ch-ch-ch-changes

Deeply saddened by the untimely passing of David Bowie this week, I was reminded of a thought bubble from a colleague some years ago. (You know who you are). It went something like this: “There’s no situation in life, love or death that cannot be captioned (or perhaps it was captured) by a Bowie lyric or song title“. In honour of David Bowie, and in a hat-tip to my colleague, this post – pointing to a transformational experience for me last year – duly follows that rule.

For me, 2015 was actually a bit of a blur. I guess that is mostly due to a very intense travel schedule, with five international work-related trips and more than a dozen national trips for various committees and presentations. The in/out of office balance was well and truly tipped in favour of being out more often than I was in. Despite all that, there was at least one trip to the UK that remains etched into my memory. That’s because it was quite literally life-changing.

On that trip, I traveled to London to undertake a 4-week intensive Senior Executive Program at the London Business School (LBS) in October. Four weeks. That’s a serious chunk of a year. “Why would you do that?“, I hear you ask. Actually, many people had a similar question after they heard I was taking this course. “What are you doing that for?” was a common response, usually said in a high-pitched tone of astonishment and incredulity. I even began questioning myself “What the hell are you thinking?“.

The truth is, I don’t know what I was planning when I first decided to take the course about a year ago. What I do know is that as a successful research scientist and academic at a research intensive university (the same one for more than 20 years), I nevertheless had had a growing and unsettling sensation that I was treading water. I spoke about this with my circle of peers and colleagues (probably ad nauseum, if you were to ask them).

Anyway, the most helpful feedback I received was to investigate senior leadership training, as that might help me to set a new direction that would also accord with my research career goals. After some online searching, and consulting with peers, I chose to apply for the course offered at the London Business School. Why that one? Well, it’s true, I could have taken a course at my own university which also has a very highly regarded business school. It would have been a whole lot cheaper too. But I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone. I wanted to reflect on where I was at in my life, and where I was going in my career. For me to do that required removing the urgent pressures of my everyday role and my everyday life. Moreover, if I was going to take several weeks of my precious leave entitlement to undertake a course like this, I wanted an experience that would give me an entirely new perspective. And – as I was taking leave, after all – I wanted to be situated in a place I enjoyed visiting.

Believe me. I know I was in a very privileged position. I had sufficient leave accrued to take time off for the course. I lead a highly capable research team that runs like a well-oiled machine whether I am there or not. I had the support of a husband who would hold the fort at home while I was away for a large part of the year. And he also supported the decision that we make a significant financial investment in me, for a ch-ch-ch-change that I had not yet clearly defined.

Importantly, the cost of the fees was also defrayed by a considerable contribution from my employer (thank you UQ!) – providing genuine evidence that they supported this investment too. Do you want to know how that happened? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I had fully intended to pay the entire cost of the course fees myself. As I entered the course dates in my calendar, I realised that it overlapped with a commitment I had made to sit on an important multi-day panel for the university. Rather embarrassed about having to withdraw from the panel, I spoke to a senior exec about what I should do.

After explaining the situation, his first response was a sombre “The Vice-Chancellor will be very upset“.

Oh dear,” I said “should I cancel my enrolment?”, fully expecting that I wouldn’t be permitted to attend the course. Sometimes I really am rather thick.

Till the end of my days, I will never forget what he said next.

No, of course you shouldn’t cancel your enrolment. We’ll work something out. And what’s more, we should support you to attend this course. It’s important that we provide leadership training to senior women. This is an expensive course (too expensive he actually said!), but let’s see if we can find some of the cost to help you to attend.

My initial response, a classic I guess, was to remonstrate strongly. “Oh, no, no, no. No. I will pay for this myself.“. There’s a life lesson right there, I think.

So that was that. I was going to London to take a Business School course. Me. A scientist. It ended up being a 6 week trip in the end. The first week I had arranged meetings related to my scientific and committee responsibilities, the middle four weeks for the course were taken as leave (so I wouldn’t be too tempted to feel guilty and try to work at the same time as undertaking the course) and the last week was a week of actual, real leave. On that last week, I caught up with friends from my Oxford days and visited the Lake District with the hope of processing all I’d learned and been exposed to on the course, before returning to Australia.

To give you a first little taster of the experience, here is an excerpt of an email letter I sent to my research team, as well as to family and friends after week one of the course (additional comments in italics):

“Dear all,

It’s Sunday afternoon 11 Oct 2015, 12 days since I arrived in London and 1 week after starting the programme. It’s been fabulous. 

