In the pink: lighting the way for the future of STEM

26 April 2023

A high-tech plant lab at a Melbourne high school bares the distinctive pinked-hued stamp of Professor Neena Mitter and her team at The University of Queensland.

The unlikely collaboration between a world class researcher and a high school was sparked by a conversation Southern Cross Grammar Principal Matt Dodd had with a year five student.

“I’d noticed that this young girl who was very strong in maths and science hadn’t applied for our select entry STEM program and asked her why,” Mr Dodd said.

Southern Cross Grammar student bent over scientific equipment in pink-coloured laboratory
A Southern Cross Grammar student in the plant tissue laboratory

“The student told me that STEM was robots and electrical engineering, neither of which excited her.

“Much as I like those things myself as a science nerd, I know there is more to STEM.

“Kids today really want to solve problems and are interested in science in terms of social good.

“And it hit me like a ton of bricks that we have never really done stems in STEM, green science, and I just happened to watch ABC”s Catalyst that week and saw Professor Mitter’s work on avocado featured on the program.”

Mr Dodd said he was struck by Professor Mitter’s laboratory with the bright pink lights in the background.

“I decided to build a plant laboratory as the centrepiece of our STEM precinct.

“I wanted the space to be dramatic and I suddenly imagined it lit pink, and my thoughts coalesced, so I reached out to Professor Mitter.

“To my absolute delight, she was so accessible and generous with her response,” he said.

three women looking at a plant sample in a beaker in a lab lit with pink lights
Dr Jayeni Hiti Bandaralage, Dr Alice Hayward and Professor Neena Mitter in the laboratory at UQ.

Professor Mitter and her Centre for Horticultural Science colleague Dr Jayeni Hiti Bandaralage then helped with the planning, advising the school what lights and equipment would be needed for a tissue culture lab.

Professor Mitter says she was more than happy to share her teams' expertise.

“It is heartening to see a principal being so progressive in providing the best possible educational skills and experiences for his students,” she said.

“And so progressive in translating his ideas into reality as well.

“This sort of innovation augers well for the future of science education.”

Professor Mitter said she was looking forward to visiting Southern Cross Grammar to see the ‘pink lab’ in person as soon as possible.

“I would also like to see if we could have some of these talented STEM students visit UQ and to see our facilities and encourage them to continue their studies,” she said.

Mr Dodd said the year five student whose comments started the ball rolling was one of those who signed up to use the lab.

“Perhaps even more heart-warming was after the renovation, a little first year girl said to me ‘oh that’s the pink light I can see across the oval’,” he said.

“When we’re trying to get young people into science and in particular young women, having them feel so connected to something that can solve problems is fantastic.”

Mr Dodd said he was hoping other high schools might follow his lead.

“It’s now a terrific resource that has captured a lot of attention in secondary schools, and if another 100 schools have their pink lab, because of the association we have had with UQ, then to me that is passing on the goodwill that Professor Mitter showed to us.”

Professor Mitter is hoping those pink lights provide the spark to the next generation of scientific breakthroughs in plant science.

Images are available via Dropbox.

Media: Professor Neena Mitter,; QAAFI Media, Natalie MacGregor,, +61 (0)409 135 651; Katie Aquilina: SCG Communications Manager,; +61 (0)3 8363 2000. 

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a research institute at The University of Queensland supported by the Queensland Government via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.