Shaping society with biostatistics

14 September 2020

Biostatistics researcher Dr Barbara Kachigunda is no stranger to being in the minority. While studying her undergraduate degree, she was the only woman in a class of 100. Now the recent PhD graduate is not only passionate about increasing diversity in STEMM, but also the importance of biostatistics for authentic research outcomes.

“Women, and especially women of colour are underrepresented in STEMM, and this is something I am passionate about helping bring about change,” says Barbara.

Choosing a unique path

Barbara’s upbringing played a key role in nurturing her talent and passion for mathematics and science.  “My parents (both retired educators) taught me to be ambitious, fearless and take up challenges,” she says. “I believe this formed a firm foundation for my career in research.”

Barbara grew up in Zimbabwe, which she explains was once well known as the “bread basket” of southern Africa. Careers in agriculture are highly valued and promoted to university graduates, but Barbara chose a different path to addressing issues of food security and improved agricultural production: a double degree in Mathematics and Biological Sciences.

“I was the only one studying that subject combination and the only woman taking maths in a class of over 100 students,” she recalls. “When I started off, not many people were specialists in biostatistics. Colleagues and other people were intrigued as to why I chose to do such a unique specialisation.”

Barbara’s multidisciplinary skills and qualifications have proven to be one of her greatest career assets, allowing her to work across diverse industries such as education, health, mining, and agriculture. Upon graduating, Barbara took up a research role at Zimbabwe’s Department of Research and Specialist Services, a centralised research centre for agriculture. She worked under the Head of the Biometrics Unit, Dr Graham McLaren, who she describes as an excellent mentor. The experience showed her the possibilities that a career in biostatistics could offer — “with enough commitment and hard work. It highlighted to me the importance of nurturing talent and mentoring future generations.”

Addressing food security and female empowerment

Barbara went on to work on several projects with international organisations, including but not limited to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre; the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics; Innovations for Poverty Alleviation; and the Southern Africa Development Cooperation Regional Early Warning System. She also held two academic posts at Midlands State University and the University of Namibia.

“I have a passion for showcasing multidisciplinary research,” explains Barbara. One of her projects examined the gender balance in goat production in the Mwenezi District of Zimbabwe, where women are the primary workers. Barbara’s research “showed that women are the powerful ‘silent’ decision makers in their respective homes, although societal and cultural norms did not award them this status in public.”

Barbara has used her platform as a researcher to highlight the importance of strategic data collection and analysis for making critical management decisions objectively, for the benefit of society. While working in Namibia, she was involved in a national livestock management project that put her in contact with the Prime Minister’s office. “I had the opportunity to address a high-powered policy delegation, and being a woman, it left an indelible mark in that country.”

After moving with her family to Australia in 2012, Barbara continued to stay abreast of key industry developments in biostatistics. In 2014, she participated in Chevron’s Women in Engineering Initiative, which provides an opportunity for women to learn valuable foundation skills needed for employment in the resources sector or higher STEMM education pathways.


Statistics in the context of environmental biosecurity

In 2015, Barbara began her PhD in biostatistics and biosecurity at Murdoch University’s Harry Butler Institute, which champions research at the intersection of business and biodiversity. She explains that the increased pace of globalisation, compounded by ecommerce, has resulted in increases in the spread of pests and disease, making this discipline more important than ever. Her project utilised data analytics to unravel the underlying complex systems related to border interceptions of non-indigenous species on Barrow Island (located off the Pilbara coast of Western Australia), in order to mitigate adverse effects on the island’s fauna and flora. “This allowed me to grow my statistical knowledge in the context of environmental biosecurity,” says Barbara, whose PhD was awarded in September 2020.

Earlier this year, she was awarded with a postdoctoral Fulbright Future Scholarship to pursue a collaborative research project with the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University in the United States, beginning in 2021. “The project focuses on bio-surveillance of wheat pathogens. It will benefit Australia’s wheat industry and is at the core of my passion: exploring pertinent global issues on food security.”

Throughout her PhD, Barbara supported the community through volunteering endeavours and career development activities; including the Murdoch Student Emerging Leaders programme; and acted as chairperson for the Young Statisticians Western Australia branch, an affiliate of the Statistical Society of Australia. She also continues to serve as a mentor for Chevron, encouraging women to pursue careers in science, volunteering during orientation activities, and speaking at graduation ceremonies.

Values in action

This year, Barbara was an invited speaker at Murdoch University’s celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March. She also participated in the Women in STEMM Symposium in August 2020, where three women from her university shared their inspiring life experiences as scientists and the impact of their work on society.

“Knowing that Murdoch University has committed to Athena SWAN reassures me that they take gender equity and diversity seriously,” says Barbara.

Murdoch was awarded an Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze Award in February 2020 and Barbara has personally observed the SAGE institution’s commitment to gender equity, diversity and inclusion; including improved parenting facilities on campus; Women in STEMM Research Symposiums; a Diversity and Inclusion Calendar; and more women in senior academic leadership positions.

Barbara believes initiatives like these are of paramount importance to her university, the higher education and research sector, and society as a whole. “Normalising things like family-friendly facilities at work and flexible working arrangements means a more inclusive and diverse workforce. This can only be of huge benefit to Murdoch in the output of work, a happier workforce and attracting students who believe in the same core values promoted by SAGE.”

Innovation, gender equity and cultural awareness

“Having a more diverse and inclusive workplace means more creativity and innovation, which is critical in STEMM and research,” says Barbara. “We all suffer from unconscious bias and for STEMM industries to continue to be impactful to society, we need to attract and retain diverse talent to this industry.”

Barbara sees biosecurity and digital agriculture as priority research areas for Australia’s future. “Pests and diseases do not recognise political boundaries, and as scientists, it is inevitable that we work collaboratively to address pertinent issues and ensure global food security.”

To remain competitive on the global stage, she believes that we need to adapt to the changing face of globalisation, automation, and technology; as well as educate the next generation about the benefits of STEMM. “We have to start from home in encouraging our children to be creative, culturally aware of their environment and enjoy STEMM and the benefits it brings to the world.”

Barbara is especially enthusiastic about applying her skills to work on holistic solutions for national and global issues. “I am glad that the ability to apply data in solving complex problems has become an important life skill and I am right in the middle of this impactful discipline, which I was not aware of twenty years ago!”