reason and resilience

How is it that I have been successful in the highly competitive male-dominated field of science and academia? I don’t feel extraordinary; I’m just a person who works hard, is driven by a passion for science, and loves the joy of discovery, training and mentoring. These are not unusual traits in scientists. Although not extraordinary, these days I often feel as if I don’t belong; a square peg in a round hole, different. When it comes down to it, I am different. Most of my peers are men. Why have I “made it” when so many other women haven’t?

In 2012, Dr Terence Fitzsimmons from the UQ Business School published research on the childhood experiences of male and female CEOs in Australia. He found that “Almost all the males had professionally employed fathers and ‘stay at home’ mothers and all but two had captained football teams. They had learned leadership and other skills broadly applicable to work life prior to entering the workforce. Meanwhile the females tended to have self-employed fathers and mothers who helped in the business and often came from disrupted backgrounds, with family traumas such as death or family breakdown forcing them to take on an adult role at an early age.

Now that struck a chord.

If you’ve been reading my posts you’ll know that I’m one of 9 kids, with 3 older brothers. I also have 3 younger sisters and 2 younger brothers. As the eldest girl in this family, I had significant carer responsibilities from a young age.

When I was 11, my mum needed to go back to work to bring in more money. With so many mouths to feed and bodies to clothe (all 9 of us had been born by then), our family was doing it tough on just dad’s income. My mum had been brought to tears when my younger brother kicked holes in his school shoes playing footy. She didn’t have the money to replace them. So he had to go to school with holes in his shoes. Our clothes, including school uniforms, were often patched up and re-used by younger brothers and sisters. Mum was very handy with a pair of knitting needles and made all the woollens for the entire family for decades. I and others were taught how to replace elastic in underwear and how to sew buttons on, to keep clothes wearable for a few years longer. Never could master the art of darning socks though.

Dad was a self-employed long-distance truck driver (or ‘cartage contractor’!). Mum was a theatre nurse who scrubbed, scouted, did anaesthetics and recovery room nursing and eventually became a charge nurse/nurse unit manager. But when the youngest in the family turned 1, mum hadn’t worked for some years. Things were getting desperate by that time and the family really needed more cash. She found some part-time work at a new private hospital that had opened nearby. Not much work, just 4 h per day in the afternoon on a Saturday and Sunday along with several periods of being on call over the weekend to come in for emergencies. It brought in some well-needed cash.

When mum was at work on those weekends, I had to help out with caring for the two youngest in the family who were then 1 and 2 years old. I was 11. I learned how to feed them, change nappies, keep them entertained, rock them to sleep. All the usual things.

After about a year, mum fell pregnant again. At the time, I suffered from tonsillitis and one of the flare-ups coincided with a pre-natal visit by mum to her GP. So we went in together. I was given some painkillers and throat lozenges, and then I watched as the doctor checked mum over and listened for the baby’s heartbeat. He even let me listen, and pronounced that all was going very well.

Mum continued working through her pregnancy till about 6-7 months. At about 8 months, the family moved from a run-down rental property that had been condemned by the local council as unfit to live in, to another rental property that was in somewhat better condition. It was a 3-bedroom house with 1 bathroom and 1 toilet. For 11 people. There were no movers to help with the heavy lifting of the move. We couldn’t afford it. So we did the whole thing ourselves. In our family history, it is remembered as the first time that we had take-away, rather than a home-cooked meal.

The move took a toll on mum though. Even dad noticed that she was not her usual self, and he is not known for his empathetic ability. A week or so later, she went into labour. She was at home with the two youngest girls, now aged 2 and 3. Mum recalls that she was feeling out of sorts and had gone to lie down in the bedroom. Then she began haemorrhaging. She frantically called dad to come home to take her to the hospital. Then she called the school to get me home to look after the two little ones.

I was in the first year of high school. The teacher called me out of class and told me to go home quick smart, that mum was having the baby. I jumped on my bike, and cycled home as fast as I could, excited by the news.

When I got back I was greeted by a scene I never want to relive. Mum and dad were heading to the hospital. Clearly something was wrong, but nobody told me what. I was too young to know I suppose. After they left, I looked into their bedroom. There was blood everywhere, or so it seemed. I shut the door. Then I focused on what I had to do. I looked after the young ones. I made dinner for the family. And I kept repeating over and over to myself “Please don’t let anything happen to mum”. I can’t remember how I was told, but the news came back at some point that mum was OK, though the baby didn’t make it.

My aunt, my mum’s older sister who was a nun at a hospital in the city, came to help out for a few days. She was a very strong woman and didn’t stand for any nonsense. But she had a soft heart too. She asked me how I was doing. I told her I was upset. And I told her I was very worried about mum. She asked me how I felt about losing a brother. Looking back from this vantage point, I can’t believe now what I said. I told her that perhaps it was a good thing. That we were struggling to look after those that were here already and maybe this was God’s way of saying that’s enough. I was 12 years old.

As you might imagine, mum took the death of her son in childbirth very hard. She couldn’t look at another baby for the next 12 months without bursting into tears. It was very distressing for everyone. Nevertheless, needs must, and she returned to work about 6 weeks after the stillbirth. She recalls it as being one of the darkest times of her life.

I returned to high school. Unlike most of my peers, I wasn’t interested in finding a boyfriend. I just wanted to make my mum feel better. So I helped out a lot at home, and it’s fair to say that – like Terence Fitzsimmons’ female CEOs – I took on a great deal of family responsibility at an early age. Dr Fitzsimmons concluded his study with “far greater attention needs to be placed upon how we socialise and educate our children, as well as the support and experiences we give to people entering their careers.

