Spotlight on Diversity at CSIRO’s Data61

By Dee Lotrian March 19th, 2020

To celebrate Harmony Day we are casting the spotlight on the rich diversity within CSIRO’s Data61.  We are talking to Manali Rane and Rodolfo García-Flores,  who tell us about their cultural backgrounds and why they chose Australia as their home.

Diversity at CSIRO's Data61

Manali performing at Navratri festival

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Manali Rane and I am the Finance & Projects Officer for Data61 based at Eveleigh, NSW. I was born and brought in Gujarat (birthplace of current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi), India. In 2006 my family migrated to Australia. We stayed in Adelaide for two years before calling Sydney our home.

What made your family chose Australia as their home?

We had the opportunity to either migrate to Canada or Australia and my parents chose the latter, with the weather being the one of the main reasons (my Dad didn’t want to wake up at 3am to plough snow from driveway). There was also a better “work-life” balance ratio, outdoor lifestyle and employment opportunities.

Australians have taught me to be more open-minded, thinking how can we make a better for ourselves, whilst contributing to the society. In my experience, most Australians are welcoming, down to earth, generous and friendly, just don’t be offended by the gentle teasing. It does take some time to getting used to it.

Tell us about some of the most significant Indian customs that your family observes.

Diwali (Hindu New Year) and Navratri have  to be my most favourite of many Indian festivals. The religious significance of Diwali varies regionally but the main message it celebrates is victory over darkness and the victory of good over evil. It also marks the harvesting period and celebration for farmers.

It’s very much like Christmas: we wake early in the morning, clean the house (equivalent to spring cleaning), offer our prayers to various deities, decorate our homes with lights and wear new clothes. We host huge family gathering during Diwali and various festival-specific delicacies are made for a feast with family as well as we exchange gifts as token of love and probably the only time when gluttony is not considered to be sin (I’ll stand by that!)

Navratri, Festival of Nine Nights, (Chinese call it the Nine Emperor Gods Festival) is one of the most sacred festivals in Hinduism where we worship Goddess Durga or Shakti, which represents the energy of the universe, in her nine beautiful forms with great reverence for positivity and eradicating negativity. Again same principle as Diwali, it is a celebration of victory of good over evil, light over dark. In my home town, Gujarat, people perform Garba dance to the drum beats in circular form using claps or using dandiyas (sticks) surrounding the goddess by wearing vivid and colourful outfits. I have been part of several community-based charity events where I have performed on stage to various dignitaries in Sydney and I continue to enjoy it.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Rodolfo García-Flores, I am a Research Scientist and Team Leader (Optimisation Under Uncertainty) in the Optimisation and Financial Risk Analysis group and my background is in Chemical Engineering. My area of expertise is Operations Research and Optimisation, which means that I apply Mathematics to analyse industrial and business processes and to find out “better” (i.e., more efficient, less wasteful, faster, less costly) ways to operate with the available resources. The techniques my team and I use can be applied to many productive activities like resource management (e.g., mining, agriculture, fisheries), services (education, hospitals, government) and industry (manufacturing, quality control, productivity analysis, finance), and we are especially interested in solving problems (and developing methodologies) where there are multiple possible scenarios, so we can assess them and provide a solution that is robust and reliable, so we can account for uncertainty.

Where are you originally from?

I come from Guanajuato, Mexico, traditionally a mining and agricultural region, but which is industrialising very rapidly, with a very important car industry nowadays. I also spent a while in Mexico City studying at the National University, and lecturing in the university in Monterrey, a city in the northern state of Nuevo León. I arrived to Melbourne as a posdoc in January 2006, straight to the Operations Research group of CSIRO Mathematics, Informatics and Statistics.

What made you chose Australia as your home?

In Mexico we hear very little about Australia, except for all the progressive and forward-thinking initiatives that were happening in the lead to the Sydney Olympics in the 90’s (I remember especially that in those days Oz was on top of the table in educational rankings). When I was doing my PhD in Leeds Uni in the UK, I learned a lot more about Australia and NZ, and as a graduate student I especially learned about the good Science that CSIRO does. I also love the outdoors and Australia has beautiful landscapes. I used to do caving in Leeds and I got back to it recently here in Victoria.

Tell us some of the most significant traditions that your family observes?

As a mostly Catholic country, Christmas is big in Mexico and it is the time when all the family gets together. My relatives have a farm and the family still meets there on Christmas Eve to pray, to have the traditional dinner and to catch up. Dinner would be cod, turkey, tamales, atole, fruit punch, apple salad, etc. For children there were always piñatas full of lollies and fruit and little toys, and it was a lot of fun hitting and smashing them and then outrunning the others to catch the best bits. On Christmas Eve we would place the figure of baby Jesus in the nativity set after praying, and it would stay there until February 2 (Candlemas), when there would be another big dinner with tamales.

Day of the Dead (November 2) is very well known all over the world now, but traditionally it is a closed-doors remembrance day for family members and friends who left us. Families decorate a corner of their home with flowers and coloured paper, and put portraits of those who left before us, as well as some of their favourite foods for one night so they can come back and enjoy them with the living. Now people do it more openly to assert our traditions in contrast American Halloween, but it is meant to be an intimate, spiritual exercise to come to terms with the loss of our loved ones.

Why do you think is important to celebrate cultural diversity and what can CSIRO’s Data61 do more of to make you feel supported at your workplace?

Cultural diversity enriches ideas and initiatives, so that our projects are more innovative and creative. People’s backgrounds are part of their identity, and feeling that others respect our roots and upbringing boosts commitment and motivation. Acknowledging diversity empowers everyone, otherwise our talents go to waste.

I feel CSIRO does a pretty good job of encouraging diversity in the workforce. I feel we need to have more exchanges with BD and also allow smaller projects, so we can really support SMEs. CSIRO has a bias towards working with big corporations. We have to encourage diversity there too!