i-shadow*

It’s been quite a while since I posted here. Last time was just after my mum passed away. Since then, I’ve had to get used to a whole new world without my longest-standing ally and confidante. Mum even followed my blog, bless her.

It’s been tough, there’s no doubt about it. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t shed a tear. I miss her enormously. But life goes on, as my dear old mum would say. Now I can even laugh when I think of her, and how she would be whooping it up this weekend, dancing a jig and waving her Tigers scarf to celebrate the Richmond AFL Grand Final win after 37 years. And I can recognise how incredibly lucky I was to have such a remarkable person and amazing role model in my life and on my side.

Her story is inspirational to me. It’s all the more incredible knowing what mum went through, and the personal sacrifices she made, to achieve her number one goal: providing a safe and supportive home for her family. She succeeded against the odds. She never gave up, despite many, many disappointments. She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and tried and tried again every time life knocked her down. Seeing her tenacity, her persistence and determination to learn from failures was a lesson in itself. I couldn’t have carved my own path without understanding that aiming high will always lead to disappointment, and that for the most part no-one else sees those failures. Importantly, the lessons learned from trying and failing can provide a springboard to future success.

And so it is that I come to the topic of this post. My own shadow CV – the CV of failures and rejections (see a summary of others here). Scientific studies generating positive results are more likely to be published, and negative results are hardly ever published – giving rise to publication bias that skews science and its progress. It’s the same with CVs – reporting only positive outcomes skews the perception of what it takes to progress in academia.

So without further ado, I submit for your appraisal some of the many lowlights and sidelights of my shadow CV – an i-shadow* you might say:

• As an undergraduate I was accepted into a BPharm degree, but my CV doesn’t say that I was rejected from Vet Sci and Medicine (x2). Yep, BPharm was my fourth choice.

• As a postgraduate, I was awarded a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship, but my CV doesn’t record that I was rejected from dozens of other schemes before that one was awarded, including the Rhodes and Kobe Scholarships.

• As a postdoctoral scientist I was accepted into Rockefeller University as a Research Fellow, but only after I was retrenched from my first postdoctoral position barely six months after starting at Bond University. So ashamed of this episode was I, that I didn’t include it in my CV for many years.

• After returning to Australia from Rockefeller University, I set up my independent lab at the University of Queensland, with my salary funded by an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship. What my CV doesn’t indicate is that I was on the reserve list for that Fellowship, and only got through because someone else did not accept their award. I often wonder who that was, why they didn’t take it up, where they ended up….whoever you are, thank you!

• Yes, I was fortunate to be awarded that Fellowship, but not so fortunate with my first grant. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Not recorded in my CV.

• Without funding for anyone but myself, I was the only person working in my lab. It was a group of one! That detail is not recorded in my CV. Research outcomes were slow and papers even slower. It took two years for the first paper to be published from my independent lab.

• Speaking of papers, my highlight CV records that a  paper from my lab was recently published in Nature Communications. Yay. What is not documented is that the process from first submission to publication took over two years, including rejections from three other journals, and an initial editorial rejection from this journal. (Yes, I know, I need to start submitting preprints).

• Then there are the award nominations that never got anywhere. Too many to mention. But what I will mention is the three last year for which I was a finalist, but not the eventual winner when the envelope was opened. So close, but no chocolate cigar (I don’t smoke). What to do when this happens? Join in the fun and celebrate with the winner; life is too short to spend it being miserable.

And as my dear old mum would always say, if it weren’t for the bad times, the good times would not feel nearly as good.

 

*Turns out this title was somewhat prophetic. I came up with the title and began writing the post a few weeks ago whilst on holidays. The day after I started, I suffered a detached retina – a medical emergency – that was evident as a shadow descending across the vision of my left eye.

I had a genuine eye “shadow”

Life, eh…..

 

99% perfect

This post is the text of the eulogy I gave at my mum’s funeral, and a poem chosen and read by my sister Cathy at mum’s burial. Mum was an incredible person and a wonderful, inspirational role model.

We love you mum and will miss you very much. Thank you for everything.


mum-atcafe

Judith Mary Martin


“Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen and some people wonder what happened” to paraphrase Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut.

Judith Mary Martin – whose life we celebrate today – unquestionably falls into the category of people who made things happen. Mum may not have flown to the moon, but she most certainly reached for the stars.

Born in 1934 in country Victoria, Judy had an older sister Faye, and a twin sister Joy. When still a little girl, her parents separated, and she moved with her mum and two sisters to Melbourne. It was the middle of the depression era: they lived in abject poverty, surviving on bread & dripping at times, doing midnight runners to avoid paying rent, and going to the pawnbrokers to get items out of hock when her mum – a factory worker – got paid. As a young girl, mum had already decided she would never work in a factory; she would get educated, work hard, and make sure that her family would have a stable and loving home life. She achieved all that and much more, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Having to leave school at grade 8 – aged 14 – wasn’t a great start. Mum’s first job was at the Imperial War Graves Commission, but she really wasn’t cut out for office work. She toyed with the idea of becoming a nun, but in the end chose nursing as her vocation. Once the decision was made, she then made it happen. Trouble was, nursing training couldn’t begin till she was 18, and mum was just 16. So she hounded the nursing director till she got a job as a probationer and then after significantly more hounding, she entered nursing training at the tender age of 17 years and 5 months. She was in her element, she loved the work, and she loved the girls she worked with. She said that those years were the best of her life, the most carefree, and loads of fun.

