Tomorrow’s Heroes: Macinley Butson

One of six Australian creators, innovators and advocates profiled in our new series, scientist Macinley Butson always saw science as a hobby — investigation was one of her pastimes.

Article by Jen Nurick

The inventor Macinley Butson. Photography by Kelly Geddes.

What does it take to earn a seat in the class of 2021’s most inspiring young women? Is it a climate strike that catalyses a global movement, as initiated by a teenage Greta Thunberg? Or a poem that makes the world pause, as only Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s swearing-in ceremony could do? For 21-year-old Macinley Butson, originally from Wollongong, New South Wales, it was a gift for the scientific.

“Science, for me, was always a hobby — investigation was one of my pastimes,” she says, matter-of-factly, as she explains how she found her calling at seven years old. When her parents refused to further indulge her obsession with sunglasses (her collection numbered 15 pairs), Butson, in second grade, developed her own. “I did heaps of research, looked at polarising sunglasses, what the best design was, how to let more light in,” she says. “I made this unattractive pair of sunglasses that had two layers, which were polarising lenses, and if you twisted one — it was connected by magnets — it would adjust the darkness depending on how bright it was outside.” Her vision clear, she set about conquering new horizons, tasking herself with an annual project ever since.

At 16, she created Smart Armour: a copper scale-mail armour used to shield the contralateral breast from excess radiation during breast cancer treatment. (The idea came to her in a day-dream while bored in class, as she pored over the ruins of ancient Rome.) Her inexperience proved a revelation, not a handicap. “I didn’t know what the industry standards were and so I wanted to go and find out for myself,” she says of testing different metals. Her discovery? Copper was 20 per cent more effective at the skin’s surface than standardised lead and could reduce radiation exposure to the untreated breast by up to 80 per cent.

Butson's T-shirt design features the names of women who have won a Nobel Prize for work in the sciences.

A close friend’s passing from cancer shortly after reified her findings, marking an irrevocable inflection point in Butson’s approach to invention. “It showed me why I do what I do,” she says, noting that Smart Armour solidified her credentials and helped win her the title of 2018 NSW Young Australian of the Year. “It became so much more than just my passion and hobby. It became my way to improve people’s lives and really make a difference.”

After that, Butson’s goalposts shifted to helping developing communities access clean water. In 2019, her Sodis sticker, used to measure UV exposure for solar disinfection of water, won Butson the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, which was awarded by Crown Princess Victoria. Now in her third year of university, studying Materials Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales, Butson is witness to the dearth of diversity in STEM subjects.

“I found a love for science when I was so young and didn’t have any of those ideals already,” she admits, noting that she was one of only two women in a class of 28 at her first engineering tutorial. “But I recognise there are many girls that that does make them think twice because they’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be the only girl in the room.’” The same goes for First Nations and socio-economically under-privileged students. And Butson is determined to change the sector’s profile.

Photographer Kelly Geddes took this photo remotely during a period of lockdown.

Communication is key. Having worked through a period of anxiety and panic attacks, Butson now seizes every speaking engagement, using them as an opportunity to connect with aspiring STEM students. Her not-for-profit, Passionately Curious (which borrows its name from the words of Albert Einstein, one of Butson’s heroes), provides equal access to children in primary and secondary education. “It’s at that school level that we’re already starting to divide students based on circumstances they have no input into,” she says. Passionately Curious gives them “opportunities that they might not otherwise have, with the hope they’ll develop a passion for STEM”.

Butson warns against underestimating youth. She says people her age possess a unique trinity of advantages: a fresh perspective, unbridled passion and a willingness to advocate loudly for causes they care about. “If you can take those aspects in a young person and nurture them,” she says, “that’s a real key to driving change.” She’s eyeing universities, schools and local councils for support. “Young people may have the ideas, the passion and the drive, but we do sometimes lack the skills to turn those ideas into realities,” she says. “That’s where professionals, industry, local community projects can really get young people on board, mentor them and give them the skills, help them with the frameworks and provide that shoulder to lean on to allow them to excel.” Who said youth was wasted on the young?

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHY: At the time T Australia commissioned this portfolio, much of the country was in lockdown. As such, our portrait photographer, Kelly Geddes, undertook T Australia’s very first remote shoot, via Facetime and Zoom. Geddes revelled in the challenge, using screenshots and photos of her computer screen to capture the scenes, the latter technique producing some of her favourite pictures. “They had a natural and raw quality to them,” she says. The files were sent to the darkroom service Blanco Negro, where they were hand-printed from a digital enlarger, toned in the darkroom as silver gelatin prints and then scanned for publication as black-and-white images. Each subject wears a T-shirt by the Australian label Nobody Denim; the same style appears in flat lay photographs throughout the portfolio. In these, the T-shirt serves as a “blank canvas”, altered by the subjects in a way that represents the legacy they hope to leave.