We’ve been really lucky to have some terrific students work with us at ribit, who have gone on to roles with organisations like Atlassian, Google, EY, CBA, Amazon, Accelo and Airthings.
Jemma Lang is a ribit intern with a big future. This WonderGal from UNSW has impressed everyone with her ability to problem-solve and handle just about anything in a professional and positive way. She shares her ‘wise-beyond-her-years’ wisdom and top tips for students in this interview.
What are you studying and why?
I’m studying bioinformatics engineering at UNSW, and I’m somewhere in between my second and my third year. Bioinformatics is basically the study of computer systems or software to analyse biological data. There’s a focus on genetics: DNA, RNA, things like that.
I was the type of person that always wanted to be enrolled in a science or engineering course – bio and physics were my go-to in high school. For me, with bio and physics everything you learn just makes sense, there’s an underlying reason for everything that’s happening. And if it made sense and I could understand it, and I would perform well. I changed my mind ~100 times in the year leading up to my application. But I ultimately decided on engineering. Within engineering, I chose bioinformatics because for me it felt like the best of both worlds. I would be able to study the genetics and biology that really interested me and found quite easy to understand, as well as the challenging components that would land me a job in the future – the computer science – which I hadn’t had much experience with up until university. So, bioinformatics is part comfort and part challenge, I am stretched to my limits, but still within the area of science that I really enjoy.
What’s the best thing and hardest thing about studying at uni?
The best thing about university is that you are part of this massive community of students that are going through similar experiences to you. It’s a complete experience – the people that you’ll meet and what you actually learn and are taught. You can always go to Udemy or Google things, but it’s the students and the teachers that you build relationships with that are important and help you find meaning and purpose. This is especially true for my course – parts of it are challenging and other parts easy. I find myself slipping into the roles of seeking help from my peers and then giving help back as well.
University will challenge you. Even for students who are academically inclined, university will challenge you a lot more than high school. You’re really extending yourself no matter what degree you do, with more assignments and deadlines than you’ve had before.
The transition in particular is a struggle. When you’re going from high school to university, in the first year you’re often doing very general courses that may seem not to relate to your degree. And they can be challenging because you’re having to learn new skills in subjects you may not have expected. In my first year I did a lot of maths, engineering, physics, things like that which I hadn’t expected from a bioinformatics degree.
Another challenging part of university is time management. Exams and quizzes are given to you every week. You’re constantly challenged – there’s always something you can’t figure out, or something that you need to look for additional resources to tackle. But it’s also exceptionally rewarding because at the end of the day, you either get it wrong and someone will explain it to you, or you’ll find the answer and you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something really important.
What are you doing besides studying?
I’m a pretty typical student. I have to maintain two part time jobs and study at the same time. I have always loved sciences and math, and loved teaching. I’m quite a good communicator so I started working as a tutor teaching group classes in maths, physics, biology and chemistry. One of my co-workers in that company actually had a venture idea and we worked together on the startup. It became a quite successful student timetable scheduling app called Timeweave, which now has over 200k users. Through that venture I learnt about business management, gained experience talking to investors, and even leaned into growth hacking and marketing. I tried to learn every aspect possible about starting a small business. And that really sparked an interest in startups. Prior to that I wasn’t very entrepreneurial. As Timeweave’s focus began to change, I actually came to work for Ribit which is an amazing experience. I’ve been working as a product manager here. But it’s really about how you fit in and work with the team rather than what your role is. You do what is needed to make sure the team is successful. The kinds of things I do range from managing QA and tasks we need to complete to analysing data, and interviewing students and employers. It’s been a really awesome all-rounder role for me.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to learn or deal with in your life?
I think for me, the biggest challenge was learning to ask for help from people around me – whether that’s teachers or other students. I was actually a first-generation university student, no-one in my family has gone to university. Despite this, my parents were exceptionally supportive. There was nothing they wouldn’t do to help me gain an advantage academically.
Midway through year 10 was a really tough period for me. We were living in rural QLD and my mom went into hospital with severe respiratory distress, and was hospitalised for a month. They removed half of her lung and after a biopsy informed her that she had cancer. So, a week before Year 11 commenced, we moved to Sydney to be closer to better medical care. I didn’t know anyone in Sydney, had no friendship network, we hadn’t even picked a school to attend. As someone who is academic, I was trying to get into a selective school and tried 5 schools but none had any places left in Physics which I loved. So, I ended up at the local school near where we lived.
Up until that point, I had been part of a community with a strong network and group of friends. I now had to build a new support system of professional and social acquaintances from scratch. Because I had always been very, very independent, I struggled to ask for help. On entering university as an independent adult I’ve had to ask for help again, fortunately, this time, with students all going through the exact same experience as me.