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Mum completes her nursing training

She worked hard, was determined to succeed, and eventually became Nurse Unit Manager (Charge Nurse) of the entire operating theatre department at a major Victorian Hospital. Although she left school at 14, she returned to study part-time aged 52, first to complete her VCE and then to graduate with a Bachelor of Nursing in 1992 aged 58; all the while working, and caring for her youngest children. She was still working two nights a week at the age of 72.

Life was anything but plain sailing. Two weeks after she started as a nursing probationer, her adored father died – he was 42 and she just 16; still a child.

Mum married twice, had 10 children and 8 grandchildren. For much of the early years, there was very little money, and life was a constant struggle. By mum’s account, her first marriage was very unhappy and didn’t last long. In her second marriage, it was mum that mostly set the family goals, she who made things happen to achieve her aspirations. She orchestrated family moves upward, including from a “hovel” to a housing commission home (the “lap of luxury”) in country Victoria, by literally begging the local MP who she collared at a school function. She also triggered a later move by reporting the house we lived in to the local council, who swiftly condemned it as unfit to live in.

Meanwhile, there were personal misfortunes to contend with. As an infant, Geoff nearly died from an infection in the mid-60s. Later that same year, Dad was also in hospital for months after a terrible logging accident, leaving mum with a family of 6 kids and one on the way, with no income and no insurance. On Christmas Day 1979, a car ploughed through a red light into ours and mum and dad ended up in hospital for many weeks. Much, much worse though was the loss of two children: in 1973, mum’s 10th child Gerard died in childbirth. And in 1991, her 7th child Peter died aged 25, in a car accident. These tragic events nearly broke her heart. But as she said in her own words many years later:

“There are always things in life you wish you didn’t have to go through, because they hurt so much. But you know what? That’s part of the journey too.”

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward.”

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The whole family in 1984 – including the first grandchild

Mum did what she could, with the few resources she had, to improve the family’s lot: buying Lan Choo tea because it came with coupons to claim gifts in the store in town; getting her driver’s licence, and then helping teach many of her kids to drive – even if that did include falling asleep in the passenger seat with Steven at the wheel. In the 1970s, mum’s name was picked out of the barrel to spin the wheel on the Ernie Sigley Show. She won a TV, we think – and a trip to Sydney after Ernie found out she had so many children. Asked what message she wanted to send her family on national telly, mum famously said:

“I just hope someone remembers to make the school lunches”.

Perhaps it was the Ernie Sigley trip that started the travel bug: she began taking road trips with youngest children Jan and Cally – to the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, Sydney. She took her first overseas trip when she was 47, with Cathy to visit Tony and Olga and grandson Eann in Israel and then on to Italy and the UK. Because she was going to be away such a long time, she left us a long list of things to do. Including a fire drill every evening. Which we promptly ignored. Mum took to the jetset life with gusto, soaking up history and cultures, and traveling around the world into her 70s. On one notable occasion, and despite family misgivings, mum set off to Bangkok, by herself, just after 9/11 – aged 67. She was on her way to visit Ian and Cally in London, and nothing was going to stop her from doing that.

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“Swanning around Europe” with two family members

One of her greatest delights was creating things for others. After knitting her first jumper at age 11, the knitting needles hardly ever stopped. Look at any family photo from the 60s through to the 80s, and you’ll inevitably see kids sporting mum’s handmade knits. She was a prolific letter-writer too. Seeing her beautiful handwriting on a newly arrived envelope when you were far from home, was certain to lift the spirits – with family news, photos and mum’s life advice. In the 1990s, mum discovered patchwork quilting after a visit to an Amish Village in the USA. She created over 100 exquisite quilts, that are now our treasured heirlooms.

A birthday quilt, one of over 100 quilts mum made, five of them for me

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Close-up of text on the birthday quilt “Made during a time of old age and ill-health” Oct 2007-Nov 2010 “From Mum”

Mum didn’t just create tangible things like jumpers, letters and quilts, she also created intangibles – memories, moments, merriment – especially around celebrations of birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. She truly cared about people, and she enjoyed having a bit of fun too! She loved movies and music, and would sing or dance at the drop of a hat.

“Life is to be lived” she said, “to be enjoyed right to the end. Make the most of every moment.”

Coming from good Irish stock, Mum had a fine sense of the absurd. When Tony Abbott announced that he was bringing back Knights and Dames, mum’s planned morning tea morphed into a Royal Tea Party and she crowned herself Lady Muck of …… Some years before, she came to my New York–themed fancy dress party in QLD when I was about to leave for America. There was King Kong, Crocodile Dundee, several movie stars, and as guest of honour I was Madonna. Much to my embarrassment, the guest-of-honour’s mother turned up as a New York bag lady. Oh how she laughed remembering that story recently! Going back even further, when we as kids would ask how old she would be on an upcoming birthday, it would always be 29. Or 28. Or 25.

When mum first let me know a few years ago that she wanted me to give the eulogy at her funeral, I wondered if there was anything particular she wanted me to say.

Mum simply said: “Don’t sugarcoat it; just tell it like it is”.

