2016 Australian Women in Research Citation Awards: Impressive Achievement, Persistent Challenges

To honor a select group of Australia-based women scientists whose work has wielded demonstrably high impact in their respective fields, Clarivate Analytics turned to its flagship database – the Web of Science™ – and related resources. Based on analysis of published work over the last decade, a dozen researchers, representing 11 broad fields of science, were recognized for their highly cited contributions.

Their research covers a range of topics, embracing archaeological exploration of the past; the current complexities of business, language, substance abuse, and an aging population; and the future implications of biodiversity and the health of marine ecosystems in a world increasingly imperiled by human activity.

In interviews, many of the awardees shared their thoughts about their work and the challenges they’ve faced as female scientists. The latter theme will be explored in the awards ceremony at the Australian National University (ANU) on October 26th, in a program co-sponsored by ANU and Clarivate Analytics. A panel of speakers will discuss issues pertaining to gender equality in research. The occasion, of course, also celebrates the work of the highly cited scientists.

An Elite Selection

To identify the desired selection of early- to mid-career female researchers, Clarivate analysts began with the Web of Science, extracting papers with at least one Australia-based author affiliation, also applying the ResearcherID and ORCID author-identification utilities that are now incorporated into Web of Science indexing; additionally, an algorithmic name-disambiguation tool was brought to bear. From an initial selection of names exceeding 1.3 million, the group was winnowed down by searching for authors whose initial publication records did not pre-date 2004.

From a resulting cut of roughly 300,000 names, the names were narrowed further according to output thresholds, with the remaining candidates assessed according to their tallies and overall percentages of highly cited papers (those ranking within the top 10% for the given Web of Science field and year of publication). After being assigned to one of 11 main fields, the final selection of authors underwent further scrutiny based on their highly cited papers, with instances of closely matched performance decided by number of papers on which the given researcher appeared as first or reprint author, and other measures. Finally, the names and career stages of the finalists were manually verified, and the ultimate selection of 12 authors was set.

TABLE 1: The 2016 Women in Research Citation Award Honorees

Rewards, Obstacles

Not surprisingly, the awardees are unreserved in their enthusiasm for what they do. Rachel Wood of ANU, currently researching methods of improving the accuracy of radiocarbon dating of archaeological artifacts, is typical in this regard. “I have a chemistry background and love doing science,” she says, “so I feel exceptionally lucky to be able to use scientific methods to understand the past.” In her PhD research, Wood examined the disappearance of Neanderthals from the Iberian Peninsula.

Jin Teng of CSIRO, who studies floods, droughts, and other climatic effects on water, explains the importance of her research more personally: “I believe everyone has a purpose in this world. I am in the process of finding my own purpose. My research is one of the pathways in this process. It helps me to find who I am and why I am here.”

Teng is just one of the honored researchers whose efforts concern the environment. Eugenia Sampayo, of the University of Queensland, focuses on the relationship between single-celled photosynthetic micro-organisms called Symbiodinium and reef-building corals. As she notes, coral reefs are critical sources of food and are pivotal in livelihood of millions of people. “My research into coral symbioses aims to understand how corals will survive under a changing environment, and how this will affect reefs under future climate change.”

Delphine Lannuzel, of the University of Tasmania, studies the chemistry of iron in polar waters, particularly the large quantities of iron in melting sea ice and how this iron fertilizes the growth of marine plants. The plants, in turn, absorb atmospheric carbon. With climate change, sea ice is decreasing, and Lannuzel’s research explores how the subsequent shortage of iron will affect this chain.

Ecological balance is also focus of Margaret Mayfield of the University of Queensland. As a “community ecologist,” she studies the rules that determine how many species are able to live together in the diverse natural communities. “Given how severe and extensive human-induced changes are to natural communities,” she says, “it is troubling to me to think how poorly we understand it.” An understanding of these rules, as she notes, is crucial to the survival of species – including our own.

For other awardees, day-to-day concerns in the human population fuel their research. At the University of Sydney, Julie Schneider works to alleviate the effects of sensory loss, particularly vision and hearing, in the elderly. Alize Ferrari, of the University of Queensland, studies the distribution of mental and substance-abuse disorders in different populations. Ute Knoch, University of Melbourne, specializes in language assessment and proficiency – work that has consequences in public policy. Policy issues also figure in the work of economist Susan Sharma of Deakin University, who studies asset pricing and the prediction of market behavior.

The success enjoyed by the awardees has come, inevitably, with challenges. Rachel Wood, for example, moved across the world from her native England to pursue her research. Margaret Mayfield overcame dyslexia. But the one challenge all the women share centers on the very fact of being female researchers, and the need to balance personal and professional demands while building a career. As Ute Knoch notes, “I have a young daughter and would like the opportunity to spend more time with her without feeling that this disadvantages my career.”

Others speak of the constant need to achieve a similar balance, and to confront the bias – conscious or otherwise – against woman scientists, who, in the words of one honoree, “do not fit the mold of the white haired, well-spoken, confident man in a lab coat.” Another common theme is the need for women scientists to increase the level of assertiveness and confidence in their own ranks – for now, and for the career scientists to come.

Clearly, these scientists have demonstrated the ability to overcome challenges, follow their research passion, and produce work that has a made a measurable difference in their fields.