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Deadly duo working together to enhance Indigenous opportunities in science

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Spring ‘22
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Side by side photos of Corey Tutt and Misty Jenkins, both are wearing black tshirts with the DeadlyScience logo
Introduction

WEHI and not-for-profit DeadlyScience are partnering to boost the engagement of Indigenous school students with education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The new initiative also builds on the established connections between WEHI’s Associate Professor Misty Jenkins, a proud Gunditjmara woman, and Corey Tutt OAM, proud Kamilaroi man and founder of DeadlyScience.

Corey:

I first met Misty at the CSIRO Indigenous STEM Awards in 2019 and our paths have crossed many times since. We have been on panels together in various meetings and conferences about Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledges, and we have become friends and now – I am delighted to say – collaborators!

Having been a blackfella working in medical research, I know all too well that role models are rare if not non-existent. I have always found Misty to be really inspiring, someone I admire and look up to greatly; she has been a real trailblazer in this space. It is so important that we empower and support people like Misty who can inspire other young Indigenous people and give our kids role models beyond sporting heroes.

I am passionate about the need to provide opportunities and pathways in STEM for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and I have been very excited about the possibility of partnering with WEHI since the idea was first floated.

“First Nations people were the first scientists; our aim is to change perceptions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids of what science is and even what a scientist looks like.”
Change lives

To me, WEHI has always been at the top of the tree for medical research in terms of culture and reputation. If we can provide opportunities for young people to connect with a world-class research facility like WEHI and perhaps even start their careers at WEHI, it will change lives, there is no doubt about it.

Many past programs aimed at engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and encouraging them to follow pathways in STEM have focused on ages 15 or older. Research suggests kids’ educational directions are already set by the time they are 12, and it can be very difficult to deviate them from those paths.

If we engage with them early and effectively, stimulating enthusiasm for science and showing them future pathways – along with providing resources and opportunities – we can achieve a much greater success rate in getting these kids into STEM careers. First Nations people were the first scientists; our aim is to change perceptions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids of what science is and even what a scientist looks like.

I am moved by the sheer amount of positivity I get from everyone at WEHI, and their support for what we do at DeadlyScience. Because of Australia’s history, this space can be quite political, but so many people at WEHI are cheering these kids on. It really is an honour to be working with WEHI.

Misty:

I’m so proud of Corey and what he’s already achieved in bringing science into Indigenous communities and to our young people. I’m really looking forward to partnering with him and supporting DeadlyScience, and to us learning from each other.

As a working scientist bringing an Indigenous lens into Western science, every week I find myself looking at data from a clinical cohort and asking, ‘What proportion are Indigenous?’ and ‘How representative is this sample?’, especially when it comes to diseases that are particularly relevant to Indigenous people.

We know patients enrolled in clinical trials have better health outcomes, yet Indigenous people are significantly under-represented in trials; it’s one of those things that always seems to be put in the ‘too hard basket’.

To help us drive Indigenous-led initiatives and improvements in research and practice, we need more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scientists and health and medical professionals, particularly in decision-making positions.

In the end, the only way we can do that is by enabling real and tangible pathways and showing young Aboriginal people that they can train, qualify and make a difference by working with communities to lead those more sophisticated conversations and approaches. All our young kids are scientists in the making and bringing highly trained research professionals into communities and vice-versa is how we’re going to change a whole generation.

“All our young kids are scientists in the making and bringing highly trained research professionals into communities and vice-versa is how we’re going to change a whole generation.”

When you’re Aboriginal, you’re not necessarily given the same level of encouragement and support to pursue science as compared to, say, sport and the arts. We also need to reassure young Aboriginal people that getting qualified – especially if they have to move away from Country to go to university to learn – doesn’t make them any less a part of their community.

Different narrative

It’s so important that we change that narrative for our kids and our young people. We can do that by inspiring the thousands of really intelligent deadly kids who want to learn, in the way Corey has been doing so successfully with DeadlyScience.

Now, through our partnership, we are going to have a fantastic opportunity and the resources to further demonstrate to young Indigenous people the value of STEM education and that there are valid pathways for them to STEM careers.

I agree with Corey that WEHI is the perfect place for a collaboration like this; it’s certainly the most culturally diverse and progressive place I’ve ever worked and I’m really proud to say I’m at WEHI.

First published on 01 September 2022
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Spring ‘22
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