Me: “OK….. so you don’t want me to say you were perfect?”

Mum, after a moment’s pause: “Hmmm, well, let’s say 99% perfect”

I asked what she was most proud of achieving in her very full life. This time without hesitation, she said

“My family. I feel very, very fortunate with my children. I have a very blessed life. And I love my grandchildren to bits. There’s not a one of them – kids or grandkids – that you wouldn’t be really glad to know. So I am twice blessed.”

Always fiercely independent, after succumbing to side-effects of treatment for multiple myeloma, mum had to let go, to allow her children to arrange her affairs, chauffeur her, take her to appointments, feed and look after her, as she had done singlehandedly for all of us so many years ago. What she didn’t seem to understand was that far from being a burden, doing these things for her was a privilege and an honour. Looking after each other – well you taught us that mum, that is what families are for.

Despite being in constant pain, mum accepted her lot, remaining positive and curious about the world, right to the end. She was anxious about one thing though. Late last year, when Christmas was coming up, followed soon after by several family birthdays, she said:

“I’m looking forward to Christmas so much, seeing everyone together again. It’s extra special this year as I wasn’t meant to be here for this one.  I just don’t want to die on anyone’s birthday.”

Well, mum, you successfully navigated that minefield. Your death was the way you wanted it, peaceful, quick and not coinciding with a family birthday. You were ready to go, even if we weren’t ready for you to leave. We will be reminded of you every day by the simple things you always loved: a Richmond scarf, a cake stall, a flower garden, an old movie, a cup of tea with sympathy.

Personally, I will treasure the times we spent together recently, especially our last day – when you laughed over taking selfies. How many other 82 year olds have an iPhone, I ask you?

Mum, I will never forget that it was you who inspired me to reach for the stars, you who put that first precious sprinkle of stardust into each of your children’s hands, so that we too could aspire to be people who make things happen.

Judith Mary Martin, Judy, Mum, Granny

What an extraordinary life you lived, a life that touched so many

Now, you are, without doubt, forever 29 years old

and 99% perfect

mumme_stevesbday2010

Mum and me together a few years ago

 

The text below is the poem read out at mum’s burial, by Cathy Martin

“Remember me” David Harkins 1981

Do not shed tears when I have gone but smile instead because I have lived. Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind. I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live only for yesterday or you can be happy for tomorrow because of what happened between us yesterday. You can remember me and grieve that I have gone or you can cherish my memory and let it live on. You can cry and lose yourself, become distraught and turn your back on the world or you can do what I want – smile, wipe away the tears, learn to love again and go on.

 

reaching for stars

My beautiful, beloved mum passed away. I owe her everything and will miss her terribly.

In 2006 I gave a graduation speech at the University of Queensland, inspired by her life lessons. The text of that speech, is given below. I hope to post more about this extraordinary woman over the next week.

“Chancellor, Acting Vice-Chancellor, Master of Ceremonies, Dean, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman,

I am *delighted* to be the first to congratulate our new graduates – so congratulations – you’ve made it, *well done* everyone.

Your hard work over the past few years has now been rewarded with the conferral of a degree in Science, and you, your friends and family deserve to be enormously proud of your achievements. Today is a day to celebrate those achievements and I trust that each of you *will* celebrate in an appropriate manner this evening and that this day will be one to remember for the rest of your life!

I certainly remember my graduation day when I wore this gown for the first time 16 years ago. This beautiful scarlet and peacock number is an Oxford University Doctor of Philosophy gown! I’d like to tell you how an Australian girl came to be studying at Oxford for a postgraduate degree. After completing a pharmacy degree in Melbourne and doing well at the course, I made up my mind that I wanted to further my study overseas, by doing a PhD¹ at the University of Oxford. I knew that achieving this dream would be difficult, since it would require obtaining a competitive scholarship to fund my studies. But I did have a backup plan (and it’s always good to have a backup plan). In the case of no scholarship I would travel overseas anyway on a working holiday.

I applied for any scholarship for which I was eligible, probably about 25 over the 12 months. Initially, I received rejection after rejection. But this just made me more determined, and it also meant that my applications became more polished at each round. Finally, on the day I was at the airport, literally boarding the plane to take me overseas, I received a phone call from the Dean of the Pharmacy College in Melbourne to let me know that I had received a scholarship to go to Oxford. The evidence that I duly completed the PhD is here before you now.

The message here is, to achieve your dreams requires focus and determination. Or in the words of my dear old mum – Never give up!

 

You will have found during your study and research for your degrees, that it always looks much easier than it actually is. There are hurdles to jump, obstacles to remove and often your own demons to overcome – these trials and tribulations generally go unnoticed by friends and family who do not see the hard work and toil that you put in. It was no different for me. After I was awarded a PhD from Oxford, you would think it would be plain sailing. I returned to Australia in 1990 to the science and technology school at Bond University on the Gold Coast. Some of you will be saying “there isn’t a science and technology school at Bond Uni”. That’s correct, it was closed three months after I arrived. I was absolutely devastated. A PhD from Oxford and I was unemployed. But I used this situation as an opportunity to develop my career further, by taking a position at very short notice at Rockefeller University in New York, a city that (to be honest) I would never have chosen to live in except that I was in such dire circumstances. This turned out to be a great career move and I subsequently returned to Queensland in 1993 to establish my own lab here at UQ.

