Each month, Refraction Education will bring you the ideas, experiences and advice of an individual in the field of education. This month we spoke to Manjekah Dunn, a first year medicine student at UNSW, who last year had the opportunity to represent Australia in the Australian Science Olympiads in Indonesia.


Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Manjekah Dunn and I’m a first year student studying medicine at the University of New South Wales. Ever since I was a young girl I’ve had an interest in Science, and in 2014 I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to pursue this passion further through the Australian Science Olympiads. This eventually led me to Bali, Indonesia, where I competed in the 25th International Biology Olympiad and achieved a bronze medallion. Biology in particular is a big interest of mine (no surprise), but I also enjoy neurology and am considering a specialisation in this area in the future. Other hobbies of mine include photography, reading, and traveling.


What inspired your interest in science at school?

My childhood was filled with science books of all sorts, but I never really explored this passion until high school. After studying Biology in Year 11, I discovered that I had an interest in this subject like no other, which was a big indication to me that I ought to attempt the Science Olympiad Exams (also an indication that I was a massive science nerd). After much encouragement by several science teachers (a big thank you to them!) I decided I’d give it a try. Ultimately, it was an accumulation of various factors that resulted in my passion for Science today – teachers, books, friends, articles. I never really felt like there was a sudden definitive moment when I developed my interest in science; it was more akin to a slow transformation as I began to uncover and explore my underlying passion for science. In some way or another, it’s managed to develop into this big portion of my life and who I am, and hopefully it will continue this way into the future.


What was the best thing about having the opportunity to compete in the Australian Science Olympiads?

This is such a difficult question to answer — I don’t know if I’ll be able to narrow it down to just one thing! The Science Olympiads led to such a wonderful journey and experience that not only stimulated me academically, but also provided an opportunity to network and meet other like-minded individuals from all across the nation and globe. That experience in itself was priceless. The time spent at the international competition were indefinitely the best two weeks of my life (so far!).


Ultimately, if I had to narrow it down, the best things would have to be discovering my passion for biology, meeting other biology fanatics from all across the world, and, of course, forming friendships that I’m sure will last a lifetime. It also made me realise the vast range of opportunities available to us in the world, and taught me to never let any opportunity slip. After all, the Olympiads started off as an opportunity (that I was hesitant to take, initially!), and if hadn’t taken that first step, I never would have been lucky enough to have this experience.



Can you recall any particularly memorable lessons from your time at school? If so, what made it so special?

Practical lessons in biology class were always a highlight of my high-school experience – I’d find myself looking forward to each practical class that we had, and for good reason. One particular time we were dissecting cow eyes. After meticulously extracting the lens in pristine condition from inside the specimen, I was holding it between two fingers and celebrating a bit too hard – to the point that the lens slipped out my hand, fell on the floor, and burst open. Even though I let my practical team down, it’s definitely a memorable moment that my friends and I still laugh about (they never let me live it down). I guess what was so special about that particular moment (besides our sad-yet-humourous defeat) was that I found the task so interesting and captivating – we were finally able to apply our skills and see with our own eyes how everything fit together and how the mechanisms worked, rather than simply learning the theory components.


What recommendations do you have for the future of STEM education in science and university (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths)?

STEM education plays such a critical role in our modern society as it leads and fosters our progress into the future. It is absolutely essential that individuals that will become the next generation of STEM workers are trained and educated thoroughly, particularly in such a pivotal moment in history where technology is key to our society. This means sufficient funding and programs must run in order to enrich and foster the development of students’ interests into these areas, which I believe is lacking in our current education system. Students are given very few opportunities to pursue their passions in these areas, and often, these subjects just become ‘compulsory tasks’ that they must do, leaving the students unaware of what the STEM fields offer in the ‘real world’. By offering more opportunities to explore these fields, and encouragement towards these students, I think STEM education can be improved significantly.


With recent cuts to funding in the STEM fields, I find that a lot of young Australians are avoiding study of STEM subjects because of fear for their future careers and incomes. I believe this is a primary focus that needs to be addressed soon, particularly as other countries in the world continue funding research. If we do not encourage these areas of development – and I’m sure the STEM fields will play a critical role in our society’s future – then Australia will fall behind, which I fear will have significant detrimental impacts on future generational development. In general, I think that we need to stress to students and Government (and society as a whole!) the importance of the STEM fields, and that they are of extremely high importance to our future development. From my current experience, not everyone seems to be aware of the true implications of STEM to our society.


Additionally, I believe the focus on ‘Females in STEM’ is a particularly important aspect that needs to continually be addressed in the upcoming years in order to promote gender equality in these areas. In the last few years I have been following this topic closely and I am convinced that we need programs that encourage females to participate and pursue their passions in these subjects. However, more broadly, greater equality for all students – regardless of geographical location, gender, ethnicity, or financial background – is a current issue which I believe needs to be addressed in order to help produce the next best generation of workers in STEM. My recommendation would be greater awareness programs and opportunities for all students to foster their interests and passions.


One big thing that we need to remember is that the future scientists, engineers, technicians, and mathematicians – those that will lead development in the years to come – all stem (pardon the pun) from the students of today, and if we fail to encourage them and provide adequate STEM education, it is impossible for us to achieve the best quality of leaders for generations to come.