Empowering First Nations youth: Indigenous scientist Dr Katrina Wruck’s inspiring story

In the world of scientific research, where every discovery adds a tile to the vast mosaic of knowledge, scientist and Mabuigilaig and Goemulgal woman, Dr Katrina Wruck, stands out as a beacon of hope and the epitome of dedication.

A postdoctoral research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) currently on secondment at the University of Melbourne, Katrina is revolutionising environmental chemistry with her work on zeolites and her efforts to destroy forever chemicals, as well as inspiring Indigenous youth to follow their dreams and study science.

Trailblazers: From academic insights to real-world impacts
Navigating the many educational pathways to becoming an impactful scientist can be challenging. So to help you understand your options and share a little inspiration for your journey, Cosmos Magazine interviewed five trailblazing scientists who’ve demonstrated academic excellence and whose research is producing elegant solutions to some of the most challenging problems of our time. Read the full series here.


From an early age, Katrina, like many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, faced significant challenges that could easily have derailed her future career. In grade two she was told she’d never read because she learned too slowly and in year 10 she wasn’t allowed to do ‘hard’ maths because her teachers didn’t think she was capable. Both times she proved them wrong, but they never truly challenged her. Bored and feeling unsupported, she ended up hanging out in the university down the road during school hours.

Then that magical day came. She was accepted into the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Bachelor of Applied Science (Chemistry). But, living at the southern end of the Gold Coast, Katrina faced significant logistical challenges. She had to walk 40 minutes to get to the train station, then sit on the train for over an hour, and then face a further walk. As a 17-year-old girl, to make it on time for an 8 am lecture, she had to get up at 4 am and walk in the dark. 

So, Katrina moved out of home and into a share house. And she got a job to support herself as she moved through each year of her undergraduate and honours degrees. She received a Chemistry, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering (CPME) scholarship to support her while she completed her PhD, and then she became the inaugural participant in the QUT Indigenous Australians PhD/Professional Doctorate to Postdoctoral Fellowship (P2P) program, which gave her funding for a postdoctoral fellowship for up to four years.

Clearly, the road to academia was a bumpy one for this intrepid First Nations scientist. But her perseverance paid off. Now, she’s excelling in science, including winning the 2022 Queensland Women in STEM Prize and being a role model for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aspiring to study science at uni.

READ MORE: Postgrad pathways at QUT: Paving the way for tomorrow’s science and technology leaders

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Dr Katrina Wruck, sharing her love of science with First Nations high school students.

Pioneering research

Katrina’s journey from a curious student to a respected researcher is marked by her significant contributions to the field of environmental chemistry.

Her doctoral research focused on the immensely useful Swiss-cheese-like class of materials called zeolites, which can act as catalysts, adsorbents, and ion-exchangers, making them invaluable in processes like water purification. And her method for converting naturally occurring zeolite from mining waste into zeolite LTA is set to form the basis of a patent. 

Katrina’s postdoctoral research focuses on breaking down dangerous, persistent, and completely unnatural forever chemicals into more benign elements like carbon dioxide and fluoride. This vital work could lead to groundbreaking advancements in reducing global contamination and safeguarding ecological and human health. And it’s particularly important in vulnerable polar regions where forever chemicals are bioaccumulating despite no significant human presence.

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Dr Katrina Wruck, proud Mabuigilaig and Goemulgal industrial chemist.

Katrina’s innovative approaches to solving complex chemical problems have earned her a reputation as a forward-thinking scientist who’s not afraid to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing the field today. Her research is not just about the pursuit of knowledge; it’s also about its application for the greater good, as she’s deeply committed to using her expertise to address environmental issues. Perhaps even more valuable, her work and her tenacity act as a beacon of hope for Indigenous youth.

Inspiring pathways

Katrina’s not only known for her scientific acumen but also for her steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion within the academic community. For example, she’s a member of several Reconciliation Action Plan committees, where she actively participates in policy-making and program development to foster diversity and inclusion at institutional levels.

Perhaps Katrina’s pride and joy is the STEM workshops she frequently runs in Indigenous communities. Speaking with her, it’s clear it means a lot to her to be able to show young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they can have a career in science. In fact, it’s not uncommon for children to come up to her after a workshop and tell her they didn’t know they could do science as a career.

A quote from first nations scientist dr katrina wruck that says “they tell me i’m the first indigenous scientist they’ve ever met. And that really tells me that what i’m doing with this outreach is so important. ”

Katrina is so passionate about community outreach that she uses the speaker’s fees she accumulates at a wide variety of events to fund trips to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A perfect example is her upcoming trip home to Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait Islands, which can only be reached by helicopter. As you can imagine, helicopter rides aren’t cheap, so she’s been saving up for some time!

Empowering dreams

Katrina exemplifies dedication in her work, transforming the landscape of environmental chemistry and inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to explore science. Indeed, her journey reflects a blend of groundbreaking research and passionate community outreach. If you’d like to follow in her footsteps and kickstart your research career, check out the P2P program and the wide range of exciting research projects that are looking for budding scientists.

First nations scientists, dr katrina wruck, is surrounded by female high school students during an inspirational outreach visit.
Dr Katrina Wruck, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), surrounded by female high school students during an outreach visit.

Trailblazers Profile

Subject matter expertise:

  • Industrial chemistry
  • Environmental science / green chemistry
  • Zeolites
  • Science communication

Academic background:

Alternative educational pathways:

Katrina was the inaugural participant in the QUT Indigenous Australians PhD/Professional Doctorate to Postdoctoral Fellowship (P2P) program. P2P provides funding for PhD or professional doctorate study and then guarantees at least three years of employment (with built-in career progression) as a postdoctoral fellow. Alternatives include a traditional PhD scholarship and/or Indigenous Postgraduate Research Award (IPRA) followed by a postdoctoral fellowship.

Current work:

  • Katrina is the 2024 Deadly Science Ambassador.
  • Katrina is also the 2023 Inspiring Australia Queensland Ambassador.
  • In 2024, she was elected to the Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group of Science and Technology Australia.
  • In 2023, she was elected as a committee member on the Equity and Diversity Committee of Science and Technology Australia.
  • In 2023, she joined the Faculty of Engineering and IT Indigenous Advisory Council (FIET) at the University of Melbourne.
  • Also in 2023, she was elected to the Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group of the Australian Academy of Science.
  • While Katrina is a QUT postdoctoral fellow, the P2P program includes the option of spending a year at another university, so Katrina is currently on secondment to the University of Melbourne.

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