Nyakuoy Yak

Colouring the Future: Breaking Barriers and Empowering Women and Minorities in white-dominated STEM fields

Nyakuoy Yak


Beginning as a refugee child and now undertaking a PhD, my greatest strengths include perseverance and empathy. I know what it's like to escape a war, to lose loved ones, to immigrate to a foreign land and having to attend school/socialise without knowing the language. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 13 but I remained hypervigilant, completely understanding and empathic of the emotional experiences/mental health of all those around me. I learnt to laugh often, not take myself seriously and have endless passion to continue teaching/sharing the joys of STEM with young women and youth from disadvantage backgrounds. I believe/practise a collaborative, community driven, value-based leadership and approach everyone with unwavering love/empathy. I have mentored/tutored young girls and ESL students for over 10yrs, involved in various science initiatives and non-STEM related associations. During my PhD, I continue to advocate for diversity in STEM so disadvantage children see themselves represented.


My existence as a young, educated black woman is inherently political and undeniably visible. I am often the only black person, and one of the few women that get invited to the table. I understand the responsibility and weight that carries, speaking for minority groups that are otherwise unrepresented. I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to shed light on the lack of diversity in science. Without fixing the issue of equality and inclusion, the gender pay gap will continue to grow, and scientific research questions will always be derived from male led, euro-centric positions. As a young woman in STEM, I have surrounded myself with various mentors including a young First Nations leader that taught me: “one is token, two is a conversation” in response to a discussion about the burden of being the first ‘minority’ in a given space and how that translates to other minorities feeling welcome in the future. I have learnt so much about how to navigate my professional life, deal with micro-racism, push for diversity and how to use my academic skills to give back to my community. It is important for me to protect my energy when being invited to spaces that are purely tokenistic and no active discussion/change can occur, and I always invite other women/minorities to these spaces and start opening opportunities for them. We need continuous engagement within our communities and discussions for community-derived solutions for the complex array of political, social, and economic issues concerning Scientific Research and Innovation in Australia.

My professional aspirations are broken into 10yr increments, for example in 30-40yrs, I hope to become a chancellor or Pro-Vac of a university, a job that perfectly combines my love for research, policy, business and teaching. 5-10yrs from now, I want to become a Senior Microscopist/ Imaging Scientist either through Postdoctoral Research, own consultancy business or via industry. Post-PhD, I want to be involved in the development/optimisation of the next generation of optical microscopes for biomedical imaging. In order to be successful, I would need to understand the design, implementation, testing, coding of optical software systems and analysis of large data sets. Microscopy facilities in Australia exceed world standard, however development and optimisation of modern commercial microscopes are done overseas. One of the limitations of modern, advanced microscopy, is that development and design are undertaken by physicists and not biologists, which results in the occasional 'oversights'. Recognising the opportunity to improve this, I sought opportunities abroad and was accepted into an Optical Biology PhD program at the University of College London. Due to covid-19, I was unable to participate, however this setback only emboldened my desire to make a difference in the industry. With the Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship, I will be able to expand my microscopy knowledge and travel overseas to learn from industry professionals. Using my newfound-knowledge, I hope to develop and install new imaging technologies that would have a profound effect on the biomedical health science and Cell biology/Immunology fields in Queensland and Australia.

Role Model

I am proactive, dedicated to science and genuinely want to make a difference to my communities both in Australia and abroad. As a scientist, I have dedicated a considerable amount of time to diversifying my research and technical skills in numerous interdisciplinary fields. In my(relatively) short time in academia (8yrs including undergrad), I have conducted various, independent projects (>3months) in the following fields: Cell Biology, Neuroscience/Electrophysiology, Synthetic/Medicinal Chemistry, Insect Genetics and Invertebrate/Insect Virology. My passion for science is driven by three desires: 
1. to unlock the cellular world. 
2. pull apart/understand the optics of advance microscopy systems and 
3. Identify and address the diversity issues prevalent in STEM. 

I have been fortunate enough to find a lab that will support my goals and foster my love of learning. Despite my unfortunate upbringing and my struggle with my neurodivergence (ASD), I constantly remind myself of the privileges in escaping the war, growing up in Australia as a refugee and having personal and professional support networks that helped me obtain an education (ie. UQ Young Achievers Program/Scholarship, and Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship). At times my ASD can get the better of me- I have crippling social anxiety and immeasurable amount of childhood trauma- but I am also driven, future focused and enjoy interacting with people. I am loud and vocal about my mental health journey, especially as we struggle to acknowledge the issue of declining mental health within my culture. I consider it a civil duty of mine to ensure the(small) platform/voice I have is used to highlight and uplift those without a voice. 