The point I’d like to make is that even when life and circumstance get in the way of your goals, you can sometimes turn these obstacles into opportunities. Or in the words of my dear old mum, when one door closes, another opens.

 

Now that you have a tertiary degree in science, whether it be Bachelor, Master or PhD, you will have many opportunities opening up to you – because you are now part of what is being termed the innovation economy, or the knowledge economy. Knowledge and innovation are the new currency in world economics. You are the unit of that currency and it will be up to you to apply your knowledge and to derive a better future for yourself, your family, your country, your world. We have the opportunity to shape a better world by addressing the big issues – improved quality of life and developing a sustainable environment. A science degree also brings with it responsibilities. It is our responsibility to work ethically, to inform scientific debate, to mentor younger scientists and to raise awareness of science and technology among the general public.

A major concern in science is the role of women. You will have seen today that around 50% of our graduates are women. Our University medallists are women. Our valedictorian is a woman. But if you look through our hierarchy or any hierarchy whether it be science, academia, industry or government the percentage of women reduces at each level so that by the time we get to the top of the tree the percentage of women is around 10%. This is a vexing issue. We are losing half of our most brilliant people. In a report that was tabled earlier this year, The US National Academy of Sciences said that in an era of global competition we simply cannot afford “such underuse of precious human capital.” They found that American women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures”.

My challenge to you – both men and women – is to ensure that this situation changes, so that when you are my age there will be no such anomaly.

This will surely require all your knowledge and innovation. Or as my dear old mum would say, two heads are better than one.

 

I would like to leave you with a final word of advice from my most inspirational role model, my dear old mum. Unlike you or I, my mother did not have the opportunity to undertake tertiary study. In fact, she didn’t even finish high school. She left school at grade 8 to go to work. After a year or so, she was accepted into a hospital to undertake nursing (one of the few professions available to women in those days). She worked her way up the ranks through sheer force of will and determination to be charge nurse in surgery in a major hospital in Victoria. In the meantime, she married, had nine children², and supported this family by working night shifts. She is now 72 and continues to work two nights a week in surgery.

 

My mother is a genuine role model. She never gives up, she always maintains a positive attitude and she takes no nonsense from anyone, including surgeons! She has succeeded against the odds. Her advice to us when we were growing up was “Reach for the stars – you never know what you’ll pick up on the way down”. It has certainly worked for us, with 12 tertiary degrees between the nine of us and high profile positions in academia, investment banking, IT and government.

So my final words are to encourage you to take my mother’s advice, and aim high!

Thank you everyone.”

 

  1. Actually it’s called a DPhil in Oxford, but who’s counting
  2. Mum gave birth to ten children; the last of the ten died in childbirth

show me the policy (part 2)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post (show me the policy) on the gender inequity of invited speakers at conferences I’d attended, and provided ideas on how to address this insidious problem. The post was well received (as of 8 Dec 2016, >2,500 views). And after some prompting from twitter buddies (thank you) the post was developed as a manuscript, and reviewed and published in PLoS Comp Biol (ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance). That paper has been viewed nearly 25,000 times. I’ve since been contacted by many people to thank me for providing practical suggestions that can be sent to decision-makers on conference and seminar series panels.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve been program chair on a couple of conferences and have relatively easily achieved 35-50% invited women speakers. I have also attempted, reasonably successfully, to give speaking opportunities to minorities and ECRs/MCRs. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive on the quality of the programs.

Quality. Check.

Diversity. Check.

Problem solved? Nope.

I sit here at the end of 2016, wondering how it is that every week I am contacted by someone around the world asking for help on this issue. People point me to conference websites with long lists of invited vanilla men. Or even more annoyingly very long lists of invited speakers from all parts of the world, young and old. But no women. Women, it seems, always come last. There is also an apparent correlation between the number of women in the speaker list and the number of women on the organising committee (ie usually 0-1 women on program committee and 0-1 invited women in speaker lists).

Over the past three weeks, I have used variations of the following email to contact three symposia/conference organisers about imbalance in their meetings (a biology symposium with 4 white men invited speakers, a biophysics conference with 20 invited men, and a chemistry conference with 29 invited men and 1 invited woman).

Dear program committee,

I am emailing on a delicate subject, relating to gender balance in the invited speaker list of the upcoming xxxxx conference. It seems from the information available on-line that all of the program committee, and all of the invited speakers are male. I am writing to ask you (1) to consider addressing this inequity and (2) to consider for future conferences adopting a public policy of inclusivity for invited speakers that is representative of the field generally.

In case you are wondering, I found out about this imbalance through several people – men and women – who contacted me independently to express their concern. My paper in PLOS Comp Biol has become a manifesto of sorts to address this endemic issue – http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003903 Perhaps there might be some useful ideas there that could be adopted.

I have pledged not to sponsor or support conferences (and don’t accept invitations to speak) unless there is a gender policy and evidence of good faith attempts at gender balance. Many other women and men have done the same. I wonder then, how the men invited to speak at this meeting will feel when they become aware that this seems to be a men-only invitation list. I wonder also, looking at the list, whether women will feel welcome to attend or participate in what looks to be a men-only event.

