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Sport, Health & Wellbeing

IWD22: Celeste Coltman on biomechanics, role models and why one size doesn’t fit all

Biomechanics is the study of movement – including looking at how the structure and function of the human body influences and produces movement.

University of Canberra Assistant Professor Dr Celeste Coltman’s specialisation in breast biomechanics means she is predominately interested in understanding how female breasts influence the way women move, in order to develop evidence-based recommendations to improve the fit, form and function of women’s functional garments and equipment.

She has worked on several projects, ranging from designing better sports bras for women across the breast size spectrum, to personal protective equipment for women in the military. These projects have had real impacts, including reducing barriers to women’s participation in physical activity, reducing the risk of injury, discomfort and pain, and enabling women to complete their occupational roles to the fullest of their potential.

But biomechanics wasn’t always a lifelong passion – in fact, it wasn’t something Celeste discovered until years into her university study.

“I didn’t even know what biomechanics was until university. I was studying an Exercise Science degree when I first discovered biomechanics. What I really like about it is that it really is all around us and has applications to our everyday lives. It’s essentially a combination of all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and enables us to better understand and explain how we move,” she says.

From there she was hooked, going on to study an Honours degree in Biomechanics, and then a PhD at the University of Wollongong.

It was also at university that she first encountered some of her mentors – pioneering women in STEM.

“I was really lucky to join a very well-known biomechanics research lab group, that had a lot of women staff and students, who are [and were] at the top of their field, some really world-renowned female biomechanists.”

That lab would be the Biomechanics Research Laboratory (BRL), University of Wollongong and mentors included its founder Emeritus Professor Julie Steele and Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee, who together established Breast Research Australia – an innovative centre of excellence for breast research, education and commercial services.

“I know it wasn’t the norm in my field – biomechanics is quite male-dominated – but they normalised women excelling in STEM, taking on leadership positions, and conducting female-centric research. This visibility and leadership was so important, and really helped me in my career.”

Increasing the visibility of STEM careers for young girls before they go on to university is a passion for Celeste, and via the Biomechanics Research and Innovation Challenge (BRInC) program that she leads with seven other early career women in biomechanics, she is hoping to address the two critical points at which numbers of girls and women in engineering pathways and careers dip the most.

The BRInC program (read more about BRInC here), is a 100-day research and innovation challenge, involving 100 Australian high school girls from diverse backgrounds who will work with 25 early career female biomechanists throughout the program – providing benefits for students and researchers alike.

“This program was born to bring attention to the field of biomechanics [as a sub-discipline of biomedical engineering] and inspire young girls to consider and take up education and careers in engineering-based STEM, as well as create a supportive network of women in biomechanics so that they are retained in the field,” Celeste says.

“We are targeting the two key drop-off points where girls and women drop out of engineering pathways – that’s just prior to Years 11 and 12, when they don’t select the required science and maths subjects to study engineering at the tertiary level, and early in their careers, post PhD, when many women leave the field altogether.

“Through BRInC, we’re not only giving young girls the chance to engage with science and engineering, but also providing invaluable experience and networking to our early career researchers – including giving them the chance to build their confidence in mentoring and strengthening their support networks in the field.”

Celeste is also acutely aware of the need for diversity and inclusion in STEM.

“It’s not just about increasing the number of women. It’s so important to have women from different cultural backgrounds, women with disabilities, women from different geographical locations, so that we really reflect the diversity within our population.”

“Within BRInC, we’re trying to target girls and mentors who live in regional and remote areas, who are culturally diverse or who have a disability. Because of the multiplier effect, these girls and women face increased barriers to participation in STEM education and careers, so providing opportunities and access to inclusive and supportive role models is important.”

“A more diverse and inclusive field only brings value, by including more perspectives and ways of thinking,” she says.

Re-locating to Canberra almost four years ago has led to new opportunities for Celeste in breast biomechanics and diversity and inclusivity in design – particularly with her proximity to, and collaboration with, Defence organisations.

Personal protective equipment for the military is predominately designed for the male form, something that needs to be addressed as the number of women choosing careers in this field increases.

“The work I have done with [the Department of] Defence, is primarily around understanding the need and requirements for female specific body armour, but also considering the need for equipment that better caters to the diverse range of body types within military populations,” Celeste says.

“In many cases, women are currently using existing equipment that is limited in sizing and design such that it doesn’t suit their anthropometric dimensions, and this creates a host of issues, ranging from impeding movement to injury. These are costly consequences for military organisations, and present barriers to women’s inclusion.

“We are looking at how women’s movement differs, and the kind of design changes we can make to personal protective equipment. These would include accommodations that aren’t just for women but also for body types that don’t fit the norm – small changes that mean a lot for diversity and inclusion.”

Words by Kalyx Jorgensen, photos by Tyler Cherry.

You can find out more about Celeste’s work here.

This International Women's Day – and every day – the University of Canberra celebrates the remarkable, inspiring women of our community. #breakthebias

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