We are handing over our blog to women working in the health and medical research field so they can share their personal and professional stories with us. This is a way to get to know other Franklin Women, learn about different health and medical research related careers (not just academia!) and promote the great contributions women make to the health and medical research field every single day! We will also use our blog as a way to share with you other important tit-bits as they come our way.
To see posts made by each of the authors, click on their name from the list to the left.
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Megan Downie, Assistant Director, Research Investment Section, Health and Medical Research Branch, Commonwealth Department of Health, about her career journey which started out as a lab-based scientist.
Clare: Megan, let’s start with your current role, which is within the Research Investment Section at the Department of Health. What does a normal day look like for you in this role? What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Megan: The research investment section [of the Department of Health] looks after a couple of new measures from the government for investment into health and medical research. Our role is to develop the policy that will underlie those programs. We also prepare briefings and documents for the health minister among other things.
The great thing about my role is that there is no normal day. I could be in the office drafting correspondence, or I could be at meetings, or we’ve just concluded a roadshow around the country. I think that’s what I probably most enjoy about it: you never know quite what is going to happen. The most exciting days are the days where you’ve been productive but it was all spur of the moment, reactive issues rather than what you had planned.
The mix of people that I deal with on a day-to-day basis is really interesting. I interact with other officers, and with other people in the Australian Government: policy people, program people or legal professionals, for example. A lot of my stakeholders in this role are people in academia, in health and medical research, and also industry. I’m always meeting very impressive people, who are science heroes and I get to meet them in the flesh – it’s really exciting!
Clare: Before you started working for the Department of Health, you completed your PhD at the Australian National University where you were studying the malaria parasite followed by several postdoc positions. What was a highlight for you from your time in the lab and is there anything you miss?
Megan: I miss the feeling you get when you’ve got the results in from an experiment and it’s worked fantastically. And I miss playing with data actually – that was always fun. I don’t think I have a single highlight from my time in the lab. I miss the opportunities you have during a PhD, and during postdocs, to completely own what you’re working on and to follow your passion rather than doing what was strategically necessary. I don’t think I realised in my PhD how valuable that time was. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Lia Paola Zambetti, Assistant Head, Office of Scientific Communication and Archives, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore, about her career journey which started out as a lab-based scientist.
Clare: Lia, you have had an exciting career journey, from lab-based research to science communication work in Singapore. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Lia: My current role is being an Assistant Head in the Office of Science Communication and Archives in A*STAR. In my normal day I tend to care for a number of projects in science communication. It can be things like organising a scientific conference, or being an editor, or organising outreach [events] or talking to scientists that are being asked to participate in our outreach program, helping them and giving them feedback on their presentation.
It’s a job that I really like because it’s very varied. When I used to work in the lab, it used to be experiments all day – day in, day out. Here, it’s more of an office type of work but I still talk to scientists every single day. I actually see a lot more science now and, paradoxically, of a lot more varied type than what I used to see when I was in the lab. I find that for me it’s a much better fit.
This path suits someone who has an interest in science but is not interested in diving so deep into a topic that you can no longer see what is outside of it – that used to be one of my issues when I was doing research. If you don’t find your niche then that’s it, you won’t make it. If you have that kind of [broad] mindset you also won’t be a very successful researcher – at least, that’s my impression of the scientific landscape in 2016, regardless of where you are in the world!
Clare: What do you enjoy most about your role in science communication?
Lia: The fact that there are no two days that are the same. I don’t have to do the same type of work every day. It depends on what the particular activity of that day is. If it’s organising conferences for example, I need to get in touch with the speakers. If it’s editing, then I need to check articles. There’s no longer a typical day for me. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Suzanne Elliott, Operations Manager, Chief Scientific Officer and Deputy CEO, Q-Pharm Pty Limited, about her career journey which started out as a molecular biologist.
