You can’t be what you can’t see, says Corey Tutt, who is on a mission to inspire more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to pursue a career in science and technology.
“Books that are written by white men only show what one demographic of scientists knows,” he says. “That’s a problem because Aboriginal people are scientists too, people of colour are scientists too, women are scientists too”, says Tutt, a Westpac scholar and Kamilaroi man, in an interview with Wire.
Tutt was named Young Australian of the Year in 2020 for his work as founder and CEO of DeadlyScience, the organisation he set up to improve access to resources and provide opportunities for Indigenous kids in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths.
This year, he received a Westpac Scholars Social Change Fellowship, an opportunity for social entrepreneurs to access funding, professional networks, training, and leadership programs to drive social change.
"We need people like Westpac to support DeadlyScience by lending us the tools to build the charity," Tutt says. “We need more Indigenous kids creating charities and businesses, finding their passion and purpose.”
According to the government’s 2020 Australia's STEM Workforce Report, just 0.5 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community has a university qualification in STEM subjects, compared to 5.2 per cent among non-Indigenous Australians.
“I wanted to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids like me into STEM,” Tutt says. “I wanted to help people in remote communities that didn’t have the contacts, background, scholarships, or encouragement when they were younger to follow a pathway into science.”
Tutt’s inspiration for DeadlyScience traces back to his childhood, when he found he could connect with people through his love of animals and science.
“Making friends was hard for me growing up,” says Tutt. “But when I picked up that blue-tongued lizard and told people some cool facts about them, I always connected with others.”
From foraging in paddocks and playgrounds for venomous snakes and lizards, to being fascinated by bush science, Tutt says he idolised herpetologists like Harry Butler and Harold Cogger, and wanted to make wildlife documentaries like David Attenborough.
“I wanted to be the blackfella version of those men.”
But he knows from experience the obstacles many kids from Indigenous backgrounds have to overcome to realise their dreams.
“I come from a background of childhood trauma. School wasn’t easy for me. I ended up leaving school at 16, and worked three jobs,” he says. Not long after, Tutt tragically lost his best friend to suicide.
“My career advisor told me that I was better off sticking to a trade, or I’d end up dead or in jail, and at 17, the headkeeper at the zoo I worked in told me that I wouldn’t last long in the job.”
Tutt says he turned those words into motivation to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and disadvantage he experienced.
After discovering that a remote school had only 15 books in the whole library, Tutt set out to make a change. He started out giving science talks in the Sydney suburb of Redfern and expanded that over time to work with schools around the country.
Since then, DeadlyScience has grown to be Australia’s leading Indigenous STEM charity, working with over 800 schools, delivering over 8,500 boxes of resources across the country, and over 30,000 culturally appropriate books and resources focused on STEM. Schools involved with DeadlyScience have reported a 25% increase in engagement in STEM and increased attendance.
“Mob always support DeadlyScience,” he says. “Even people that aren’t my family – I always feel like I’m part of something that is bigger than myself. Aboriginal people everywhere cheer us on because they want to see our kids do well.”
Tutt’s work has led to him meeting Barack Obama and presenting his book to Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, but the moments that stand out in his career are when he shares his success with his elders, as they witnessed him receiving an Order of Australia.
“I’m very privileged,” Tutt says. “My grandfather didn’t have the best life growing up but the reason I know how to read today is because of him. My elders paved the way for me to succeed, and really break the cycle.”