In conversation with Jirana Boontanjai
Image credit Dr Tom Carruthers
Hi Jirana - thanks for chatting with us!
What drew you into the world of STEM?
I was drawn into the world of STEM at a young age. I grew up surrounded by STEM with both my parents being in fields relating to science and a household rule that if it wasn’t educational, I couldn’t have it. So I used science as a gateway to being a ‘normal kid’, and to do the fun things that I thought cool people did like going to holiday programs, visiting shops, video games, toys and magazines. I remember when I graduated from primary school, I won the science award, and that’s when it really clicked in my head that ‘oh, maybe I am actually good at science’, all this time I just viewed science as my way to have fun and not as a field or a career. Nowadays, seeing the look on people’s faces when you blow their minds with a demonstration or random STEM knowledge that they then feel necessary to share with the next person they see - fills me with great joy and passion to keep doing what I’m doing.
You are part of the Education and Guidance Team at the Australian Skills Quality Authority. Take us on a tour of what a day in this role looks like!
So, for those who haven’t heard of ASQA (Australian Skills Quality Authority) they’re a government agency responsible for regulating the vocational education and training (VET) sector. We ensure that qualifications are standardised across Australia so if you get your Cert III in hairdressing in Melbourne, you’ll be marked against the same criteria as someone who’s graduated in Perth.
My role is to develop a learning platform so that course providers feel confident in interpreting the regulations. As like with any policy, it can be hard to read, understand and follow! So really, I’ll be training the trainer! A typical day for me is spent in front of the computer coordinating all the moving parts, meetings and logistics. Currently we’re in the process of creating the platform, so I have a lot of meetings with our developer, IT department and jumping through all the logistical hoops answering questions such as ‘How does the client login? How do we authenticate? What kind of access do they have? When will it be done?’. As we get closer to launching the platform, my role will involve liaising with our comms team to coordinate promotion and marketing, and chatting with my content experts as we develop content for the platform. My role might not be hands-on, but I do get the luxury of working from any of the ASQA headquarters which are based in all capital cities, which also means my team are all geographically dispersed, so not many in-person meetings!
As well as your day job, you’re also the Co-President of Australian Science Communicators (ASC) and you were involved in Pint of Science. Why are these roles important for you and what impact are they having on developing your professional profile?
These roles have been so vital to my professional career and they’re both volunteer based. I understand it’s not for everyone, and yes, it takes up my free time, but it’s been so valuable to my professional career but also has allowed me to learn about so many people nationwide.
Pint of Science allowed me to grow. I learnt a lot of new skills and I got to test out lots of ideas. I gained leadership skills, and learnt a lot about time management and commitment. The environment that Pint of Science has is great for anyone looking to learn skills so that they can get that next job. It really helped with the ‘you need skills to get a job, but you need a job to get the skills’ dilemma - and what I learnt wasn’t just about science, it was all those soft skills people talk about that apply to every job we ever want. It’s always great to get paid for work, but it’s competitive, and you don’t always get to shape it the way you want. Volunteering with Pint really allowed me to be myself, explore and understand what I wanted out of my next job and hone those skills so that I could land my next role. I also got to interact with a lot of people, which has been great for my other roles.
As Co-President of the ASC, I’ve only just stepped into this role after retiring from Pint of Science. I decided to put myself forward for this role as I saw ways in which the ASC could be improved, and I felt confident that I could help shape it in a positive direction. Professionally, I think this role will help me stay connected to the science communication world, and allow me to investigate my next career move too! Both my co-president and I feel very passionate about ensuring that people know about the ASC, and use this community as a resource, similar to the way people use other professional bodies such as RACI (Royal Australian Chemical Institute). There are a lot of individuals out there who are doing science communication, yet don’t identify themselves as science communicators. It’s to these people that I want to say ‘hi, we exist, and we’ve probably experienced similar hardships, so join us and let’s learn together!’
Who are some of your role models?
This is a really hard thing for me to answer! I’m someone who believes everyone has something they’re good at, and using one role model doesn’t fit perfectly. I’m constantly changing where I want to go professionally, and as that changes so do my role models! Currently some of my role models include Prof. Lisa Harvey-Smith and my ASC Co-President Dr Tom Carruthers. There are many others but we’d be here all day with me explaining how each person influences my life!
Could you share 3 highly recommended reads or podcasts that you think would be of interest to colleagues in the STEM Women network?
I personally find podcasts hard to engage with, but there are two that I’d love to plug for the STEM Women network to get behind if they’re avid podcast listeners, and that includes Pod of Science from Pint of Science and Let’s Talk Sci Comm with ASC’s Co-VP Jen Martin.
In terms of books, I find online content a bit easier to fit into my life than books. I also really enjoy seeing how people use social media to communicate. Here are some that I’d recommend: CSIRO’s Instagram, ABC Canberra’s Facebook page, Dr Emma Beckett and Lee Constable.
What would be your advice to women and girls considering a career in STEM?
My advice would be that you don’t have to do research to have a career in STEM and you don’t need a degree to be doing STEM. Your next job doesn’t need to be STEM-related to still be valuable to your STEM career goals and your job title doesn’t have to have a STEM-related title to still be contributing or using your STEM knowledge. Your interest in STEM can be a career, but it might start off in a different direction. View every role as a stepping stone to your next. Where do you see yourself in 10 years and what skills do you need to work on to get there? What skill will your next role allow you to work on? Also, don’t be afraid to change your goal or aspiration. As we grow and try new things, we learn more about what we desire in a career. What you might have aspired to previously, might not be what you want now.
I always wanted to be a scientist, initially a zoologist, then a microbiologist, then a pathologist, and for a split second a biochemist. I then learnt about science communication and realised it was more my style and involved less calculations so I wanted to be an educator, facilitator, team leader, event organiser and now book writer. My career pathway is constantly changing as I learn more about myself, what passions I have and, at times, what I get tired of.
Girls considering a career in STEM: keep going, give it a try, but try it multiple ways and styles. STEM is a large field, and there are many ways that you can interact with it. Involve yourself in the STEM community, and you’ll learn more about what roles are available out there and… volunteer with Pint of Science! Haha!
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