Clare: Suzanne, let’s start with your current role. Since 2003 you’ve been managing Q-Pharm, a private clinical trial site facility co-located within the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. What does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Suzanne: Before I go to work, I go to boot camp – that’s my stress release and my time to myself. When I get to work, there’s no one typical day but from the prior Friday, I’ve got the work week mapped out in terms of various meetings. We have standard work meetings for administration and operations. Our weekly Monday administration meeting (which involves our general manager, senior admin assistant, senior project support officer, head of business development, our quality assurance manager and our current interim CEO) is a catch-up on a week-to-week basis. The team gets together to understand what clients might be coming through, what work we’ve got available and what things we’re scheduling. Our operations meeting (which involves our manager of medical services, clinic manager, clinic training manager, my support officer, general manager and our interim CEO) is more an update of what’s actually happening in the clinic, if there are any issues – staff, equipment, anything that impacts the conduct of our studies but also future planning and scheduling [of studies].
In terms of the rest of the day, it comes down to what’s happening in the clinic. We have between 15 and 20 studies active all at one time, at various stages. Balancing all the various meetings and hosting clients while you’re actually trying to do the research as well – that’s what I find is the biggest challenge in my role. I have fairly long days. I have to attend client meetings, audits and meet with the clinic team, and then you’ve got to figure out when you’ll get the rest of your work completed.
Clare: By the sound of it, communication amongst all your team members is key!
Suzanne: Exactly. And the thing is attacking [communications] at different levels because people use different mediums to communicate – some people do all emails, some do text. You’ve got a lot of people who aren’t sitting in front of the computer – they’re out on the floor. Internally, we put out a “Q-Weekly” newsletter one-page summary in the tea-rooms, have monthly company meetings, have “all of company” emails and department meetings. If possible the personal approach to all departments, my one-on-one – “my rounds” – is where I speak to various staff members regularly to keep fully up to date, as things move so rapidly between projects. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Dessi Mladenova, Research Officer in the RNA Biology and Plasticity Lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, about her career journey starting off as a lab-based scientist and now as a bioinformatics researcher.
Clare: Dessi, you’ve forged an exciting career in the exponentially growing field of bioinformatics after completing your doctoral training in lab-based research. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Dessi: My current role is to study the genetic components that are important for cognition. In particular, I study a mysterious mechanism called RNA editing that has the power to edit or override the information hardwired in the genome. This mechanism of editing the genome may have played an important role in the evolution of human cognition and could be the secret to our higher cognitive capacity – at least this is my boss’s theory. This is because this mechanism allows the genome to be plastic and pliable in quick response to environmental stimuli, just like the human brain is very plastic and constantly changing.
On a daily basis, I open my computer and use bioinformatics tools to answer different questions. These tools allow me to make sense of an enormous amount of data, generated with the next generation sequencing technology. I spend my days writing computer code, in order to interact with the bioinformatics tools from the command line, but a big proportion of my day is dedicated to learning how to code because I am very new in the field. It has been like doing a second PhD, really!
Because of my wet lab background I can also go back in the lab and perform experiments to validate the findings from what we call the ‘dry lab’ or the computer.
Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Dessi: Today I really enjoyed being in the wet lab and doing a lot of pipetting – it was my meditation for the day because I had to focus! Our group lab meetings are always a favourite part of my week too, because we talk about big science and big questions.
Clare: You mentioned earlier you needed to learn to code in your current role. Did you need to complete any additional training specifically to move into bioinformatics or was it simply a natural progression of your research?
Dessi: It was a natural progression but my husband would tell you that I am a complete computer illiterate. When I moved into bioinformatics I had no understanding of the computer environment and high performance computing. I still don’t have in-depth understanding. I just taught myself very practical basic coding skills. I also attended numerous one-day bioinformatics courses conducted by QFAB (Queensland Facility for Advanced Bioinformatics). They organise these wonderful events to help researchers transition into bioinformatics. I have also had a lot of support from my bioinformatician colleagues. I guess I found myself in the right environment at the right time. More...
Clare: Elizabeth, you have had an exciting career journey, from lab-based research to founding a popular science publication that's been in print (and online) for more than a decade now. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Elizabeth: I’ve been editor-in-chief now at COSMOS magazine for three years. Until this year I was pretty intimately involved with both producing the online [content] and the magazine but now I just focus on the magazine.
