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Dr Laura Machuca Suarez

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.

Dr Laura Machuca Suarez is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering. Laura is an environmental microbiologist and a corrosion subject matter expert (SME) whose research activities focus on the interaction of microbes with metals particularly the field of Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Hi, my name is Laura Machuca and this is my story. In Colombia it matters whose daughter you are. I’m not the daughter of a rich mother and father. The way it goes traditionally in my home country is that it is expected for a woman to get married and stay at home raising a family, totally depending on their husbands financially. It is a patriarchal culture where many women don’t have the opportunity to have a career. And in fact, in most families, in traditional families, it is not well seen for a woman to be professionally oriented. But because I am the daughter of Lilia, I wanted to be different.   

Mum has always been a fantastic leader a natural leader. When I was at school, I remember seeing her always speaking up in public, being the voice for older parents. She was in fact, a teacher before I was born. One that had a reputation for being really the best. But she gave up her dreams to stay at home with me, and that was a choice that she had made because of her culturally proscribed role. However, for me, she stayed at home to be my personal teacher and to inspire me and encourage me to reach for the stars and beyond. I wanted to go to the university, but to do this I needed to attend a public university. In Colombia getting into a public university is extremely hard because of the number of students that apply with the desire to access the best education a very low cost. I wanted to be a microbiologist and I needed to face a very difficult admission process.  

Every time I was preparing my admissions exams, mum would come and say, ‘You can do this’ while putting a glass of juice on my desk. A few months later, a university acceptance letter comes in. Definitely one of the happiest days of my life. My hometown was far from the main city where the university was so my days at uni were very, very long. I spent nights working very hard to be able to reach those marks that I needed to keep my place in the university. I often felt vulnerable in almost giving up. I remember that giving an oral presentation was nerve wracking, but mum will always say ‘It is not enough just to be good. You have to show that you are good, and the good that is in you must spread to others. Now go and show who you are.’ I found it hard to support and courage to persevere and get ahead. Thus, I graduated from university but I also learned that things do not occur by accident, but through dedicated work and sacrifice. I could not believe that someone as intelligent and hardworking as her never found that courage and support from others to change her life and reach her very own dreams. For this reason, I was determined to change my future. I wanted to go overseas. I needed to go far away to the other side of the world because of the lack of opportunities in Colombia. Then I embarked on PhD in Australia. That was 12 years ago, and I cannot tell you how difficult and painful it is to pursue a doctoral degree abroad in a foreign language and without family around. 

But because I am the daughter of Lilia, I was determined to overcome all obstacles and difficulties. My PhD focused on studying the mechanisms by which bacteria causes corrosion of metals and alloys that are used for offshore subsea applications. The project was very challenging because it combines microbiology and electric chemical corrosion science. But I found love in my research and that helped me through the mental and physical challenges of a PhD. I finished my PhD in 2013 and even received the Chancellor’s commendation for an outstanding thesis.  

My PhD provided a great start to a career structured around industry engagement and I decided that I wanted to continue my research in this area. I knew it had the potential to solve ongoing problems in the industry. My life as a postdoctoral research fellow was tough. The research was targeted at the specific needs of the oil and gas industry. Which is a male dominated environment, so I found many of the constraints of pursuing a career in an area non-traditional for a woman. Then I met my mentor. That was back in 2014. Someone from a very different culture and background. An incredible man supportive of female scientists. He believed in me and encouraged me to chase big things and to create as many opportunities to myself and other people. He wanted to expose me to this environment dominated by men because he knew what I was capable of. One day I walked into my office and he said, ‘The room has been booked. There is 100 people from the industry attending the presentation. Go and show who you are.’ That voice sounded very familiar. I had my PhD do for only one year so I was vary scared and anxious. Of course, I lacked confidence and I was terrified. It was not my first experience speaking in public, but in past they were fellow academics.  

It certainly was a man-dominated auditorium. But then I began to talk about bacteria and how these microscopic organisms can perforate pipelines and damaged equipment. How they managed to live in almost every place on Earth, from boiling hot springs to Antarctic lakes. I explained how something so small can have such an impact on our environment, in our infrastructure, and most importantly, how my research can solve complex problems that will save billions for the industry. So, my passion for it carries me through this presentation, and before I know, the presentation is over. And then I have all these people come in to talk to me. It is really apparent that the delegates felt engaged, enlightened and encourage by my research.  

This presentation opens doors opportunity to become who I am. Those people that came to ask me questions are my colleagues today. Some of them are even my students. It resulted in a continuous stream of research projects. One thing that I know is that on that day I got the confidence and impetus to become a leader. I understood that no matter what gender you are, cultural or linguistic background you have, you can always achieve goals that were set beyond your reach, if you have the passion and determination. Now five years later, here I stand with my own PhD students, my own postdoctoral fellows, and a strong research team I trust. I always say in my lectures that the secret for success is to be in life like bacteria being resilient and working in unison. This is the only way to achieve things that we will never achieve as individuals. It is my passion now to empower and champion others to reach for the dreams, and just as my mum and my mentor did. I am also a mother of a little girl, Victoria, which makes me realize even more how lucky I was and is still I am to be Lilia’s daughter. I want to inspire Victoria. Just like Mum always inspired me.  

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