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 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...
Franklin Women roving reporter Dr Louise Randall speaks with Julia Archbold on her career journey from medical research scientist to freelance editor. Want to connect with Julia? You can find her on Twitter or email.
You are on a new adventure and just started your own business. Can you tell us a bit about what it is?
My new business is in science editing and writing. The business is called Corrected. At the moment, I’m freelancing to three major science and medical writing companies. I also have some of my own clients. Typically, my clients are non-native English speakers. Some of the bigger companies send me manuscripts that they have translated from a different language, whether it’s Chinese or Japanese. It’s sometimes translated directly from that language into English, so the grammar needs correcting after that. For example, the Chinese language is very different to English. They don’t have verb tenses at all. In a science article, there needs to be past tense and present tense. So I fix that up. I also fix up the flow of the article. There are little things that you can change to improve the readability of the paper. And then I will proofread it. I have to be very meticulous. I also format it for submission to a particular journal if they ask for that. I’m loving it. It’s going really well. There’s been a little bit of a hurdle to get the clients but that’s starting to pick up now and I’m starting to get busy.
Before this you were a health and medical researcher with a PhD at Monash. What was your research area?
My research area was in structural immunology. I was looking at crystal structures of proteins involved in our immune system. My PhD was on organ transplant rejection and graft versus host disease, and trying to understand at the molecular level how that all happens. Structural biology was my training. More...
Louise: We are so excited that a medical research scientist is to be the Chief Executive Officer of the National Health and Medical Research Council. Your research career started in immunology with your PhD at the University of Melbourne. Can you tell us about what got you into health science and how your research has evolved over the years, please?
Anne: I was always interested in science at school. My mother was a scientist before she had a family. She was from a different time when most women stopped work when they were married or when they started to have children. She really introduced me to biological sciences and I thought it was really cool when I was a kid. I was particularly interested in microbiology because it was a whole microscopic world that you couldn’t normally see. I got the idea that I should be a microbiologist and that’s exactly why I enrolled in science and majored in microbiology. But then during the third year, I found the lectures that were the most interesting and the most challenging were those on immunology. So then I did my honours year and PhD with Bill Boyle who was the reader in immunology in the Department of Microbiology at that time. So that early interest as a child was carried through and I was very happy with that choice. Looking back, there were many areas of biological science that I would’ve loved just as much. Perhaps, if I was starting again now, neuroscience would’ve been the equivalent of immunology back in those days. Immunology is still very exciting but neuroscience feels like the next frontier. Perhaps I would make a different decision today.
Louise: What made you first take on executive roles in the health and medical research field, such as the Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Vaccine Technology and then Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza?
Anne: I was a very happy bench scientist. I enjoyed that very much. I didn’t at first deliberately plan to move away from being a full time bench scientist. But, when I was about SRO level, I was at the WEHI and I started to get involved in other things like the Australasian Society of Immunology (ASI) and I was eventually President of that society. I was involved fairly early on in the Australian Research Council biological sciences panel, which also really broadened my view of biological sciences. If you are only ever involved with NHMRC, you have a relatively narrow view of what biological science is about but that really broadened my view a lot, realising the huge diversity of work that is done in Australia funded by the ARC. So from starting to be involved in some of those external roles and getting a broader view of what science was all about, I started to think more about my place and how I could contribute most. I then moved to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR). I set up a lab there and got involved in other things like the International Union of Immunological Societies. I started to think that I was getting involved in a lot of external committees, which was very interesting but piece meal and not very substantial, and that I would quite like to have a go at doing something on a bigger scale. Then, when Michael Good resigned from the directorship of the Cooperative Research Centre for Vaccine Technology (CRC-VT) to become Director of QIMR, I applied for the Directorship of CRC-VT, got More...
Hi Franklin Women! I am Yosephine, a new member of FW. Unlike with other FW’s blog, I would like to share a rather different story - my personal story of transitioning from a job in industry back to academia!
Part 1 - Multiple pathways lead to a successful career. I finished my PhD in protein engineering in 2010. I was working on improving the desired property of enzymes so that they could be useful for industrial applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to bioremediation. I had always thought that I was not suited for a traditional academic career as I preferred doing applied rather than basic research. I was lucky enough that my main PhD project was applied however I also had side projects that were more around deepening basic knowledge. When an opportunity to work in industry came by after finishing my PhD (a former colleague who went to industry following her post-doc offered me a position in her company) I knew I had to take up my dream job as Product Development Manager. My key responsibilities in this role were to develop ideas and new formulations for product launches, to prepare and present the concepts/product prototypes to customers, to generate preliminary costs for new products and reformulations and to maintain knowledge on regulation issues and competitor business. In addition, I had to monitor efficient working of all projects and ensure compliance to project plan/timeframe and allocate appropriate resources for project and prioritise them. Phew...a lot!
I was initially satisfied with the work however after spending 1.5 years in industry I felt there was something missing in my career. Instead of applying for similar jobs in another company I re-entered academia by taking up a post-doctoral research position at The University of Queensland (UQ). To my own surprise, despite the pressure of having to publish and obtain grants, I now enjoy the privilege of doing research that I am passionate about (learning from the nature on the best ways of engineering enzymes, for example by resurrecting ancient proteins to create robust enzymes!). Unlike being tied to the rigid corporate structure, working in an university environment offers you appealing aspects that the job can offer - freedom (you can write, develop and even apply funds to support your own ideas/ passion) and working with students (which could be fun but also stressful which leads me to Part 2 of this post...) More...