I think of the cycle of the magazine as a bit like a pregnancy and I divide it up into three trimesters. In the first trimester I pick the stories together with my other editors. We look for a balance of stories across the sciences and also think about what the cover story could be and what cover [image] could go with it. I’ll sit down with the art director and we’ll start conceptualising what sort of artwork will go with each of the four features. That’s part of the character of COSMOS, to make the science very graphic and use wonderful images.
The second trimester usually sees me beavering away at the editing, which generally involves quite a bit of to-and-fro with the writers. Third trimester I read the first proofs. I make changes and sharpen things up. I see if I’m happy with the pictures and I put on the captions. (Captions have to be like little Tweets. They have to stand on their own.) Things can get pretty tense in the third trimester because we’re really trying to meet the deadline – often we are behind the deadline – and I lose sleep but in the end we come through!
My immediate staff is relatively small: the art director, the news editor, the deputy news editor, but it is great fun working with them. We’ve also got some wonderful regular contributors who I enjoy immensely.
Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Elizabeth: As it happens, one of our regular feature writers is writing a story for us on cancer immunotherapy. We just had a very good to-and-fro this morning, sharpening the ideas and shaping her story. It’s not an easy process working with me as an editor: I’m a nice person but I’m a tough editor. My ten years of being a scientist has ingrained me with a determination to research things to the nth degree. I also want to tell a story and nothing will twist my guts more than somebody that I meet who hasn’t understood something I’ve written or that they’ve read in COSMOS magazine. I really want people to understand and enjoy what they read in COSMOS, and to be excited and enthralled by it.
Clare: Before this, you were a researcher at the University of Melbourne and a postdoc at the University of California. What was your area of research and are there any stand out highlights from your career as a researcher?
Elizabeth: I did my PhD in the field of bone endocrinology. My thesis was a study of the vitamin D receptor; it was fairly dull but it exposed me to a lot of interesting ideas about how hormones work. That was what most fascinated me: that hormones were signals that were turning genes on and off. My PhD thesis was a springboard to go and do research overseas. [I was] all ready to go to a lab in Texas … and then I met my future husband: Alan. We very quickly decided we were made for each other. Alan wanted to go to America too but he didn’t think Texas would be the right place for [his company]. He asked me if I could get a postdoc on either the east or the west coast, and that’s how we ended up in San Francisco. More...
Our latest addition to the Franklin Women Roving Reporters, Clare Watson, chats to Amee Baird, a clinical neuropsychologist and researcher, about her career journey in the area of music therapy and science engagement (like recently featuring on an episode of Catalyst!).
Clare: We’ve noticed that you've been featured in the news lots recently and you were also invited to join a panel at the World Science Festival in Brisbane earlier this year. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role? What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Amee: Well, it depends on the day because I have two roles; I work two days a week as a clinical neuropsychologist (when I see a patient I will spend four hours with them) and three days a week in research. Today is a research day, which is one of my favourite days, so it’s a writing day. I’m trying to finalise a manuscript to submit for publication. Today, because my three kids are at their grandparents, I was able to go and have a swim – I live five minutes walk from a surf beach in Newcastle – so that definitely [has been] my favourite part of today.
Clare: It’s always good to start the day off well! Your research is looking into the ability of music to recall memories in dementia patients. When introducing music to patients, do you work with a music therapist, have an enviable collection of classics, or strike up a chord yourself?
Amee: I usually play recorded music or sing – they’re the two ways I’ve done it so far. I haven’t actually worked with a music therapist but my research does overlap with the type of work that they do so I’m certainly open to that idea. I played music from a young age. I played the piano and the cello, and a few other instruments in between, but I stopped playing during university and three kids later – you just don’t have the time. My postdoctoral position [at Salpetriere Hospital, Paris and Lille University, France] combined those interests and passions of music and the brain (neuropsychology). More...
Franklin Women is very lucky to have a dedicated team of health researchers from around Sydney who volunteer to be a part of the FW NSW Peer Advisory Committee. You will know them if you are a regular at our events as they are the ones (in the very trendy FW polo shirts) making things happen. The Peer Advisory Committee meet monthly to talk about the organisation’s day-to-day activities, such as planning upcoming events, reviewing scholarship applications, newsletter content, career blogs … where we went on the weekend, etc., etc. We also try and leave time for some ‘bigger picture’ thinking but it always seems to get rolled over to next month’s agenda as there is just too much else to do.
