Sophia Frentz is a PhD student at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.
What do you do on an average work day?
Currently I’m working on stem cells, which are fiddly and terrible, so I check on them first thing every morning just in case they’ve all decided to die overnight.
Most days I’ll spend maybe half the day in the lab, and the other half either writing down what I did, planning for the next day, or trying to get some writing done. (It’s not science unless you write it down!).
I’m working on potential treatments for mitochondrial diseases, which stop your cells from making all the energy they need. These diseases affect a lot of different parts of cells and bodies, which means I use a lot of techniques, so what I’m doing can change dramatically from day to day.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
My year 13 subjects were Biology, Chemistry, Physics, French, and English – and I did year 13 calculus in year 12. I played piano and flute all through high school, and was really involved with the music department. In year 13 I also did the International Biology Olympiad, which changed my life! I switched from wanting to do a physics degree to a pretty firm love for genetics – and I got to represent New Zealand in Biology!
At uni (Otago) I did my undergraduate in Genetics with a minor in Microbiology, but I also took classes in statistics, food science, linguistics, and anatomy. I joined the debate team too, which taught me heaps! I love learning from people around me.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yeah! I’m still studying, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Exams aren’t everything. Do what you enjoy. There are multiple ways to achieve your goals. Call out misogyny when you can, because that’s how we make the world better. Don’t be friends with, or date, people who don’t think you’re fantastic and capable, because you are. It’ll be okay. You are great.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
During a summer studentship I took some results to my supervisor and was describing them to him when I realized I’d discovered something entirely new. The fact that I’d created knowledge was overwhelming and amazing.
The other highlight is attending Junket, Junkee’s youth leadership conference. The invitation I received was totally out of the blue, and as far as I know due to my work with women in STEM. I met a huge amount of awe-inspiring people from a range of backgrounds and was totally inspired to continue pushing for change for diversity in STEM.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
Look at the way the world is going! We’ve got access to our own genomes, we can build computer programs to do almost anything we want, you can use Lego to build robots – you’re missing out on a beautiful world if you don’t engage with it slightly.
New Zealand punches way above our weight when it comes to research and development! In a small country, you’ve got a wealth of opportunities to be involved right at the cutting edge that aren’t available anywhere else.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I think Bill Nye put it best – if one half of the humans are female, one half of the scientists should be female.
Diversity in thought results in diversity in problem solving and ideas – and that’s how research moves forward! STEM needs diversity to progress and innovate and make the world a better place.
We need women, from a range of backgrounds, of a range of ethnicities and religions and sexualities, and we need men from a range of backgrounds, and we need non-binary people from a range of backgrounds, because otherwise it takes longer to solve problems and do effective research.
Visible diversity is so key as well, especially to inspire future generations. It's hard to be a scientist when nobody like you appears to be a scientist - growing up as a queer science enthusiast, the only "notable queer scientist" you have is Alan Turing. He was brilliant, but his career trajectory isn't something I want to mimic! It's incredibly meaningful to see people you identify with doing science and breaking down barriers, and the more of us pile into STEM, the more options everyone will have for heroes and inspirations.
Sophia Frentz is a PhD Candidate at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, funded by the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. She is also a co-lead tutor, Genes Health and Society, the Secretary for Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Melbourne and current President of the Research Students’ Association at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. Sophia occasionally moonlights as a freelance writer, mostly with Lateral Magazine.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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