This imbalance is particularly concerning at a time when academia is attempting to address gender inequity in STEMM.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. This is a tricky topic, and I trust you will take my comments in the manner in which they are offered – as an attempt to highlight and remove one of the structural barriers to women’s participation and progression in science. Removing barriers such as this will improve science for everyone not just for women.

For the most part, the responses have been rapid and positive. I am thanked for my email, for raising the issues, for suggesting fixes. I am informed that committees are sorry for the dismay they have caused, that they too are concerned about the situation, and that they are doing everything they can to address the imbalance for this meeting and will adopt new policies in the future.

Committees continue to get themselves into a pickle over this issue, raising the ire of their community, because they haven’t planned for balance and they haven’t implemented measures for unconscious bias.

So while I still stand by my 10 original rules (1. collect the data, 2. develop a policy, 3. make the policy visible, 4. establish a balanced and informed program committee, 5. report the data, 6. build and use databases, 7. respond to resistance, 8. support women at meetings, 9. be family-friendly, 10. take the pledge) it’s now time to add a few more.

11. Draw up a long list of women speakers and invite them first

Women more often than men – and for many reasons – will say no to an invitation to speak. If we don’t actively and deliberately plan to include women we will end up with imbalance. So, what to do? Actively and deliberately include women.

Don’t invite women last. Invite them first.

Draw up a long list of women speakers. Ask the relevant scientific community to suggest women speakers, use databases. Search granting agency awardee lists.

Expect women to say no (and encourage them to attend the next year’s meeting if they can’t accept this time round).

Move on down the list of women until the target number is reached. Then invite a few more. Only after that start inviting men. You won’t have any trouble reaching your target of men speakers. And even if you don’t, will it matter if once in a while there are more women than men invited speakers? It might be a small way to redress historic and recent imbalance.

12. When women speakers pull out, replace them with women or not at all.

This is a no-brainer, yet time and time again last-minute speaker gaps are filled with men. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

13. Appoint a gender equity champion

Gender balance won’t happen if no-one is accountable. Appoint a senior person on the program committee whose role it is to ensure (1) policies are in place, (2) everyone on the committee is aware of the policies, (3) data are reported publicly, and (4) the community is updated on the gender balance and how it is tracking. Give that person authority and accountability. Ask them to provide reports at every program committee meeting.

14. For major congresses, ask sub-committees for balance

In some cases, international program committees of major congresses are limited to selecting speakers from hundreds of suggestions they receive from their community or from dozens of sub-committees.The cognitive bias “science is male” is held by a majority of people, so we need everyone in the process to be thoughtful and considerate – to actively and intentionally consider women in the list of nominees. The over-arching program committee may have the goal of balance in mind, but they need their sub-committees to support that goal. The solution here is to require sub-committees to provide a balanced list of suggestions. For example, ask sub-committees to provide 6 suggestions – 3 women, 3 men. Ask individuals to provide 2 suggestions – 1 woman, 1 man. In this way a long list of potential speakers can be built up that is balanced from the beginning, and that gives the overarching committee the wriggle room to achieve gender balance overall.

15. Run regular workshops on the fifteen simple rules 

Educate people. Inform the community as to why we need change. And explain how to make change happen, using conscious and deliberate processes such as these rules.

 

After all, we could all do with better balance in our world in 2017.

 

my first 100 days

Well, actually it’s not just my first 100 days. Now that we’re in Sept, it’s a little over 6 months since I started in my new role. I’m enjoying the challenges (yes, there are many) but sometimes it seems like I’m in a game where the difficulty level has been cranked up from 1 to 100. Juggling and prioritising have become key skills that I rely on.

So what did I get up to in my first 100 days? First of all, I prepared beforehand (the minus 60 days if you like) by talking to people who had previously worked where I now work, about their experience. And I set up an external support network – peer group, coach, mentor – to help me through what I envisaged might be a rough ride for an introvert who was stepping out of her comfort zone. I also arranged a regular day each week/fortnight to meet with my research team at UQ, and appointed two local team leaders to drive the how and what of the move at the end of the year. And, may I say, they have been doing a terrific job!

Then, in the first 90 days of my new role, I focused on information gathering. I asked the people I report to about the key goals they saw for me in the first 12 months. I spoke to as many people as I could – students, research assistants, postdoctoral staff, general staff, and group leaders, as well as stakeholders across the University and externally. I ran an internal survey within the first few weeks, asking questions like, “what is great about the Institute?“, “what could be improved?“. I invited the already established Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to review the Institute at days 40-42 after my arrival, to provide me with recommendations and commendations. I made sure that the Institute, and the senior people I report to, heard the messages coming out of this information-gathering exercise. And I arranged two planning sessions with group leaders within the first 50 days, to discuss the survey and SAB outcomes and to work on where to from here. We workshopped our purpose, our values and our 12 month priorities. These priorities – forming the basis of a strategic plan – were developed into 7 portfolios at about day 70. By day 90, I had established a leadership team of six, who were charged with heading the portfolios over the next 12 months. I arranged a 2-day professional development workshop for the leadership team at 130 days, and we now have regular bi-monthly meetings. We are also well into the first quarter of reporting against the key goals for each portfolio (the operational plan).