We started this year with the realisation that, although FW has achieved so much, we wanted to do more and we wanted to do more really well. We all agreed that protecting some time for strategic thinking was too important to not be made a priority. Having this realisation was one thing, but to actually make it happen we needed some help (all we knew about organisational strategic planning was that it would involve some butcher’s paper and coloured pens). Elizabeth Foley, former CEO of Research Australia, and her husband Stephen Emmett, a management consultant specialising in strategic planning, board training and executive career coaching, came to our rescue and in February FW had its first strategic planning day. We found the whole process really valuable so we want to tell you a little bit about it - what we did, some of the outcomes for our FW community and some tips you might be able to make use of yourself.
So, what does one do at a strategic planning day?
- To start the day FW founder, Melina, gave an overview of the current status of the organisation (which really appealed to our scientific side – lots of numbers); for example, how many women have joined the Franklin Women community, what career stage and organisations they are from, etc.
- We also took the time to review our organisational ‘Mission’, ‘Aims’ and ‘Values’. This was important to do because it has been over a year since we launched and things have evolved as we have grown. (Want to know the difference between each of these concepts? A useful resource is here)
- One of the aims of the day was to acknoweldge the successes we have had but also to identify what has not been done so well and could be improved. This involved doing a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats) analysis. This was a large part of the day. (You can find some examples and template here)
- Lastly, all of the day’s discussions were brought together to identify goals for the next 1–3 years, which we then distilled out further into tangible actions. This was the hard part and where the value of having an external facilitator really was apparent.
What tips did we pick up from the day?
- Set the rules of engagement at the beginning of the session; from the role of the facilitators and participants, to making sure everyone feels welcome to share all ideas. There is no such thing as a bad idea at a strategic planning day!
- If you have the contacts/resources to have someone experienced and external facilitate the day – do it. Elizabeth and Stephen always kept us on track and offered great external perspectives on our thinking.
- Stay high-level. Many times during the day we would get distracted with the operational/ practicalities of things (i.e. how to do them) but that was not the point of the day.
- Numbers are great (and easy) to report on but it is also important to dedicate time to the qualitative side – what is at the ‘heart’ of the organisation and what are its core values. Although much harder to do, it really does underpin everything else.
- Be sure to have regular breaks (more towards the end of the day), which involve lots of food and tea served in the loveliest of teacups.
What does it all mean for FW?
- We happily reflected on how much more is being done to support women in science in Australia since FW launched in 2014. We took the strategic planning day as an opportunity to clearly identify where FW is adding value in this space. This is a framework we will use when planning our future initiatives to make sure we continue to fill gaps in supporting women in health research careers while complementing (not duplicating) other national and local initiatives. This is particularly important as we are run by volunteers and have limited resources so every event or activity we choose to progress comes at an opportunity cost.
- We acknowledged that to grow as an organisation and to offer the quality initiatives that we feel women in health research deserve, we need to consider additional revenue models above and beyond memberships in coming months, such as building partnerships with like-minded organisations.
- Some of the more tangible actions from the day included:
- Survey our members to ensure our events and initiatives continue to meet their needs. It is the support of our members that has got us this far and we want to make sure we continue to make a difference in their careers.
- To develop and seek feedback on a mentoring program for women in health research careers which utilises the diversity of the women who are part of the FW community.
- Update our organisational ‘Mission’ so that it reflects where we are now and where we are heading.
- Feedback to the FW community about our strategic planning day and its main outcomes – which we hope we are doing through this blog!
Not only was the planning day a success for Franklin Women as an organisation, it was also a nice reminder for us all on how this type of big picture thinking is important for our research teams or even for us as individuals. Have you thought about giving yourself a day to just think about your own career strategy – what is your direction, and what should you prioritise to help you get there? Maybe now is the time to think about strategic thinking....
Our roving reporter Dr Louise Randall spoke with award winning science teacher, Sharon Williams, to learn about her career journey, what she loves about being a science teacher and tips if you are thinking about a career in teaching.
