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Centre for Stories

Prof Sonya Girdler

'At this stage in my life I was a little bit skeptical as the rest of the world seemed to be telling me that my options were maybe to marry the minister's son or even better the son of the farmer next door because that would extend the family farming empire. I used to think that they were my viable options in life.'

This is our opportunity to celebrate the individual and unique stories and achievements of Curtin University’s Women in STEMM. Together, let’s share in their pursuit of excellence, and listen to the important lessons they teach everyone, no matter your gender.Prof Sonya Girdler is Director of the Curtin Autism Research Group (CARG) and a Professor at Curtin University’s School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology. Her research is directed at improving the participation of autistic individuals in major life areas such as employment and education.

Copyright © 2020 Sonya Girdler

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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So my name’s Sonya Girdler and I’m a Professor of Occupational Therapy. And my story today is called 100 Swedish Flags. So I grew up in remote Western Australia in a wild and beautiful place called Mount Manypeaks. And it’s a farm that sits in the shadow of a mountain that rolls into the great Southern Ocean. And while it’s very, very beautiful, it’s a very, very isolated place. There were 3000 sheep and five people and our friends were the lambs and the farm dogs. So we were a long way from town, but going to town was a super big deal and it was a very special occasion and everyone got dressed up. But especially me, because my nickname from my family was Lady Di because my farm clothes and my outfits was so well put together. I really loved getting dressed up. 

So a couple of times a year we would go to the big city Perth, which is about 500 kilometres away where my Nana lived. And this was an even bigger deal for me. And my family. I loved my Nana. She was a wonderful person who always had time to listen to everybody. She was beautiful with blue eyes that shone and she was tall and super smart despite having had to leave school at the age of 12. She was creative and really loved to paint and make craft projects. My Nana and I shared a really special bond. We both loved to have high tea and we had a wonderful love of fashion. And that was something that we really shared. Every time I came to Perth, me and my Nana would go out for high tea to a wonderful little Swedish restaurant called Miss Maud. 

And even today, Miss Maud still sells beautiful biscuits and has fantastic high teas. But they had the most amazing little sandwiches, which can complete with little Swedish flags that were stuck into the top of them. And they were my favorite. I thought they were just lovely. So I used to collect these Swedish flags and actually keep them in my purse for months after my high tea with my Nana because they reminded me of my Nan and the wonderful time that we’d had. My Nana was my biggest fan. She told me that I would one day change the story of the women in my family, that one day I would finish high school, that one day I would go to university, and that one day I’d something amazing. At this stage in my life I was a little bit skeptical as the rest of the world seemed to be telling me that my options were maybe to marry the minister’s son or even better the son of the farmer next door because that would extend the family farming empire. 

I used to think that they were my viable options in life, even to the point where I kissed him, the minister’s son once, but that didn’t really go anywhere. So I decided I better do something else. When it came time to go to high school, we used to go away to boarding school. So then it came my time to leave the farm. So at 14 I went away to the big city, which was 500 kilometers from where my family lived and where I went to do my high school and finish my high school career. But even now today I still hanker for the big skies and the mountain and I have a terrible and embarrassing love of country music. But I finished high school and my way through a very average undergraduate degree. I found it a bit tough because I was working 20 hours a week and trying to finance my own living, so paying rent being from the country. 

But one thing I strangely discovered was that I loved research methods while the rest of my year and cohort really hated the design and the methodology side of what we were doing. It was my favorite thing. I really loved the stepwise process. I enjoyed the order. And to me I thought research was creative and had a beautiful product at the end. To me, research has always been creative. To me on one level it’s art. It’s like a wonderful painting in a gallery or even even better, a beautiful dress, which always reminded me of my grandma and the processes that go behind creating a beautiful designer dress. So after completing my high school degree, I worked for a little while and I found myself working for a bank, which needless to say, I was less inspired by the day and had decided that this was not the career I had in mind for myself. 

So after a year of working for the bank, I became bored and decided to enroll myself in a master’s degree as an antidote to my boredom, really. But I really enjoyed my Master’s degree because what it allowed me to do was spend more time doing research methods, which by this stage I actually had kind of forgotten I’d really enjoyed in my undergraduate degree. But after finishing my Master’s, I ended up getting a job in disability and working with adults and teenagers who are blind and vision impaired. And I really, really enjoyed that job and that inspired me to pursue my PhD studies in that area. The reason I loved working with people who are blind or vision impaired was I always admired their courage and their commitment to overcoming their challenges in their everyday life. And they inspired me to think that, you know, my life was generally pretty easy. And, yeah, I just really love watching their stories and their journeys and being able to work with them in a partnership relationship and helping them to overcome the challenges and pursuing meaningful lives. So I really enjoyed that work and it inspired me so much that, um, I decided to do my PhD in the area of vision, impairment and blindness and I spent four years doing my PhD while also having two babies. So it was pretty challenging. But I stayed committed to the process and eventually finished my PhD and graduated. I was, when I graduated, I was awarded a Chancellor’s commendation for excellence. But I always think that I was able to do such a great job of my PhD because I was so inspired by the people I worked with and the stories they had and their journey. 