I didn’t come up with all these ideas, or do this all myself. I consulted with my peers, my mentors, my sponsors, my coach. I have a terrific executive assistant who knows everyone and everything – a Godsend – I rely on a fab team who contribute ideas and suggestions, and I have people above me who listen and advise. And I used this book as a guide.

As it happened, at about day 100, I traveled overseas for 3 weeks on a trip that had been planned 12 months ago. That trip included a journals management board meeting in Wales, catch-ups with colleagues in London and New York, and a mega-conference in Boston where I was invited to speak on the antibacterial research my team and I work on together with our collaborators. This well-timed but thoroughly unplanned break in the helter-skelter of on-boarding, was an opportune time for me to reflect on my first 100 days. How were things progressing? How did I feel about the new role?

The short answers: I’m learning a lot; there is much to do; there are many challenges ahead; I’m glad I made the move; why did it take so long? All in all, things are heading in the right direction.

—————

Postscript. It’s been a long time since the last blog post in April. The rather steep learning curve and the exponentially accelerating list of urgent to-dos have limited my blog-posting. Nevertheless, there is a lot to talk about. I hope to get back to a more regular pattern soon.

 

new york, new york

At the London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Program (SEP) last year, a senior executive from Adidas happened to remark at dinner one night that Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” was used in German restaurants to signal to patrons it was time to leave. The things you learn in school!

She (yes, the Adidas senior exec was a she! why are you surprised?) wasn’t to know that Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was the piece of music I’d chosen for the LBS playlist. It was the song I’d selected that “had special meaning for me – that transported me back to a precise moment in my life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Whenever I hear it I am instantly transported back to an incredible party in March 1991 in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast hinterland in Queensland. The venue was a beautiful white Queenslander property on acreage, the home of two friends/colleagues from Bond University. After graduating with a DPhil from Oxford in 1990, I’d accepted a postdoctoral position at Bond University Science and Technology School (SciTech). In June 1990, some 9 months before the party, I’d arrived on the Gold Coast from the UK and had spent my first few nights at that very same house (along with my dad who had driven me the ~1000 miles from Melbourne) while I sorted out my own long-term accommodation.

The party was fancy dress and New-York-themed. I was Madonna (well, “Vogue” was in vogue at the time). The head of SciTech was there as Crocodile Dundee. King Kong also made an appearance.

Even my mum was there, visiting from Melbourne with 2 other family members.

The occasion was a very memorable farewell. Mine. A few days later I would be flying out of Australia to take up a 2-year postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University, York Ave, New York, New York. Before I had completed one year of a three-year contract at Bond University, I would be swapping my subtropical home on the Gold Coast for a studio apartment on the 17th floor of a high-rise on 63rd and York.

As I explained in a previous post, Bond University announced the closure of SciTech in Nov 1990, just 5 months after I arrived. Dozens of people were summarily sacked, including me. PhD students part-way through their research studies were without a supervisor, a lab or a stipend. It was a very traumatic experience.

Slide1

Two young women, myself (top) and PhD student Anneliese Palmer, 24 hours and a sleepless night after they’d been told their careers were about to be severely disrupted. I hadn’t even washed my hair by the looks of it. From The Brisbane Courier Mail, Wed 7th November 1990

For me, and perhaps for others, the New York party was a very welcome pressure release, after months of uncertainty and drama. It was a chance to have some fun, and to take control of life again, to set a new course after the turmoil and angst of the previous few months.

Not surprisingly, the grand finale of the party was that song, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. When it came on, the volume control was turned up to 11, the speakers blared, and the whole School – together with family and friends – sang in unison: “Start spreading the news…”

(in case you need a little reminder….)

So that was the song I had chosen for the LBS soundtrack.

I had selected it because it marked a key moment in time for me. A moment of stark clarity. A point in my life where threat turned into opportunity – an opportunity that changed the course of my career. I would leave Australia, move to New York, work in a fabulous lab, and generate new knowledge that would lead to a first author paper in a highly prestigious journal. That work would lay the foundation for research that I continue to this day.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. All I knew then, was that I was taking a big risk, and traveling half-way round the world again to re-start my post-doctoral career.

Perhaps unconsciously, I had also chosen that song last year for LBS because – as my Adidas colleague so neatly explained – it’s the song that signals it’s time to leave.

In March 1991, I hadn’t particularly wanted to leave Bond Uni, the Gold Coast, or my colleagues, friends, and family in Australia. And in October 2015, when I selected that song at the start of the SEP course, I didn’t particularly want to leave UQ either. But by the end of SEP, it had become clear that, well, it was time to think about leaving.

Through informal discussions with SEP colleagues, through the SEP personal development coaching group, through the SEP business development coaching group, and through understanding myself and my motivations and values better, it was obvious. It was time to take another risk and find a new challenge. So it was in March 2016, almost 25 years to the day after that famous party, I started a new phase in my career.

event horizon LBS

So. Where was I? Oh yes. The London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Programme (SEP). October last year. In my last post, I wrote that the SEP experience was transformational. But I didn’t explain what the programme was or how it changed my life. A twitter buddy wrote that I left the post on a “cliff-hanger”. In the present post, I want to document what made SEP such a powerful, emotional and delightful experience for me. And in a third post I will write about my transformation. These two new posts, I hope, will address the cliff and the hanger!

