Friday, 10 February 2017

Women in Science Day 2017

Mellissa has had a varied career in science and agriculture in Australia and overseas. She has been with us at ACIAR for 5 years. Her current job involves working with the World Bank one minute, and looking at nutritious beans for African farming families the next.

Big global programs in agriculture can have an impact on the economy, and also on communities, and individual families.

‘I came here to run the Australian International Food Security Centre,’ Mellissa says. ‘My focus at ACIAR is very much on big global initiatives to reduce poverty through agricultural research.’

One example is the work on Precooked Beans in Eastern Africa. The project benefits women at the farming level, and at the family level, helping them to give their children nutritious food.

‘Beans are a very high source of nutrition and protein,’ explains Mellissa.

‘But they take a long time to cook. Women have to spend a long time collecting fire wood to heat them, which makes the beans expensive, from both the fuel and time perspective. So sadly, many times the beans don’t make it into the dinner pot.’

To get around this ACIAR and our sister organisation in Canada the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have worked on a program for pre-cooked beans that cook in 10-15 minutes, not 3 hours, meaning women can access these nutritious beans for their families. More than half of the 23,875 farmers growing the beans are women.

‘There is a factory, processing the beans, and twenty thousand famers are producing the beans under the community production model, for a guaranteed market. Women are very much part of this as bean growers, and 14 hundred women got credit through a community finance loan system.

Projects like this are rewarding to work on. ‘This was a really successful project – consumers benefit, women benefit, there are private sector partnerships and entrepreneurs involved.’

These positive outcomes are what keep Mellissa working at ACIAR. ‘I like the idea that we’re able to use Australian and International research expertise to improve agriculture from a country level, right down to smallholder farmers who are so passionate about what they do. It is very rewarding.’

Women in science today

There are many and varied jobs for women in science, but it is still seen as something of a barrier to have a family. Mellissa is disappointed that this is remains an issue, as it was a concern of hers back in the 90s when she was a young scientist working on drought modelling systems, and had a young family. Many things have changed since those days, but some ideas about women and work have not.

‘An issue for young women scientists right now is doing field work and travel. They are happy to travel to do their research, even in early pregnancy, but there are still project managers who think they can’t,’ she says.

In 1998 Mellissa was quoted in the Canberra Times as saying: ‘There are few role models of senior women scientists combining high-level work and family and I sometimes feel it would be useful if there were more around.’

That is one issue that she is now helping to remedy, by providing the example of senior female leadership on the ACIAR executive, running Global Programs, and managing high-level partnerships with other countries and global organisations.

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