Professor offers advice to schoolgirls and says discipline needs to attract ‘women who will make a difference’

'You only live once - so do what you love."

While hardly rocket science, the advice was just as important as anything else one of our most accomplished chemists could impart to the next generation of female researchers yesterday.

Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, of the University of Auckland, shared career tips with more than 130 secondary school girls when she chaired the inaugural For Girls in Science forum.

The forum, part of the L'Oreal Australia New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowship programme, aimed to close the gender gap in science by encouraging senior schoolgirls to consider the field as a career.

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Professor Brimble, a 2007 For Women In Science Laureate, was joined at the forum by Cawthron Institute marine scientist Dr Zoe Hilton, a previous winner of the Unesco-L'Oreal International Fellowship for Young Women in the Life Sciences.

While women make up roughly half the workforce in science, they remain unevenly represented at the top levels of the sector. Figures show that only a third of principal investigators on successful Marsden Fund applications last year were women, and just 13 per cent of the recipients of our highest science honour, the Rutherford Medal, have been female.

Professor Brimble, herself a medal recipient, said the girls were especially interested to know why she became involved in science.

A key message for up-and-coming female scientists at school, she said, was to not think they have to settle on a specific area of science early on.

"My advice is to study what you enjoy," she said. "You don't need to be over-concerned about what job you are going to do at the end of your degree.

"Many of my students tell me that their science degree taught them logic, organisational skills and the ability to teach themselves - these skills are readily transferable to many other careers."

She believed science was an exciting career as it was always advancing and changing.

"Science is a great career and we need more women in science at all levels, but importantly, we need women who will make a difference."

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While promotion of science to women is an issue, retaining them after they have completed PhDs has also proven a concern.

Many who leave their fields to have children and raise families either return to find they have fallen behind or do not come back at all.

Dr Nicola Gaston, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said this was happening across all disciplines of science.

"There's still a whole leaky-pipeline business where we are tending to lose women."