Now, about the title of this post. One might argue that using “event horizon” is perhaps a little melodramatic. After all, LBS wasn’t a black hole. It didn’t suck me in so I couldn’t escape. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of ~4 months since graduation, I can clearly see that SEP marked a point of no return – in some senses. So please forgive me my melodrama; it brings me just a little joy to link this post to a key scientific concept.

To paint a clear picture, I should also explain that I am writing this series of three LBS-SEP posts mostly for my own benefit. It’s extraordinarily valuable for me to record my feelings and experiences, so that when I return to them in years to come the detail I might otherwise forget will be crystal clear. (and just in case you didn’t pick that up, “crystal” is another scientific concept that I like including in posts/blogs). Anyway, I hope that these trilogy of posts will benefit others. But I recognise they are very self-focused, so I won’t be at all offended if you are not interested and don’t read any further. Please be gentle with comments. 🙂

So why was LBS SEP such an incredible experience?

powerful, planned, prepared

The gravitational pull began a long way out, ~6 months prior to the course, with the on-line expression of interest. This required detailed responses to questions about where I was in my career, what my learning objectives were, and how and why I thought I would benefit from the course. I had to think deeply about my professional journey (lucky that I’ve been writing blogs on that for a few years!), where I was going, and what was stopping me progressing. Following this, a phone interview was set up with the LBS programme director to ascertain my “interest and suitability“. I was on tenterhooks taking the 30 min call from the UK one evening late in April last year. There was a grilling of course – why LBS? why SEP? how was my organisation supporting my participation? how would I hand over my current roles during the 4 week intensive course (“there’s no way you can do both“)? how would I set aside time for the extensive, compulsory pre-reading and preparation? Fortunately, at the end of the phone interview I was given verbal assurance that I was accepted, though it wasn’t until 8 May 2015 – when I received the official email: I am delighted to confirm that your application has been approved and we would like to offer you a place on the programme” – that I really celebrated. After all, I was about to embark upon an educational journey that will likely transform (my) professional life.” Hurrah! Champagne time.

Information from LBS flowed in regularly from then on. Importantly, we were advised early on that we would have 5 free evenings and 4 free weekend days during the 27 day programme “you may wish to arrange your own social and business activities”. Being an organisationophile, I pre-arranged a weekend visit to friends in Rugby for the single free weekend during SEP, booked a 4th row seat to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 one free Saturday evening, and signed on to attend “Bridging the Gender Gap – How Men Can Be Allies For Women in STEM” in nearby King’s Cross one free Wed evening.

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Preparation didn’t end there of course. There were colleagues to invite (thank you!) to complete questionnaires on my 360° leadership skills and on the organisation’s strategy execution capabilities. I too had to complete those questionnaires as well as surveys on personal health and wellbeing, media background, and Hogan personality (bright side), Hogan development (dark side), and Hogan motives, values and preferences inventories (inside)  (Hogan reports would help reveal my “core values, goals and interests” – “hmm” I thought, “this should be interesting!”). Not to mention the short bio, photo, corporate logo, and org chart (to show where I fit in the organisation) to be uploaded onto the portal. Then there was the email discussion with other participants from this part of the world about our contribution to the mid-programme International evening (what food we would like prepared, what antipodean souvenirs we would bring to showcase this part of the world, what we might present in our 5 minute overview etc). And a week prior to leaving, I downloaded a bunch of pre-reading material (case studies and articles) and printed them off for perusal on the long-haul flight from BNE to LHR via SIN and DXB).

delightful, enchanting, charming

SEP is a residential programme. We were housed in the London Business School campus in Regent’s Park (a posh suburb of London) just a nip down the road to Baker St and Regent’s Park tube stations and Marylebone railway station. Nice. We were allocated “executive” rooms – tiny British bedrooms outfitted with all the mod cons: TV, en-suite, hairdryer, internet (essential for skype calls home). The proverbial cat would have trouble being swung within those confines, but somehow we all managed with our 1 month’s worth of belongings. One overachieving senior exec training for a triathlon whilst undertaking SEP even managed – somehow – to secrete his bicycle into the phone-booth sized bedroom.

My room was on the top floor. Pros: the stunning views across Regent’s Park and the opportunity for extra exercise (more steps in the highly competitive pedometer challenge – spoiler, triathlon man won). Cons: the hot water struggled to make it to the top floor at peak shower times. The food provided on the course was incredible. My only complaint – too much of it for someone with very little yummy food willpower.

Social events were organised throughout the course by the SEP management team “to help capture that London experience“. Early on there was a cocktail reception hosted by the LBS Dean (Sir Andrew Liekerman) in the Dean’s residence – he gave a terrific history of the School and the beautiful Regency building including its bombing during the Blitz. To get our London bearings, we were treated to a dinner cruise on the Thames, with an unexpected “bonus” of a stop-start London A-Z tour during the 1 hour each way 5km trip to the London docks! There was a dinner in a swanky restaurant in the Old Royal Exchange Building mid-programme, and for graduation evening we were packed into a red double-decker bus to transport us to the farewell dinner on the top floor of Tower Bridge (Yes! Dinner in Tower Bridge!). We definitely captured an amazing London experience.