So once I finished my PhD, I became a junior academic. Then I was doing a teaching and research role, spending a lot of time teaching, but always had a dream that one day I would be able to do the research I really wanted to and to use those research methods that I love so much and had inspired me so much in a way that I wanted to in disability to understand the experiences of people with disabilities. But I’d really spun my wheels for quite a few years. I had a big teaching load. I found it really difficult to get to my research and I was really without a mentor. So I decided that what I really needed in life was to build some international collaborations and to find myself a mentor and someone who could help me through this really difficult journey of academia. And we often, we call it the mid career doldrums in academia. It’s really where people fall off the research journey and find it really hard to build an independent search career. So I spoke to my boss at the time who was a really wonderful woman called Lorna. And I explained to her that I was feeling stuck and then I couldn’t really get my research going or build a research career. And I mentioned to her that I’d been speaking to a professor in Sweden who had done similar work to the work that I really wanted to do and had really inspired me in terms of the frameworks and the methodologies that he had used. And I really wanted to go and meet him. We’d had a few email exchanges and a few Skype meetings, but I thought it’d be really helpful for me to go meet him in person. And I explained to her that that was really all I had was a contact in Sweden and I’d like to go to Stockholm to meet him. 

So, I’d had a conversation with my boss at the time, a wonderful woman called Lorna, who’d inspired me a great deal during my career. And Lorna agreed to fund me to go and see a professor in Sweden who worked in the area of neuro developmental disorders, which was an area that I had become interested in, and particularly the field of autism, was something I was starting to do work in. So Lorna, I agreed to fund my trip, which was amazing, given it was quite a significant cost. And before I knew it, I was on a plane heading to Sweden. Now always actually completely terrified because I had grown up in remote Western Australia and going to a country as far away as Sweden was something I’d never done before and I had to go to Sweden on my own. So that was a bit challenging. So I arrived in Sweden and met Sven and I was really nervous because to me he was a really significant researcher and professor in my field and I looked up to him for a long time. But you know what, I realised that Sven was really friendly and we got on amazingly well and he had given me a wonderful tour of Karolinska Institute, which is one of the world’s leading medical universities. Complete with stories about how in winter enormous ice crystals would fall off the eaves of the buildings and potentially kill you. It’s probably the Australian equivalent of drop bears. But, we shared a lot and we talked about potential research projects and when I got back to Australia I realized that I could probably actually use Sven as a mentor. That Sven could actually help me achieve that independent research career that I had so long wanted to pursue, but had been unable to find the path or the way. So whether Sven liked it or not, he actually became my mentor and we began to work together on projects and apply for grants. And we actually started to get many grants and get many of our projects funded to the point where we eventually, now today, have eight PhD students that we co-supervise and have, you know, quite a significant amount of research funding to do research here in Australia. 

So Sven to me was my perfect mentor, he inspired me to think logically and to work hard and to always be on time. Something I still struggle with as an Australian. Sven is actually German, partly by background, he also has great fashion sense, which I put down in part to his Italian heritage and he is kind, he’s off to old part Swedish. So over the years Sven, and I have done many, many projects together. He’s been my mentor, my colleague and now my friend. And together with the help of many others, we’ve built one of the largest autism research groups in Australia. So the Curtin autism research group is quite unique in that our research interests are focused very much on the needs of the community and our research priorities are defined by people with living with autism themselves. So we’re very much known nationally and even internationally now for a work in peer mentoring programs for young adults with autism, for social skills training programs for teenagers with autism. So, research that’s really focused on intervention and addressing the priorities of the autistic community themselves. 

So a few years ago, we were lucky here at Curtin that a couple of wonderful women started up a peer mentoring program here for autistic university students. And that program originally began with seven autistic university students here at curtain. And over the years that program grew, we were able to get some research funding, which helped to grow the program, but also to fund research, which actually provided evidence that supported that this program was effective and successful for autistic university students. That program has now grown to over 80 autistic university students. It’s recognized nationally, internationally as a program of excellence for young adults with autism. And, you know, we’ve gone from maybe only 60% of autistic university students completing their degrees to over 90. So how the program works is we pair an autistic university student with a mentor and that mentor is another university student, usually a psychology, Master’s student or occupational therapy Master’s student. And that student’s given a, a small amount of reimbursement in terms of financial terms to actually support the autistic university student by meeting with them, problem solving the issues they face in adversity, helping them to manage their assignments, maybe some of their anxieties around the social situations at university. But for a small investment, it’s made such a significant difference to the completion rates of our autistic university students. And really helped them to stay at university. 

So to end my story a few visits ago, my friend Sven came into my office in Perth and we have a funny tradition of bringing each other small and somewhat funny gifts each time we visit. And this time Sven had come, of all things, with a bunch of Swedish flags because over the years I’ve developed an insane love of the wonderful country of Sweden. And he bought me a really super large Swedish flag, which now hangs in my office and a chain of bunting Swedish flags. But he also bought me strangely a small bag of tiny little Swedish flags with toothpicks. And there was a hundred little Swedish flags with toothpicks on them in this bag. And in that moment I realised that now I had a whole bunch of Swedish flags and I could never fit them in my purse, and that my Nana was right there and that she had been right. That while I’ve not changed the history of the world, I’ve made some progress to changing the story of the women in my family. I finished high school, which my Nana my Mother never did. I’ve got a stack of degrees. And through some amazing chain of events, I became a Science Professor, against the odds, in a country where only 10% of women are professors in science. And a very large part because of the wonderful country of Sweden and my friend Sven with his 100 Swedish flags on toothpicks. So my advice to junior academics and women today is to find an awesome mentor, is to find someone like Sven to actually help them through the journey. Because it can be really tough path to negotiate on your own. And it’s very hard to find your way. So today my career has somewhat two immodest goals; to change the world for people with autism, but also, to see more women as professors of science. And I think my Nana would be really, really proud of that. 

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