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Pathways to water health and gender diversity

Nivethika Sivakumaran – Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University
Kelsey Evans – MacGregor State High School
Ruby Grant – MacGregor State High School
Gul Naaz Mohammadi – MacGregor State High School

Professor Michele Burford is a passionate and driven woman in science. She is a researcher at the Australian Rivers Institute and Dean (Research infrastructure), Griffith University.  Growing up in a small country town in Western Australia, Prof. Burford never imagined herself in her current position. During her high school years, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but when those plans fell through, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in biology at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. This led to a position growing algae in a pharmaceutical company, and as a young 23-year-old she travelled to Switzerland to grow algae for use in vitamins, food colourants, and medicinal drugs. She went on to complete her PhD (The University of Queensland, Australia) and many more accomplishments.

As the Dean of Research Infrastructure at Griffith University, she works with teams within the university to take a strategic approach to ensuring that researchers have high quality facilities, equipment, and technical assistance that supports their research. She also works collaboratively with other research institutions to maximise the efficiency of equipment use.

As a researcher, Prof. Burford focuses on projects involving water quality with an emphasis on algal blooms and nutrients in both marine and freshwater systems across subtropical and tropical Australia. She collaborates closely with a wide range of industries, including the water, fisheries, and aquaculture sectors as well as with traditional owners and local, state, and federal levels of government to provide scientific information to aid environmental management.

Prof. Burford’s work directly helps researchers, industries, and government to understand the impacts of human activities on natural water resources, incorporate new technologies to increase the efficiency of monitoring activities, identify strategies for mitigating negative impacts, and develop policies and regulations for managing and conserving natural water resources. Her work also aims to improve peoples’ quality of life as well as helping local and overseas government to save money and avoid costs related to water management.

For example, Prof. Burford has led multiple National Environmental Science Program projects and one large Commonwealth Environmental Research Facility Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge Project for the Northen Australia Environmental Resources Hub. These projects determined how freshwater flows affect marine fisheries’ production and threatened migratory shorebirds. This information is needed to ensure that water extraction plans for irrigated agriculture don’t disadvantage fisheries and damage the natural environment. Her research outputs have been used to update the Queensland Water Resources Plan for the Gulf of Carpentaria and informed a north Australian senate inquiry into water development.

However, Prof. Burford’s career hasn’t been without struggles. Like many women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), she has had to learn how to work effectively in a male-dominated work culture. At times in her career, she observed that people did not respect her opinions, or even took her ideas and rebranded them as their own. One of the key pieces of advice Prof. Burford shared was to always be assertive, but not aggressive, and never apologise for being there, politely call people out on negative behaviour, and have confidence in your abilities and opinions. Prof. Burford’s work-life balance is a significant factor she also keeps in mind to manage her busy schedule. Segregation of her research from her personal life prevents burn out and protects her physical and mental health.

Despite the challenges she has endured, Prof. Burford has made a significant positive impact on the socio-environmental community. In her future work she hopes to spend more time on science communication and educating people on climate change in the hope of influencing positive change in the world. Through her career journey Prof. Burford has stayed true to her values of being, “Passionate about the environment and helping people to make better decisions.”

Judges’ Feedback

“Well done explaining the challenges and potential solutions to dealing with gender inequality.”

“I liked how you concluded the story on an inspirational quote from Prof. Burford for the reader.”