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

5 thoughts on “reaching for stars

  1. I am sorry to hear of your loss and grateful that you have shared your mother’s wise words with us – she sounds amazing.

  2. Pingback: 99% perfect | cubistcrystal

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