Cathy Foley grew up as a "closet researcher" but was preparing herself for a teaching career when a chance encounter abruptly changed her course.
The CSIRO chief scientist hadn't planned on a life in research then, until a pivotal conversation with her former university biology lecturer during her studies.
The mentor told her she wasn't going to be a teacher, but that she would complete an honours degree, achieve first class, and go on to work in science.
"No one had ever said that to me before," Dr Foley said.
She had grown up not knowing what scientists did, at a time women didn't commonly take up science careers. The conversation changed her thinking.
"That was my 'aha!' moment, and it shows how mentors are so important."
Dr Foley, speaking on Monday ahead of a summit on public sector women in leadership in Canberra, said networks had been important as she advanced in her career.
It took a day at the CSIRO during a placement on a university break to show her she wanted to work there.
In her 35 years at the Commonwealth's scientific research organisation, she's won awards, earned repute for her work in superconducting, and become its first dedicated chief scientist.
Gender inequality created obstacles on the way. Dr Foley said the improvement since she started had been massive.
"It just wasn't set up for having women in the workforce for science, particularly physical sciences," she said.
At times early in her career, she wasn't taken seriously. As she installed a gravimetric analysis machine, a sales representative commented he hadn't seen a woman use a screwdriver before.
Her first period away from work on maternity leave turned into a "disaster", she said, when the person who replaced her refused to give up the job.
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Dr Foley struggled to find female role models, particularly women who had taken parental leave during their careers.
There were also what she calls "micro-inequalities" on the way, including through assumptions made about her.
Dr Foley said CSIRO had changed significantly for the better since.
"It's all around culture and supporting anyone who feels they are being harassed in any way and that they feel supported," she said.
She will share the insights and skills she gained facing barriers created by gender inequality at the summit, Public Sector Women in Leadership, on Wednesday.
One of them is the importance of networks. Another is resilience, or what Dr Foley felt in her career was like "surviving". She said she had learnt from obstacles, which had made her build skills she might not otherwise have gained.
"That's where you get your grit, I think you actually get a lot more capacity and capability from that," Dr Foley said.