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From the north-west to wolves and a career in STEM

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Professor Julianne O’Reilly-Wapstra reflects on her journey from a farming upbringing in rural Tasmania to becoming a successful scientist, and the people who helped her along the way.


I grew up in a farming community on the far north-west coast of Tasmania, from a place few people have heard of: Nabageena. When I was in my mid-teens in the late 1980s, and thinking about going to university, my pop - and patriarch of our farming family - made it clear there was no point in me going to university. Why would I need to go to university? His only argument was simple, “there was no point”.

Thankfully, my cousin in Melbourne had already paved the way and enabled me to see that university was an option for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to study but I had engaging biology and chemistry teachers in years 11 and 12 who gave me confidence in my ability to study science. And so armed with an interest in animals, the outdoors, something ‘sciencey’, and the full support of my parents, I embarked on a Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the doorway to a career that I love and that would take me to incredibly exciting places. Back then, I also didn’t know how critical the people around me would become. I’ve since learnt the impact that mentors make on any STEM career, providing confidence boosts when you need it, and a compass through the tough days.

One of the moments I needed to lean on and receive encouraging nudges from my mentors was at the end of my four-year Bachelor of Sciences with Honours.

Finding confidence can be hard

I’d done OK, but I hadn’t achieved the Honours mark that I’d hoped for. I lost my confidence and was at a loss with what to do next.

I had an interest in wolves, but pursuing anything to do with wolves felt about as farfetched as flying to Jupiter.

A friend and office mate, Di, suggested I apply for a Queens Trust Award for Young Australians to travel to the States. It meant following my heart to study wolves in Minnesota, working with a leading wildlife conservation research group.

Not only did I not know how to write a competitive grant application, but I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t get a look in with my undergraduate and Honours results as they were.

But with encouragement, help in writing the grant and some relentless positive reinforcement convincing me that this wild plan might just work, Di helped me achieve my first grant and award. I’m still grateful all these years later.

And so, I was off on my first overseas trip doing something amazing – radio collaring and tracking wolves in Minnesota. This really was a pivotal moment for my interest in pursuing biology. I learnt new hands-on fieldwork skills, made important connections and spent many hours in the forests and snow looking for or working with wolves.

Julianne O'Reilly-Wapstra, a woman in her twenties,  stands in the forest holding a young wolf pup that has been anaesthetised and tagged for tracking in Minnesota.
Working on wildlife conservation research in Minnesota, USA, a recently-graduated Professor O'Reilly-Wapstra is pictured with a young wolf pup that had been anaesthetised and radio-collared.

The role of informal mentors

Since then, I have had informal mentors like Di right throughout my working career, important people who have encouraged me and given me confidence along the way; to upgrade from a Masters to a PhD, to apply for my first Australian Research Discovery grant, to build a research team, to have confidence to step away from academia for five years and use my transferrable skills in different roles, and to come back to academia using my newly developed leadership and management skills in senior research leadership.

I am now a Professor of Forest Sciences in Biological Sciences and I hold University of Tasmania directorship and leadership roles, and board and committee positions external to the University. Do I enjoy my job? Yes, very much. Has it been smooth sailing? No.

A long road

I have had several knocks due to gender equity issues in STEM. After I had spent over 10 years, post PhD, building a successful academic career and was facing the end of yet another short-term contract, I was talking to a senior male colleague about options. He said it didn’t matter if I didn’t have a job, because my husband had one. That was in 2013.

Have we come a long way since the late-80s when I was told there was no point in going to university? Yes, of course. Have we still got a long way to go to improve equity and diversity in STEM? Yes, definitely.

According to the Australian Government’s STEM Equity Monitor, in 2022 women only made up 27% of the workforce across all STEM industries, and earned 18% less than men across all STEM industries.

While there has been significant change over the past few decades with more women pursuing careers in STEM and from my own observations, more women pursuing STEM leadership roles within the university sector, we need to continue to increase the representation of women and diversity in STEM because with diversity comes a full array of lived experiences and perspectives that shape culture, innovation, and solutions.

And if you have the chance to be a Di – do it: support and friendship is really how we can empower those around us.

Professor Julianne O’Reilly-Wapstra is the Head of Discipline, Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania; Director, ARC Centre for Forest Value; Interim Director, National Institute for Forest Products Innovation; Director, Regional Research Collaboration Program; and Director, Tasmanian Forest and Forest Products Network Board.

Find out how the University of Tasmania is marking International Women's Day in 2023, or find out more about studying a Bachelor of Science with us.