Professor Madhu Bhaskaran – Co-leading Women in STEMM Australia

“We all have our own life experiences, our own perspectives, our cultural identities play a huge role in shaping us”

40 under 40: Most Influential Australian award winner, Professor Madhu Bhaskaran has recently been appointed co-chair of Women in STEMM Australia.

Along with being a globally recognised electronics engineer, she also co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT University. She has won several awards and fellowships for her research including the APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (“ASPIRE”) (2018) and the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher (2017).

Her breakthrough research in oxide-based flexible electronics won her the ‘40 under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Award’ in 2020. These are transparent, unbreakable, ‘flexible electronic’ devices that can perform a range of functions including sensor interactions, which can be used in a variety of biomedical devices to monitor or stimulate nerve cells and organs. These thin electronic patches can adhere to the skin and can mimic bodily functions, measure and diagnose abnormalities while also monitoring the environment around us. This research may be hugely beneficial in areas such as aged-care monitoring and early detection of certain diseases.

As well as pioneering electronics research, Prof. Bhaskaran is highly committed to promoting diversity and inclusion for women in all areas of STEMM. In December 2021, she was appointed as co-chair of ‘Women in STEMM Australia’ (WiSA). Prof. Bhaskaran has been on the inaugural Board of Directors for WiSA since 2015 where she has lobbied for change to help improve professional lives for all women in STEMM. She co-facilitated a National Symposium (2016) connecting over 230 delegates from academic research, industry, business, education and government to share their stories, generate discussion and offer solutions to pressing issues surrounding gender equity and equality within STEMM, WiSA. also runs a very successful social media network to amplify women's voices and celebrate their successes. In her new role as co-chair, together with educator Sarah Chapman, Prof. Bhaskaran hopes to continue the great work of this organisation with added diversity and a clear lens of intersectionality. 

“[Sarah Chapman and I] remain committed to connecting women and girls across the different sectors and across the country,” she said, “we would like to ensure we also keep intersectionality in front of our mind as we do this.”

Founded in 2014, WiSA is a nationally and internationally recognised not-for-profit organisation that advocates for gender equity and equality in Australia’s STEMM sectors. The organisation also hopes to “create a broader and more inclusive network for a diverse range of under-represented students and professionals” across all areas of STEMM. 

Prof. Bhaskaran’s interest in STEMM began from a young age after being surrounded by many people in STEMM professions. Since both her parents were medical doctors, Prof. Bhaskaran grew up assuming that she too would follow suit in STEMM. “I knew I wanted to be in STEMM,” she explained, “but I don't think I decided whether I wanted to be a medical doctor or whether I wanted to be an engineer or a scientist.” Ultimately finding her passion in electronics, Prof. Bhaskaran migrated to Australia in 2004 to complete her Masters in Microelectronics. 

Graduating from an all-girls high school, Prof. Bhaskaran attended a co-educational University in India and then migrated to Australia for her Masters degree. Cultural differences in upbringing and teaching strategies were brought to the forefront during her Masters. “I came from India, [though in] most South Asian countries where the [classroom] culture is very much ‘don’t question’ - you're not taught to question actively,” she confessed, “but here it's entirely different. You're thrown into [an] environment where it's suddenly not just OK [but] you are expected to ask questions [and] put yourself forward. It's not easy to undo twenty [something] years of learning and just change yourself radically overnight.” 

Like many migrants, Prof. Bhaskaran was forced to change several aspects of herself in order to fit into a new culture and feel accepted. “I dressed in a very traditional manner back in India, wearing the typical salwar kameez. I've never grown up wearing western clothes like pants, T- shirts, dresses or skirts. So I think that is a challenge in itself,” she reflected, “ it takes time to be comfortable.” A seemingly small adjustment to make, but when compounded with several others can add to the challenges of adjusting to a new country, culture and workplace, and often requires forming a new identity in order to forge a sense of belonging. 

“Right from the way we dress, to the way we talk, the way we behave, ask questions or put ourselves in uncomfortable situations…are the kinds of challenges [faced by migrant populations]. They look tiny, but they just add on.” 

“But,” she added, “I feel we have a lot of persistence [and] resilience due to these challenges, which is a good thing. These are not qualities you realize you have in you until you are required to use it. 

Prof. Bhaskaran believes that increased representation of women of colour in STEMM, particularly in leadership positions would minimise many of these challenges. She reasons that, “[by] simply making sure that the people sitting around the table are diverse and truly representative of the [community] you're trying to solve problems for, the solutions will be equally diverse and thought through.”

Over the last several years of her career she has noticed great improvements in gender equity and equality, but believes that the conversation needs to now shift to include intersectionality.

“I think we have a problem now where we are banding all women together [but] we are all very different,” she explains, “We all have our own life experiences, our own perspectives, our cultural identities [play] a huge role in shaping us [and] who we who we need to be.” Thus, by adding these diverse perspectives into conversations, we can start to break down the challenges brought by intersectionality. For this, Prof. Bhaskaran emphasises the importance of multicultural representation in leadership, especially for women in STEMM positions. After observing that the STEMM workforce in Australia consists predominantly of people with migrant backgrounds, having leadership that is representative of this would result in a fairer, more inclusive and welcoming workplace. Research also indicates that the different perspectives offered by diversity in leadership allows sight of multiple angles to a problem and leads to better solutions and decisions, so long as all voices are heard. 

Prof. Bhaskaran encourages more young women to be unafraid in pursuing their passions in STEMM. Her brilliant work at WiSA is paving a more accessible path for future generations of women in STEMM careers. It ensures that they are not faced with the same challenges of intersectionality that herself and many other women in STEMM have encountered in their professional careers. 

“I want to reassure [young women aspiring to work in STEMM] that we're working very hard to make sure the system is better and much more welcoming of them and all their perspectives, differences and the diversity they bring into the system.”

You can see Prof. Bhaskaran’s inspiring work on her LinkedIn.

Sadaf Zafir is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She has a background in biomedical science and is an application development analyst at Accenture. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.