PEOPLE: From loathing chemistry to completing a PhD in environmental geochemistry – Silvana Santomartino

Women account for less than 30% of global researcher roles and, despite an increased need in scientists’ expertise during the pandemic, female scientists have been quoted significantly less often than male scientists.

Getting more women into and heard in STEM fields will take industry- and society-wide efforts to change the way women are supported in their STEM careers and empowered to become role models for the next generation of women.

In this interview, Founding Director or PSK Environmental, Silvana Santomartino, shares how she became interested in environmental science and established her own business.

  • What sparked your initial interest in environmental science? How did that interest evolve over time?

My parents sparked my initial interest. My dad was a sheepherder in a small village in Italy who built an extravagant suburban vegetable garden when he migrated to Australia. I learnt about soil health and sustainability from him and I marvelled at the way he went about reusing and recycling resources. My mum taught me to appreciate our natural environment from an early age. We’d go for long walks and she’d often stop to admire Australian botanica. She has imparted her love of the Australian landscapes on me.

Although I grew up not knowing any scientists or women in professional positions, I knew from an early age that I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science. I was fortunate to have an amazing geography teacher at high school who inspired me during my teenage years. At university, I chose subjects that I enjoyed and that challenged me.  Even though I initially loathed chemistry, I persisted with it, determined to make sense of it, and eventually completed a PhD in environmental geochemistry.

  • Following your extensive career in geochemistry, what made you decide to start your own business?

I had been working for multi-national engineering and geotechnical companies for about 10 years. I decided to leave and start my own company with a work colleague as I was ready for a new challenge. I also craved having more control over the type of work that I did and how I allocated my work and home time.

  • What were the biggest challenges you experienced when starting your own business? How did you overcome them?

I started the business in 2013, during a downturn in the mining industry following the LNG boom. The downturn also affected non-mining industries in Queensland, so it was not the best time to start a business! At that time, it was difficult to win work as there was a lot of competition. We started with a small project and worked hard to build a good relationship with the client. The client came back to us with more work and continued coming back to us. They are still one of our major clients to this day.

My biggest challenge though was the unexpected death of my business partner, Henry, whom I heavily relied upon as a technical specialist and mentor, and who had been a father figure to me whilst living away from home. I had to rely on my established networks to get through that period, calling on people for favours! I will always be thankful to those who helped me during that difficult time. Going forward, I established a wider support network of mentors and have built a larger team to help manage the increasing workload.

  • For others considering starting their own business in STEM, what is your advice and what were the most pivotal decisions you made that led to the success and growth of your business?

As with any business start-up, you must have a good knowledge of your industry and your competitors and have a good understanding of what sets you apart from your competitors, because this will form part of your marketing strategy. As a female in a male-dominated industry, it was advantageous having a doctorate and being a specialist in my field at the time of starting my business because this gave clients confidence in me. Also, starting up a business means that you have to be a good all-rounder as you need to market your business, generate business by meeting with clients, network, build a team around you and undertake the technical work and administrative work. It is challenging!

The business has grown organically over time. We have had to adapt our business model by expanding our consultancy services to meet industry demands. Whilst our model has changed, the way in which we have done business has never changed; we care about our clients and their projects and for that reason, they come back to us. Equally important is to bring together a great team of people. I have energetic and motivated scientists and engineers who share a similar vision to me. Recognising each person’s strengths and helping them succeed keeps them happy and engaged and motivated in their work.

  • How have you seen diversity or a lack of diversity impact your particular line of work? Do you have examples of where it had a direct impact on a project or body of research?

Not specifically, however having Italian migrant parents, I have an appreciation of the different life skills inherent to a person with a CALD background and I have an awareness of how beneficial these life skills and experiences are to my business. In my line of work, we often need to break down complex ideas into simpler ones and communicate these ideas effectively with our clients. This is something that those of us with a CALD background are familiar with as it is the way we communicate with our non-English speaking parents.

About the expert

Silvana is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist and has a PhD in Environmental Geochemistry. She is a Founding Director of PSK Environmental, based in Brisbane. She has over 20 years’ of research and consulting experience in environmental geochemistry, particularly related to soil, rock and water quality assessments, management and treatment. Silvana has project managed a large range of soils investigation projects including Acid Sulfate Soil, Contaminated Land and Land Resources Assessments.  Silvana was President of the Queensland Branch of Soil Science Australia in 2017-2018 and was Secretary from 2011 to 2013. She is a guest lecturer in Acid Sulfate Soils at Griffith University, Queensland.

Image description: Portrait style headshot of Silvana smiling and looking straight at the camera. She wears a sleeveless black top, has shoulder-length wavy brown hair, and is wearing earrings.