Perhaps these girlhood experiences shaped an inner strength and resolve that have helped me to succeed. I can’t say for sure. There is no control experiment. On the other hand, from my own perspective we don’t do enough as a society to nurture leadership qualities and provide leadership training to girls to generate resilient, resourceful, strong women leaders of the future. This is needed not just in science and academia, but in all walks of life. After all there are a lot of problems to fix in this world. We can’t afford to lose 50% of the possible solutions.


result of the week

Quite honestly, I need a bit of positive feedback every now and then to keep me going. “Good job”. “Well done”. “Terrific work”. “Keep it up”. It really doesn’t take much. Just a little encouragement and support. Does wonders.

Trouble is, it seems sometimes that academic life is all about negative feedback. Experiments fail. Grant applications get rejected. Fellowship applications get rejected. Manuscripts get rejected. These applications and papers take weeks to write, not to mention the blood, sweat and tears – and often the years and years of work – to generate the data and the big story. Then in an instant, hopes and dreams are dashed when the email arrives that says, effectively, not good enough.

Some years ago, to counteract the incessant negativity, Group Martin decided to celebrate our everyday science successes together. Here is what we do. At our weekly lab meetings we have a permanent agenda item “result of the week“. Nominations are called for by the chair of the meeting (everyone gets a turn at chairing the meeting during the year – it’s good career development experience). Anyone in the lab can nominate a ROTW contender. BUT rule number 1 is that you can’t nominate yourself. And rule number 2 is that if you won ROTW last time you are ineligible to win this time.

The chair of the meeting collates the nominations and arranges for the nominees to each provide a single slide that illustrates the result. At the end of the lab meeting (after the research presentation and other lab business items of the agenda), there is a hush as the chair announces each ROTW nominee and presents each slide in turn. How many nominees are there? Who has been nominated? What did they do to move science forward? When their slide comes up, the nominee explains over a minute or two why the result is significant and what makes it new and exciting. At the end of the nominations, the chair of the meeting writes the nominee names on pieces of paper which are then folded up tightly. A drum roll (fingers on table) often accompanies the announcement of the winner who is selected randomly from these folded-up pieces of paper by the previous week’s winner. And the prize? Well that is a coffee or tea with me at the local cafe. OK so the prize isn’t great, but at least it’s some recognition and reward for a job well done. Actually, in addition to the caffeine hit there used to be a rather unique statue that would sit on the winner’s desk for the week. But that went missing some time ago. Admittedly it was rather ugly. May have to find a replacement for that….

Anyway, just by way of example, the three ROTW nominees this week were (1) a senior RA who produced beautiful protein crystals for structural studies, (2) a team of 2 postdocs and a visiting Danish PhD student who together generated and analysed some lovely synchrotron X-ray scattering data on a protein sample, revealing the shape of the protein in solution, and (3) a postdoc who – with others from external labs – successfully applied for quite a large amount of funding from the University to run a career forum later this year. The last nominee was ruled ineligible (last week’s winner, postponed to next week). Of the remaining two, the winner – chosen randomly – was the senior RA.

Even with the relatively insignificant prize on offer, result of the week has become a bit of a lab highlight. And this has had some rather unanticipated effects on lab culture. First, because self-nomination is not allowed, researchers need to talk about their research and discuss their results with others in the lab in order to be nominated. This means that sharing of data with others and a collegial environment in the lab is expected and accepted by everyone. Second, choosing a winner at random rather than voting on the outcome discourages voting alliances and manipulations (of the sort, “I’ll vote for you this week if you vote for me next week”). Moreover, when the winner of a competition is randomly selected, everyone has the chance to win. Indeed over a year, everyone is a winner. Finally, because last week’s winner can’t win this week, it’s unlikely that the same person will win often enough for it to become annoying. Having said that, lab folklore insists that on those occasions when one former PhD student was nominated it was best not to be in the competition as his name would always be the one drawn out of the hat. I don’t hold any truck with that nonsense. Though it was uncanny sometimes….

Of course, there are many other things that we do to celebrate working together – lab lunches (next one with a “traditional” theme), birthday cakes (this year with crystal-themed cakes in honour of the International Year of Crystallography – I’m up next to bake for Dorothy Hodgkin’s birthday), outings (cycles around Brisbane, walks in the Gold Coast hinterland rainforest), and specific celebrations for grants and papers when they do get awarded. Not to mention the famous secret Martin family “yo-yo” biscuit (cookie) recipe that is solemnly handed over to Martin lab students after their PhD is awarded. That very special event requires a one-on-one workshop with me to bake and assemble the biccies, and then a taste test with lab members. Actually, on one very memorable occasion we couldn’t do the traditional lab taste test. I bought the secret ingredients in Oxford UK when I was visiting colleagues there, and travelled by train with the loot to London where I met with not one but two graduated PhDs who were by then postdocs at King’s College London and University of Zürich. Yes, that’s correct. A former student traveled all the way from Switzerland to the UK for this knowledge handover, and to celebrate and reaffirm our research connection.

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Reading through this post, I can’t help but think there is a strong theme around food – cakes and biscuits in particular. In all honesty, I can’t deny this. I am a Martin after all. And we Martins do love our food.

But getting back to the topic at hand, I wonder how other scientific researchers overcome the niggling negativity of constant critical assessment and low success rates. What do you do to highlight the joy of science discovery and celebrate everyday science success?

I’d love to hear about other ideas that we might adopt in the Martin lab.

And no, these don’t have to involve food.

**Updated with photos on 11 and 12 May 2014 after posting***