The course started on Sunday last week at London Business School which is situated in a lovely old building of 26 terrace houses designed by John Nash and facing Regent’s Park.

The London Business School in Regent’s Park (this view is from my room on the 3rd floor – yes, this was a residential course)

The building has been renovated so that only the facade is from the early 19th century. Regent’s Park is fabulous to walk about at lunchtime or Sundays when we get a day off, and I’ve managed to walk to the top of Primrose Hill a couple of times to get a beautiful view across London.

View of London from Primrose Hill

View of London from Primrose Hill

The course participants (there were just shy of 50 of us) are all signed up to wellness sessions including yoga, pilates and circuit training. (we were each assigned to a health and wellness coach, and trained to the mantra that improving your health and wellness gives you a competitive advantage – I definitely won’t argue with that). We’ve been issued a pedometer and our coaching groups of 4 people each have to log our combined steps walked at the end of every week. As you might guess it gets very competitive with senior executives from around the world (the cohort included senior people from over 25 countries representing commercial companies, not-for-profits, government departments as well as academia e.g. Adidas, Electrolux, Woolworths, the Royal Navy, St John Ambulance, UK National Grid etc).

Last Sunday we started with a 1-day refresher on finance and accounting so that (hopefully) we’re all on the same page with the metrics used in business.  I now have a fair idea of what net present value and accrued rate of return means. (not sure that’s still true) Since then the course has thrown us some challenging ideas about the predicted 100 year life and how that will impact us in the future. Not to mention the digital revolution of networks, information and big data and how these are changing the world.

On Thursday we went to the Royal Society of Arts where we were coached in performance skills in a program called “Leader as performer“. That was fun! Afterwards, I walked back from Trafalgar Square to Regent’s Park (to get those steps up) via the National Portrait Gallery where I had dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking Nelson’s column.

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View from the restaurant in the National Portrait Galley, London

There’s been a bit more walking in Regent’s Park today….and walking to a few other places nearby – one of which might look vaguely familiar. Can you guess where it is?

I'm sure you don't need to be told where this is

I’m sure you don’t need to be told where this is

You can see that by the end of week 1, at least, I was pretty happy with the course and the venue. But what did I learn at school? And how did that lead to the changes alluded to in the title?

Well those details, dear reader, will have to wait for another day.

Vale David Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-changes. Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on risk and luck in a scientific career

It’s funny thinking about one’s career in retrospect, and contemplating how it ended up where it has. For mine, there have been risks, as well as some dumb luck along the way. Not to mention a fair share of mistakes. One of the silliest mistakes was to assume – when I was a young student at Pharmacy College in Melbourne – that the academics instructing me always knew they wanted to be academics and that they’d all had a smooth career path in reaching that point. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as I learned from my own academic journey. Bumps and hurdles, both personal and professional, abounded on the way to where I am now. I certainly didn’t start out knowing that I wanted to be an academic. Far from it.

I was lucky in many ways early on. For one thing, although I was born into a poor family I was reasonably clever, did well at school and I had the opportunity to move out of poverty. Unlike my parents who both left school at 13 or 14, I had the chance of a tertiary education. Without incurring a hideously large debt. Yes, tertiary education in Australia was free when I was an undergraduate. That was a great bit of dumb luck. It required being born at the right time.

Second, there were strong female role models in my life who, either through necessity or chance, had taken paths that diverged from the norm for women of low socioeconomic status. My mother – with 9 children – became charge nurse in a hospital operating theatre when I was still at home. My aunt, a nun, had a successful nursing career in a major city hospital. My high school physics and chemistry teacher was a woman. These women weren’t simply passive objects in a male-dominated world, and they showed by example that getting married and having children was not the only option for a young girl from the sticks. A good thing really. For an excruciatingly shy young girl, if marriage and children were the only measure of success I would have been a complete failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Tertiary education was not all beer and skittles. In fact there was no beer. And no skittles. To attend college I had a 90 minute commute each way on public transport (it’s probably no coincidence that ever since then my commute has been 15 min or less). Domestic duties awaited when I returned home every night: cooking, doing the dishes, the laundry, etc for a large family. With travel, undergrad lectures, long pracs, nightly revision of lecture notes as well as home duties, there was no time for the usual student social life at college. On the flip side, I did gain important time-management skills. 🙂 And I loved the pharmacy course. Indeed, it was a revelation to see the chemistry underpinning a drug:receptor interaction and to find that drug design was not merely the stuff of science fiction. So it was no trouble to absorb the course information and, perhaps in part because I had none of the beer and skittles distractions, I aced the degree. That early success set me up for a competitive government scholarship towards a Masters research degree. A postgraduate degree. I had certainly not planned that when I started out. And it was a bit of a risk moving into research when my peers were moving into well-paying positions as pharmacists. But that is what I chose to do. The thrill of discovery beckoned.

