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STEM star discovers the art in science

PhD candidate Bianca Deans found her love of drawing had an important place in her science studies.

Hobart PhD candidate Bianca Deans, 24, had no idea she would end up pursuing a career in science.

During Year 11 and 12 at Hobart College, Bianca enjoyed visual arts and studied art at pre-tertiary level, anticipating an arts degree.

“I went through high school and college liking a science a bit … but I really liked visual arts, so I did pre-tertiary art, and that was my fun subject, in a way,” she said.

“But I also found that science was coming into my art a lot too, with sculptures and things like that.”

By the end of year 12, Bianca was considering an Arts/Science degree, following her interest in biology and chemistry as well as the visual arts.

But she chose a science degree to begin in 2011 – and quickly discovered she could still pursue her love of drawing.

“When I started first-year, I realised chemistry was kind of [about] pictures,” she said.

“In biology, not just chemistry, you’re drawing dissected animals, you’re drawing things under the microscope in terms of plant science and zoology, which is what I did for the first two years of my degree, and that was all really fun.

While I still do art in my spare time, I find that chemistry and my science degree allowed for that artistic side still.

It was an unexpected and happy discovery for Bianca, who went on to graduate in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science majoring in chemistry.

The following year, she completed an Honours project in in organic chemistry. The team’s work received particular interest for its innovative use of a household coffee machine to extract chemicals from a variety of plants, and examining them for their chemical properties and potential uses. 

Bianca began her PhD project in the middle of 2015, on the chemistry of endemic Tasmanian plants.

Less than five per cent of those species have been studied chemically, Bianca said.

“It’s a broad area that has quite a gap in the literature,” she said.

It’s an area where you could find out lots of new things, and write about those things and investigate those things.

“I also love bushwalking, so it’s good for that too.”

There’s still plenty of work ahead for Bianca, who has three and half years to complete her PhD, but she says there’s good support available and the ever-present lure of making a discovery.

“Sometimes it’s pretty challenging and it can be a bit frustrating, but obviously you have good support from your supervisors to tackle those challenges,” she said.

It’s also pretty fun and exciting because you don’t know what you’re going to find.

“I’m trying to find a needle in a haystack – or hopefully multiple needles.

“The plant’s done all the hard work – it’s already made everything and I’m just working backwards from what it’s done.”

Bianca’s work could identify plants which have a potential pharmaceutical use, or lead to the discovery of a chemical “backbone” in the plant, which could be produced synthetically and more potently for pharmaceutical use, or for culinary purposes, for example.

The work can also be used to get a chemical ‘fingerprint’ of a plant, based on their chemical composition, which can help form family trees of plant species.

Following her PhD, Bianca has a range of options including further research or applying her knowledge to industry.

Bianca has some sage advice for those considering a science degree.

The lecture content and the practical side of the units all throughout the science degree, particularly first year, have such an in-depth explanation of everything.

“Even though you have done pre-tertiary science subjects, they bring you from the quite general to the very specific in quite a swift amount of time but also very thoroughly.

“There’s such a variety of subjects you can choose – I did plant science, zoology, chemistry, agricultural science – and also mathematics.

[Ask yourself] Are you excited by science? What area of science do you like and why? Do you like finding new stuff? Or do you particularly like animals, and what do you like about animals?

“Also, if you really don’t know, doing a science degree gives you the flexibility to work out what you might want to specialise in.”