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Souvenir program for Tower Bridge Graduation dinner; restaurant located in the top span with glass floors to watch the traffic below

memorable, immersive, intense

As a strong introvert, the prospect of walking into a room full of people I’d never met, high achievers across the business, not-for-profit and government sectors, was – well – intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt incredibly nervous as I entered the lecture theatre. How do you break down those barriers, put people at ease, create the conversations that build a community from day one? You make it special. You set aside the same beautifully appointed, spacious and modern lecture theatre for the entirety of the programme. You remove the anxiety about where to sit by indicating each person’s spot with large font nameplates that slot into the front of the long curving desktops. On the nameplates you print the participant’s’ name and organisation as well as their home country flag – that’s more than enough to stimulate conversation. For example, my immediate neighbours in week 1 were from Indonesia (bank), Taiwan (pharma) and Nigeria (bank).

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Nameplate indicates my spot in week 4. Water bottle to the right. LBS loan iPad in front.

At the beginning of each week, nameplates were moved to new positions, so that over the course of 4 weeks each participant would sit in every locale of the theatre, and beside people from all corners of the world. Name badges in lanyards helped with remembering classmates’ names during breaks from the lecture theatre and could also be used to magically procure unlimited free coffees (hot choc in my case) at the local LBS cafe. Also provided on day 1 was the printed SEP course information in a leather-bound LBS folder, LBS pen and notebook (miraculously outfitted with the exact number of pages required for four weeks of copious note-taking), LBS water bottle (for health and wellness – important to stay hydrated), LBS coat and umbrella (it is London after all – people from some parts of Australia and Africa have never seen rain before), and LBS backpack (to carry all the paraphernalia). Well that little lot must account for some huge chunk of the course fee. And of course these “gifts” build a strong connection with LBS (not to mention the brand power when the commodities travel off to 26 countries). On day 1, we were also asked to submit to the programme managers a song that had a special meaning for us – the song should be one that transported us back to a precise moment in our life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Most days began the same way. After early morning wellness sessions (yoga, pilates, exercise class or gym), followed by a (possibly cold) shower, and sumptuous breakfast, we would make our way to the lecture theatre by 8.30 am. Then, when everyone was seated, we would be asked in groups of 4-5 to discuss our major learning from the previous day and appoint a spokesperson to write this on the whiteboard and explain the learning to everyone in one or two sentences. Photos of the whiteboard were loaded onto the programme portal for our records. Finally, 3 or 4 people would be called upon to relate the story behind the song they had nominated. These stories were riveting: hard-nosed senior execs were transformed into vulnerable souls with deep feelings and emotions. Stories of new love, of lives lost too young, of new life directions and of deep passion for country.

After a short break, we’d then move onto lecture content. We were warned beforehand. There would be “long days filled with thought-provoking lectures, activities, exercises, and group work” the emails said. This programme would be a “challenging, inspiring and intense (yet fun) experience” the emails said. And you know what? Those emails were right. It was challenging. It was fun. It was engaging. As evidenced by emails home to my husband, it was intense; Day 1 “It’s been very intense already. Met lots of nice people from all over the world.” Day 2 “Another long day. Started at 7am finished at 9pm. I’m somewhat exhausted” and later “Its certainly an intense course. Not much time left over for anything else.” “Week 2 is even more intense than week 1, if that is possible.” “Another busy day – got up at 6.30 am, wrote up notes, emails, showered, breakfasted then lectures from 8.30 am till 5.45 pm then a Women In STEM event at Kings Cross at 6.30 pm, returned back to room by 10 pm. Some reading homework to do now and then to sleep. I’ll try to get up for a walk tomorrow morning at 6.30 am.

The regular lecture programme was interspersed with extra-ordinary days: a mystery-shopping outing to Oxford St and Regents St for brand evaluation (complete with full-day tube ticket and map); a whole day session at the Royal Society of Arts in central London working with actors on performance skills (“leader as performer” – It was terrific! Lots of ideas on voice, posture and rehearsal); a full day of radio, TV and crisis event media training, including an unexpected and unrehearsed TV vox pop outside the lecture theatre (think hot choc in hand, backpack slung over shoulder, camera in face, mike likewise, interviewer: “Do you think media has too much power?”); and a day devoted to governance and board directorship including role-playing in a dysfunctional board setting.

Lecturers were incredibly skilful at describing new ideas by using a range of engaging techniques: citing the literature (eg how the natural phenomenon of regression to the mean reinforces incorrect use of negative feedback); asking questions rather than telling the answer; using videos to stimulate thinking (eg the invisible gorilla movie highlighting that selective attention in a complex task can lead to important detail being missed); setting a 10-min challenge to design our personal coat of arms (thereby defining our core values); using the marshmallow challenge to stimulate “collaboration, innovation and creativity”.

On graduation, as a record of our time together, we were ceremoniously presented with several items: an LBS graduation certificate (mine is currently being framed for display in my new office), a group photo, a 20 pound voucher to spend in the LBS shop (I bought an LBS fridge magnet and LBS phone charger – which came in handy barely a month later when I was stuck in Kolkata airport for 12 hours) and an LBS USB with MP3s of all the songs selected by participants – which was now the soundtrack of our journey together. What was my song? Well. We’ll have to wait for LBS blogpost 3 to discuss that.

Overall, LBS SEP lived up to its tagline London experience. World Impact. It was indeed a special, life-changing, immersive experience. A turning point for many. A point of no-return for me.