As I described in a previous post, I wasn’t really sure what to do after the Masters degree…research or pharmacy? pharmacy or research? At the time, what I really wanted to do was travel. There was a whole wide world waiting to be discovered. And there was that little issue of a young man I’d met during my Masters degree who had returned to the UK after a year in industry in Australia. I took another risk. I planned a trip through Nepal and India on my own (what was I thinking?) and applied for PhD scholarships in the UK. If I was awarded a scholarship I would move into research. If I didn’t, I would spend a few months on a working holiday in Europe and return to Australia to a job in pharmacy.

Leaving Melbourne, not knowing I would be gone for 4 years, on my way to discover the big wide world.

A young Aussie girl – complete with Akubra – farewells her family at Melbourne airport at the beginning of her journey to discover the big wide world. Photo taken by her dad

If you’ve read that earlier post, you’ll know the scholarships came along just in the nick of time, and I earned a D Phil degree at Oxford University. By then the young man was history (well let’s face it, he was never that into me anyway). So there’s another bit of dumb luck that turned out to be a huge cornerstone of my career. Likely, I wouldn’t have a degree from Oxford if I’d not fallen for a Brit boy and not had the support of mentors directing me to a research degree there.

So there I was with a DPhil degree from Oxford. You can imagine, I was on top of the world. Where would I go? What would I do next? After several years in the UK, I was desperately homesick and longing for a bit of sun. As luck would have it, a new private university had opened in Queensland, and I accepted a 3-year postdoctoral position there. Big mistake. Within 6 months of my arriving, the university closed the entire science and technology school; it was too expensive to run. Along with scores of others, I was unemployed. The world that had been my oyster had slammed shut. But then, another bit of dumb luck. I was mobile. I didn’t have a mortgage or a family to support. I could go overseas. Two positions came up, one at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the other at Rockefeller University in New York. I ummed and ahhed. Both were great labs, great opportunities. Which one should I choose? In the end, I opted for New York. I thought it might be marginally safer than Tel Aviv (the first Gulf war was raging at the time). Funny thing is, a year earlier I had stated categorically that I would never work in the USA. Now I was having to eat those words. Big time. New York was probably the last place I would have chosen to go in the US had it not been for the circumstances. Yet it turned out to be a great career move. I worked hard at Rockefeller University for two years and generated two high profile first author papers. That decision was a good one. Even if it was precipitated by bad luck.

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A much younger yours truly hard at work in front of a precious Apple Mac at Rockefeller Uni (hmm I must have cleaned up my desk for the photo)

For personal reasons, after the Big Apple I decided it was time to return to Australia for good. This time to the University of Queensland in Brisbane with my own fellowship, and my own set-up money. I had been given a golden opportunity to establish a protein crystallography lab, in the Drug Design and Development Centre. I ran with that opportunity, and I’ve now been at UQ for 22 years. There have been ups and downs of course. Personally, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. For a couple of years I was in a….well, let’s say a troubled relationship at home. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on my partner. And we didn’t have children. So although it was very distressing, I was able to extricate myself after a couple of turbulent years – with the help of friends and colleagues. My self-confidence and self-esteem suffered, and I lived alone for a long time after that. The experience did teach me a very valuable lesson about defining what I wanted in a relationship. That was definitely a good bit of planning.

A few years later, I met my now husband. We met late in life and neither of us had married before. The whole marriage thing was a bit of a gamble for both of us. But that risk was well worth it; in hindsight, the decision to share my life with him was easily the most brilliant decision ever.

So things are going well. My research is at an all-time high, I work with a great team of young and enthusiastic scientists, and my other great passion – gender equity in Australian science – is firmly on the national agenda.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to capitalise on success. Now is the time to put myself out there, take a step out of my comfort zone. And so I recently accepted the role of Director of the Eskitis Drug Discovery Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. I begin in March, and am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my research and step up to a more senior role. I’m also just a little terrified by leaving the known (UQ) for the unknown (GU).

Lucky I completed that Senior Executive Program at the London Business School last year. Must write about that next time.