Louise: You’ve received an Outstanding Teacher of Science Award. Congratulations! Could you please tell us about your science background before you got into teaching?
Sharon: At the risk of sounding nostalgic, my love of science began as a child. I remember watching The Curiosity Show on TV every week and there used to be little ‘Why is it so?’ snippets on television. I was drawn to understanding how things worked. I went to a state school in Townsville that had an elective subject in year 9 and 10 called Science, Research and Technology for those kids who really love science. It was great, but for some reason I never thought I was going to be a scientist, rather I was thinking about physiotherapy. But we had a family tragedy in my final year of school and I couldn’t bear to move away to study physio and I actually enrolled in Biotechnology degree. I gravitated away from human research as I met too many stressed ‘wannabe doctors’ and took a few more plant science subjects. By the end of my degree, I’d majored in Plant Biotechnology and Biochemistry. I went on to do a honours project on MADS box genes, which are genes that are involved in switching plants from vegetative to reproductive growth. After honours I didn’t feel ready to commit to a PhD without knowing the research area that I loved. So I applied for a job doing tissue culture and genetic engineering in sugar cane at the University of Queensland and then began working on a research project for the next 3 years. This period was a good time to improve my research and technical skills as I looked for the area that I wanted to be an expert in.
Louise: So at what point did you realise you had an interest in teaching and start on the journey to becoming Upper School Science Teacher at Goodna State School?
Sharon: It was the unpredictability of grant funding that made me start thinking about teaching. One year there wasn’t enough money to fund my position full time so I thought, “Well, I’m pretty good at explaining things, I might as well start an education degree”. My husband was also studying part time so we thought it would be perfect as we could both be in the books at night after work! I completed my Bachelor of Education whilst working part time in research and lab management/technical officer roles. I also decided that I was ready to have some babies (just to add another thing into the mix). Over this time I began to become a little disenfranchised by the distance between the doing of science and seeing its impact - I really wanted to see in front of me the impact of my work so teaching began to become more appealing. I finally resigned from the University of Queensland in 2013 and put my hand up to do relief teacher work at local high schools around Goodna, where we had just moved (and still are today). Although I was trained in secondary school science I often thought that I’d love to teach younger kids. Fortunately my first contract was to replace the Specialist Science teacher for 4-weeks at the primary school where my children were studying. The school and the teachers were so great that we proposed that I stay and help take their specialist science program to all the year levels. We now have two specialist science teachers at Goodna State School and I teach year 4 to 6. I ended up with the dream job that catches the age group that I love and the content that I enjoy and the students that I am passionate about reaching. Now I can see the impact of what I do every day. More...
Our mentoring breakfast in September was one of our most successful events yet with over 120 women in diverse health research careers joining us for breakfast at the QVB Tea Rooms. The aim of the morning was to start the conversation on how mentoring, sponsorship and even career coaching could play a larger part in the career progression for women in our field. And thanks to our guest speaker, leadership consultant Maud Lindley, our panel and our invited table mentors, that is exactly what happened. By the end of the morning we all left the room with the courage to go out and ask our dream mentor for coffee.
For Franklin Women, we also wanted to use this event to better understand how career development relationships, like mentors–mentees, are being utilised by women in our field and find out if their was more that can be done to facilitate this. We asked those who attended our breakfast to complete a small survey about just this and we thought you would be interested in the responses.
So what did we find? More...
Having recently gained my first ever permanent job as an academic in a Science Faculty (at the University of Wollongong) I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
As a PhD student and post-doc I remember the moments of terror associated with considering a life of short-term contracts and the unease of wondering if I would be able to do this wonderful job of science forever. After finishing my PhD I seriously considered exiting the world of research for a permanent job in management consultancy. Not because I had lost my drive and passion for science but because I doubted myself and my abilities and I didn’t know if I could make it as an academic.
I chose to keep going, to keep chasing the dream and I’m glad that I did. Looking back I think there are many essential traits required for a life in academia that my research training didn’t prepare me for (as well as many that did!). These lessons had to be learned quickly whilst migrating towards the position of principal investigator. The following are some of the aspects that, on reflection, I now consider pivotal in my career and I hope that sharing will help other early career researchers. More...