‘Be the change you have not seen’: Dr Morley Muse on intersectionality in STEM

Dr. Morley Muse


Dr Morley Muse was 14-years old when she witnessed first-hand the adverse effects of oil spillage in the Niger Delta region of her home country of Nigeria. She was attending an industry expo presented by a petroleum companies. It was an excursion as part of the Junior Engineers Technicians and Scientists Club in Misau, Nigeria — a STEM club she belonged to.

That day, Muse watched a video during one of the presentations on oil spillage, learning about the response from the oil company, and their corporate social responsibility practices.

For the young teenager, seeing an acknowledgement of the issue from a big corporation felt comforting.

It made the young student think of the possibilities of alternative energy and the future of environmental sustainability.

Today, Dr Muse lives in Australia and is one of the country’s leading environmental engineers, working to analyse biofuels, renewable energy generation, waste to energy generation, and water treatment.

Her current PhD thesis, which she began just three weeks after giving birth to her third child, focuses on improving microalgae anaerobic hydrolysis and potential digestion using bacteria and enzymes to convert waste into energy.

She has developed a unique technique to quantify microalgae pretreatment methods for understanding the cell strength of microalgae using high-speed homogenisation and extracted lipids after pretreatment.

This new method of microalgae digestion can allow microalgae disposal from wastewater, converting the waste to energy, and generating onsite electrical power for wastewater utilities. Microalgae waste from wastewater can also be converted to biodiesel using a different process called transesterification.

Dr Muse is continuing to work on this new technology while running iSTEM Co., a research, consulting and talent sourcing business she co-founded earlier this year. The platform enables the employment of women, particularly women of colour and women from CALD, into Australia’s STEM organisations.

As the current director on the board for Women in STEMM Australia, she is never too busy to reflect on the importance of being a woman of colour in her field.

“Receiving such a prestigious award made me realise the impact of my work in the STEM community and filled me with so much gratitude to know that the younger generation of women in STEM would see me as a beam of hope and a positive role model,” she told Women’s Agenda.

The Award she referred to is the Womens’s Agenda Leadership Award for Emerging Leader in STEM. Dr Muse gave a riveting speech when accepting the award last month, stressing the importance of representation, especially when your identity is not reflected in the mainstream.

“People don’t understand what it’s like, the barriers women have to face, for a woman who looks like me,” she said. “I go into environments like this and I don’t see women who look like me, other female engineers.”

“To see someone who looks like me, a black woman in Nigeria, who moved here from the UK…that sends a message across to the rest of Australia and to the rest of the world, that sometimes, it’s easy to say you can’t be what you can’t see, but for some of us that’s what we’ve had to navigate. So if you are someone who can’t see yourself, my speech to you is, you can reimagine to become what you want us to see. And be that.”

The Award reflected Dr Muse’s advocacy work in highlighting women in STEM.

“There are several studies that show female researchers and their work do not receive as much recognition or publicity compared to their male counterparts,” she told Women’s Agenda.

When she was an ambassador with the CSIRO Innovation Catalyst Project, she championed the ‘find her’ tool, a unique search engine that connected female academics to industry partners.

Continuing her passionate advocacy for women in STEMM, Dr Muse co-founded iSTEM Co. with Dr Ruwangi Fernando in March this year. The business is geared towards enabling employment and retention of women in STEM including women of colour and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in STEM.

“Oftentimes, when the concept of gender equity is discussed, the conversation stops at gender. Without a proper delve into the unique intersectionality of gender which involves race, ethnicity, disability and so on,” Dr Muse said.

“Women in STEM experience biases ranging from gender stereotypes, lack of flexible employment, harassment, caring responsibilities, lack of mentoring/positive role modelling, gender pay gap, lack of female leaders and recruitment bias in hiring.”

“However, women of colour experience even more of these highlighted issues but are overlooked. Most women of colour on top of the issues mentioned, have to deal with issues around their accent, their country of origin, ethnicity/ cultural identity.”

Dr Muse noticed very few women of colour in STEM, and began to wonder if this was due to a lack of qualification to gain suitable employment or a systemic issue.

Reading into it, she found that over half of University-qualified women in STEM are women born overseas, but they experience over four times higher unemployment rates.

“This really gave me the motivation I needed to address this problem because I knew that if nothing gets done, it will cascade to the next generation no doubt,” Dr Muse said.

She reached out to Dr Ruwangi Fernando, who has spent decades addressing the issue of gender intersection in STEM via her advocacy and non-for-profit STEM sisters. The pair joined their expertise to create iSTEM Co.

Recently, they launched a new program, Project DEIR, (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Retention) a jobs board website for women in STEM.

Project DEIR will be a free website for candidates to search for STEM jobs and free for employers to post jobs.

“Persistence is key to success,” Dr Muse said. “Don’t give up at the slightest obstacle or challenge. If you persist long enough, even the Universe will make room for you. Take a picture of who you would like to be (maybe photoshop!) and keep it on your wall or mirror or anywhere you can see it and let it be a reminder of your end goal.”

“Keep hope alive and focus on the positives. Look for allies and mentors. While there are barriers we need to address to ensure diversity and inclusion in STEM, there are positives.”