What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
I would say in 10 years, I see myself working in bioinformatics. I’m not sure whether that means I’ll take the skills I learned in bioinformatics and apply that to a business model in that area, or whether that means I’ll be working as a bioinformatician. From the experience I’ve had so far, I really like business management and the business improvement side of things, so would love to be working in a start-up. That environment seems to suit me well at the moment.
I think I’d like to work in agribusiness – investigating and developing transgenic crops/GMOs and things like that. I think there’s a lot of potential there. As part of my university degree I‘ve researched the ethics of GMOs – and there are many large companies that are working in transgenics, producing and licensing GMO crops that are not affordable for smaller agricultural businesses. I want to see transgenic crops available to all farmers and see a shift in these companies from profit towards impact.
Are you thinking of further study?
I’m currently doing University part time rather than full time. This is because I believe it’s not about when you finish your degree – it’s about how much you’ve learnt in the period that you were studying.
University offers an exceptionally valuable experience in terms of the education – there is no competition – but combining uni with work experience is the best way to move forward for your career, and I believe it can be better to do it over a longer period of time.
I definitely would consider doing a Masters or a PhD. But I would want to wait until I had figured out what I was really passionate about. I know lots of people that are doing PhDs or further study who really don’t enjoy the process because they’re only looking towards the degree that they get at the end. I want to focus on and enjoy what I’m learning.
What are your thoughts about women in STEM?
Half of my degree is bio – the science with the highest proportion of women, and the other is computer science – probably the science with the least proportion of women at the moment. So, I go from classes that have 60 to 70% women to classes where sometimes I am the only girl in a group of 30 students. I’ve observed that where the numbers are small like in my computer science classes, the girls tend to be quieter, not as confident in what they’re saying because they may not feel as valued.
That’s one thing that I want to change, but we don’t want to stand against the boys, we want to stand up together. Fortunately, things are changing but slowly. I’m in all of the group chats in my classes and I’m seeing more girls being more engaged and active. Whatever can be done to support women in male dominated courses is exceptionally important. And for girls in general, don’t forget that you have a voice. If this is something that you want to do, give it your all.
What makes you happiest at work?
What makes me happiest is results. Working in a team allows you to share and enjoy in the achievements of everyone in the team, much more than where you’re working by yourself. I love the ability to cheer on and be cheered on in a team. And I think it’s really important that students work in an environment that is encouraging in that way.
We want to celebrate people’s achievements; we want to celebrate the project’s or business’ achievements. And that’s definitely what makes me happiest – looking at the stats at the end of the day, and saying we made a positive impact.
What makes you jump out of bed in the morning?
That’s easy – my pup Ivy. Ivy is a two-and-a-half-year-old Staffy who was rescued about a year ago. She was put on Gumtree ad for free which said “Going to the pound tonight.” I went to meet her immediately and there was this excitable, lovable, jumping-all-over-you pup. I just couldn’t let this dog go to the pound! It’s been an incredible journey with Ivy as she had trauma in her past life. She’s terrified of water and has some other quirks. But she wakes me up every morning, gets me exercising and gives me love when I come home.
Who are you inspired by?
I feel like it’s a lot easier to be inspired by people that are close to you. I admire aspects of so many people, like my bosses and colleagues I’ve worked with because of what they have achieved, and how they’ve done everything possible to make their dream a reality and that project valuable. I really take inspiration from that. The best place to be is in a place where you can find inspiration in the people around you.
What’s the hardest thing for students looking for a job and your best advice?
One of the hardest things initially is having something to put down on your resume. It doesn’t matter where you start – whether it’s Woolies or somewhere like that – all these jobs give you useful skills for the future.
Another hard thing is working out what you want to do – picking an industry area and figuring out how you’re going to get in there. As a student, you get to work in any industry as long as you have the passion and grit to pursue it.
A third challenge is dealing with your expectations about a job or career. Most students have ideas about what a role will be like. But when they start, it may not be what they expected. They may feel, when that happens, it’s a failure. But it’s not at all a failure, it’s just one part of their journey. If they hadn’t explored it, they wouldn’t have learnt the skills they did and come out of it with new knowledge, which will help them succeed in the long run.
It’s important to be able to communicate your value to a prospective employer. As a student this is hard to do when you don’t have experience. The biggest thing you can offer to an employer is passion, a willingness to learn, a willingness to exceed expectations and a desire to see the company succeed. And I think this is something that employers respond to, especially employers that are looking at hiring students. They understand that your skills are currently under development. So, whatever you can do to improve the business you’re working with, that shows initiative, that shows passion, will reward you in your career path – that’s my best advice!