but back in the early 1990s it was not a pleasant experience and I had to move on. 

I was lucky to get a lecturer position back in my old university, Monash Uni and ironically, teaching in the Materials Engineering department. Materials engineering mostly had academics who were either chemists, physicists or metallurgists so I fitted in just fine despite not having finished my actual engineering degree. I had done the undergraduate subjects that I was asked to teach so I dusted off my old notes initially and then I just dived into learning whatever I needed to learn to be able to teach my students.

So, the challenges here were that there were literally only two or three female academics in the entire faculty of engineering at any given time in the early 1990s. This has changed now thank goodness. Again, no real role models but wonderful, caring male mentors who encouraged and supported my career so to be honest I didn’t feel out of place in the early days. 

It wasn’t really until I started to get promoted and became more senior that I began to notice differences in style and opportunities. Most women don’t put themselves forward – ambition for me was a dirty word! Yet that clearly wasn’t the case for others around me. But if the definition for ‘ambition’ is to strive to do your best and succeed then you could say I was ambitious- but I didn’t like the label.

As I said, I had some wonderful mentors across the university and also CSIRO in Clayton, and they encouraged and supported me, so that helped enormously despite sometimes feeling out of place. Often I would be the only female in a meeting or at a conference. I just didn’t think about it too much or I ignored it and just got on with my work. There were some inappropriate comments about dress codes occasionally but I laughed it off. During my career I have also had some inappropriate comments about being too forthright as well – and while that hurt at the time, I just realised I had to be who I was.

For the most part, I don’t think being a female has hindered my career- in a large part because of the people around me who believed in me and encouraged me, who tapped me on the shoulder for promotion or awards. So, I guess I was incredibly lucky!

I think being a female had its advantages when people were looking to invite a female keynote speaker in the early days (and even now) when the majority of scientists were male in my field. So maybe that gave me some opportunities that my male equivalent may not have received. But once you get a chance you have to make sure you excel at it so you get asked back again.

The downside of being female in the field of engineering in particular was the feeling you needed to constantly prove yourself. That meant working extra hard and never quite being sure you were ‘good enough.’ I think the work ethic impressed on me by my Greek parents, watching how hard they worked, certainly helped me keep going.

  1. You have been pivotal in mentoring students, post-doctor fellows and early career researchers. What does this role involve and why are you passionate about teaching the next generation of science leaders?

One of my mentors once described being an academic – lecturer or research supervisor – was a bit like being a ‘master’ of apprentices, where the apprentice (student, postdoc, ECR) watched you and learnt ‘the trade’. For me, mentoring means sharing my knowledge, my experience and supporting the independent growth of the younger researcher.

No two people are alike so that means for me, where possible, connecting at a deeper level with the person and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, understanding their ambitions. For example, learning from them what they want to achieve, where they see themselves in their future career – academia, industry, government, entrepreneur – and talking to them honestly about their goals, giving them opportunities that support their ambitions whenever possible or giving them opportunities to try something different.

The best part of my job without any doubt is watching my people grow and succeed. Watching the lightbulb moments. Watching their excitement when a great science result presents itself, seeing their delight in getting their first paper published. But it also comes with down side when things just don’t work, when the research is a struggle, when papers are rejected or reviews seem harsh and unfair. Then mentoring means picking them up and dusting them off and making sure they don’t lose their confidence.

For me, mentoring is very personal. I am proud of each and every one of my students and younger researchers. At the heart of what we do is wanting to make a difference in the world through our research – they all aspire to make a difference.

  1. How has your Greek upbringing influenced your work?

As I said above, the feeling of not being ‘good enough’ combined with watching how hard my parents worked, their strong work ethic influenced how I approached my career. I also desperately wanted my parents to be proud even though I knew they didn’t really understand my work or why it was so important to me.

My family were also amazingly generous with their time and their resources with people around them and I think that has also indirectly influenced my style of interacting with others – hopefully a collaborative and caring approach.

  1. What advice would you give to other young people and particularly women who want to get involved in the medical field?

The STEMM disciplines are still very underrepresented by females, and in particular engineering and the so-called ‘hard sciences’ (I never understood so-called hard and soft science subjects). If you have a curious nature, enjoy learning about how things work, problem solving and creating new ideas and new solutions, then you might find that science or engineering is a great fit. 

Don’t be scared to try new things. Never underestimate yourself and what you are capable of – gender really doesn’t stop you from achieving, unless you let it. Diverse teams are much more successful than homogeneous ones. My team at Deakin has at least 40 per cent females and over 20 nationalities. Science and engineering disciplines allow you to work in diverse groups and, in the research arena, there is the added bonus of travelling and meeting many different interesting people. All of these shape who you become.

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