I continuously engage with my community and lead discussions for community-derived solutions for the complex array of political, social and economic issues concerning Africans and Australians alike. As president for UQ African Students association, we created monthly community discussions about issues concerning Africans at home and abroad. Some of the topics discussed included ‘Skin Bleaching and Eurocentric Standards of Beauty’, ‘Friend or Foe: The Role of China in Africa’, ‘Navigating Racism in Multicultural Australia’ and our largest turnout (>400 people) was ‘Tribalism, Patriotism, or Pan-Africanism? The formation of the African Union’. I started these discussion nights because I felt quite isolated as a young black woman undertaking a science degree in a predominately white university. I was the only black student in my undergraduate cohort (BSc) and at each of the institutes I have worked at thus far. At times, I struggled to continue my degree due to other's societal and culture mistrust of western education and science. I threw myself into South Sudanese/African organizations so I could help students who might be interested in the joining STEM or struggle with mental health (a topic not acknowledged by most Africans). To date, I have successful mentored various youths (primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds) through these organizations and other STEM outreach programs and UQ initiatives. I work towards a day when refugee students have the necessary support systems, and girls can see high education and STEM as worthy career options.


I have spent my entire youth and adolescence volunteering for programs (volunteer/paid) to enhance development of my leadership skills, mentorship, youth mental health and commitment to notable STEM outreach and advocacy programs. In high school(2010-2014), I volunteered in various youth programs in Toowoomba including Smith Family (2015) and Disability programs w/Saint Vincent's de Paul(2013-6). My roles ranged from running youth camps, providing assistance to students with reading disabilities and developing effective ways of engaging with youth about mental health. I also volunteered at local programs based on my various interests, for example coached Youth Mountaineers Basketball Competition in 2013-4(sports), Coordinator/volunteer for Vinnies Buddies Day (mentoring) and Kid Camp 2015- 2016(mental health). I was awarded a UQ Young Achievers scholarship and later nominated for the Lions Australian Youth of the Year Competition, for which I won Regional and State champion. I coordinated the development of a free breakfast program with my high school chaplain for disadvantaged youth, and an afterschool refugee tutoring program for ESL students(2013). The skills I developed during my 3yrs as an ESL tutor were later utilized when I planned and taught a science class at a rural school in Sudan(2017) and later became a UQ tutor for Faculty of Science(2017) and School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences(2019-current). 

Upon moving to Brisbane(2015), I engaged as executive member for community organizations like South Sudanese Queensland Youth Council, African Australian Committee and African Australian Women’s Association, organizations I am still heavily involved with today. Throughout my undergraduate (2015-2018), I volunteered extensively for numerous student-lead UQ associations as president including Biological Sciences Society(BioSoc,2016 co-founder), African Students Association(ASA,2017), Women in Science Association(WiSA,2018), Students Association of Science Societies(SASS, founding member, 2017/8)) and Students of the IMB Association(SIMBA,2021). As a MPhil student(2018-22), my involvement with SIMBA had included the running/organisation of social events, creating workshops, and planning/engaging in weekly, fortnightly and monthly meetings with various members of the Institute (Director, A/Director(s), Postgraduate coordinator(s) and the student body). My biggest area of interest was identifying student issues and developing coordinated solutions with the help of the Institute HDR Liaison Officer. Social isolation, lack of inclusion/equity, burnout and poor mental health had been identified as key areas of concern. Consequently, we created a student mentoring/buddy program, established a student support team (professional staff), annual cohort meetings, student retreat and wrote a Student Wellness Survey to be administered biannually. 

Concurrent to student engagement and leadership at UQ, I was extensively involved with STEM initiatives including, Wonder of science(2021-22), Pint of Science(2018-9), IMB science ambassador(2021-22), and executive/committee member with local (Brisbane Immunologist Association, and Australian Society of Microbiology) and international science associations(BlackInX). In addition, I was deeply involved with, and actively practised my culture with people who speak my native tongue. We(community) still have a lot of issues to work on and I love fostering cultural discussions, and develop approaches/solutions. Following graduation of my bachelors and MPhil, I was awarded UQ Employability award(2018), UQ Future Leader (2018/ 2021) and a prestigious Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship to undertake my PhD. 


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