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Community Connections

UC academics connecting with Franklin Women

Professor Michelle Lincoln is profoundly aware of the unique challenges faced by women working in health and medical research.

“The mid-career stage is a particularly vulnerable point for women,” says Michelle. “They are often making decisions between pursuing a research career or a clinical career. They've also got lots of outside pressures.”

Michelle, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at the University of Canberra, noticed a gap in career support for women in these fields. So in 2020, she reached out to social enterprise Franklin Women to establish a local chapter in the ACT.

Franklin Women is unique: the only professional community dedicated to supporting the careers of women in health and medical research. Established in Sydney in 2014, Franklin Women’s flagship initiative is its mentoring program. The six-month program combines informal mentoring with sessions led by experts in inclusive leadership.

“It was different from the mentoring I'd done before, which tended to be a bit open-ended. This was for a purpose,” says Michelle, who was a Franklin Women mentor in 2023. “I found the experience really positive and I think it underscored the benefits of taking a very intentional approach to mentoring.”

In the ACT, Franklin Women pairs cross-organisational mentors and mentees from UC, the Australian National University (ANU), UNSW Canberra, Canberra Health Services and several government health departments. “One of the joys for me is that I was mentoring someone for whom I had no agenda, which made the experience totally focused on that individual,” says Michelle.

Inclusive leadership is a key focal point. “Franklin Women wants to bring people from different cultural backgrounds, genders and sexualities into leadership,” says Michelle. “And doing that is easy to say, but sometimes hard to do. So having that open conversation is terrific.”

We sat down with four more UC women from the 2023 mentoring program to find out how they’ve benefited from the initiative – and the contribution it’s making to the Canberra community.

Mentee: Dr Hilary Coleman, Lecturer and Program Director for Bachelor of Science, Medical Science and Biomedical Science

“Franklin Women really helped me out, because I've had quite an atypical transition into academic life,” says Hilary. The education-focused academic came to UC in 2020 after completing a PhD in chemistry and working in government and teaching in Adelaide.

Hilary’s mentor was Dr Theo Niyonsenga, Associate Professor of Biostatistics at UC, with whom she shared great rapport. “Franklin Women work amazing magic to match up people who either have similar backgrounds or similar values,” says Hilary.

For Hilary, the most beneficial aspects were the program’s structure and the resources participants had access to. “It really made you dedicate the time to thinking about your career and what you want out of life,” she says.

“Sometimes there’s a well-publicised version of what success is meant to look like in research. I realised in this program that success can look very different for everyone.”

Mentee: Dr Blooma John, Associate Professor and Capability Leader of Information Systems

“The mentoring programs I’ve been involved with in the past were more towards academic progression,” says Blooma, whose research interests include virtual reality, health informatics and educational technologies. “Franklin Women is more directed towards leadership. It’s also about understanding our strengths.”

Blooma completed her postgraduate studies in Singapore and worked at RMIT International University in Vietnam, before joining UC in 2016. At the end of 2023, Blooma took on the role of Capability Leader at the School of Information Technology and Systems – an achievement that she says Franklin Women helped her fulfil.

Blooma describes how her mentor, Professor Kristina Valter from the ANU, gave her guidance and motivation. “Pursuing a career along with having children was a challenge,” says Blooma. “My mentor is also a mother, so she shared how she took her career to the next stages. That encouraged me – telling me that I’m also ready.”

Mentor: Professor Girija Chetty, Professor in Computing and Information Technology and Head of School, Information Technology and Systems

“The area I'm in is very male-dominated,” says Girija, who applies her research in computer science and machine learning to many diverse fields, including energy, public health and sports analytics.

“20 years back, you were basically on your own if you felt that your contributions were not valued. Now things have changed. There are support systems available, like Franklin Women, to handle the difficult situations.”

While Girija had several mentors throughout her career, she had never taken part in a formal mentoring program in the physical sciences or engineering fields.

“The mentoring workshops were very useful for me,” says Girija. “Working with my mentee, a very ambitious and intelligent medical science researcher, gave me a lot of insight into supporting high-performing individuals like her.”

Girija believes that a mentor’s support can provide a huge boost in confidence and self-esteem. “Many women leave their fields because they feel they can’t juggle the challenges of maintaining high performing careers, and maybe also looking after family. Mentoring programs help ensure they don’t give up.”

Girija was so impressed by Franklin Women’s impact that after her program finished, she joined the ACT Peer Advisory Group, which helps shapes Franklin Women initiatives and events.

“Franklin Women is a fantastic program and I think every organisation should be part of it. This kind of program could help every organisation where there is an imbalance in gender representation,” says Girija.

Mentor: Professor Janine Deakin, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, and Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Technology

Janine credits Michelle for her decision to become a Franklin Women mentor.

“She was really keen to bring Franklin Women to UC. Anything I can do to help women to succeed, I'm going to say yes to,” she says.

For Janine, the positive impacts of Franklin Women are clearly evident. “I've really seen the change and growth in women who’ve come through the program. They'll pass on what they've learned to those around them, and that feeds into the UC environment as a whole,” she says.

The 2023 Franklin Women mentors and mentees concluded their program with a graduation-style finale, hosted at UC.

UC Franklin Women in 2024

The 2024 cohort of Franklin Women has recently been announced, with the following UC women selected:

Mentors: Professor Lynne Keevers, Dr Alison Shield and Professor Virginia Stulz (Health), Dr Kumudu Munasinghe and Dr Regan Ashby (Science and Technology)

Mentees: Dr Mary Bushell, Dr Celeste Coltman and Dr Natasha Jojo (Health), Dr Cindy Karouta and Dr Margarita Medina (Science and Technology).

Franklin Women’s next public event on 9 May 2024 will be “Leading with Authenticity”, featuring Professor Chris Wallace and Professor Michelle Lincoln from UC in a panel discussion. Visit the event page for tickets.

Words by Larissa Fedunik, photographs by Liam Budge. Photo of Girija Chetty & UC finale event supplied by Franklin Women.

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