does this conference have no shame? asking for a friend

Op-Ed for HealthCare IT News published on IWD 8 March 2018

I’m a woman. And I was raised a Catholic. So I know a bit about guilt and shame. One of the earliest and most confusing lessons I learned was, it doesn’t do to show how clever you are. That would be shameful. Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.

This old “girls are not (meant to be) smarter than boys” cliché may contribute to the bias many of us hold that science is male. It may explain why, for example, when I’ve received a prestigious speaking invitation, a leadership role, fellowship, award, whatever – I’ve often also received a comment or two implying that I’d only got that gig because I’m a woman. You know quotas. Affirmative action. The subtle message is that I couldn’t have earned it on merit alone – consequently there must be more deserving men who missed out. Presumably, I should be ashamed.

Speaking of affirmative action, people of all persuasions have told me they don’t support quotas or targets to address entrenched gender imbalance. That wouldn’t be fair to men. Women will feel uncomfortable. No, we must consider merit only. We can’t let this issue affect quality. Hmm, I think…but increasing diversity will affect quality; it is bound to improve.

Anyway, who made up the rules so that merit means pale, male, and stale?

Look around. Look at every sphere of influence, every sector, every decision-making body. There is already a quota system in place. It’s a quota for men. Men are supported by societal constructs, by systems, structures and policies devised by men for men. Systems and constructs that we all adhere to, unconsciously or otherwise.

I am reminded of an infamous conference in 2015 in a field of science replete with high profile women. A conference with 21 invited speakers. Three of those invited speakers were men named Mark from NSW. Yet none of the 21 invited speakers were women. Not one. The conference website proudly displayed the headshots of the invited speakers. It was magnificent in its uniformity. How could the organisers not see this enormous carbuncle of a problem? Did this conference have no shame? Did they expect that no one would comment?

Did anyone tell those invited men that they only got that gig cos they were men (named Mark from NSW)? Do you think it entered their heads that because of an insidious unconscious quota system for old white men, they had benefited from invisible privilege? Did they consider that in accepting that quota, I mean invitation, they had taken the place of a meritorious woman?

Some men are horrified when they find out – and are quick to respond. Others. Well, clearly they must be the best speakers because they wouldn’t have been invited otherwise. That’s how they got that gig. They earned it. What’s more, I should be ashamed for asking such questions and making them feel uncomfortable.

It’s an awkward truth, but this is what entitlement looks like.

Guess what? It’s not that difficult to get quality and equality in speaker lists for conferences or panels. I’ve done it many times. The trick is to be aware that implicit bias exists, to consciously address it, to plan ahead and, you know, maybe count the number of women and men you invite. I wrote a post – a how-to guide if you will – to help others achieve conference speaker gender balance. I published it in PLOS Comp Biol in Nov 2014 with the title “Ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance”. It’s been viewed over 35,000 times.

Ten simple rules. 35,000 views. And yet conference organisers still mess up. So, more than a year ago I wrote another 5 rules, to provide remedial help. You can see what I’m doing here, I am trying to be polite. I am trying to help. That’s what is expected of women.

It’s more than four years since I wrote that original post. Over three years since the open-access paper was published. And yet we still end up with conferences like this and this and this (scroll down to see the list of speakers) and this. Some of the men who accepted to speak have signed a #panelpledge. They should be ashamed.

Women I’ve never met contact me on a regular basis, women who are ashamed of their professional society, their organising committee, their field, which has – without any apparent shred of shame or guilt or self-awareness – approved and happily advertised a panel, or conference speaker list with no (or very few) women. How is this acceptable?

It’s not acceptable. I’ve had enough. Now, I have no shame.

Our world can’t wait another 200 years or more for equality. So on this International Women’s Day 2018 I will #pressforprogress by pledging to out conferences, panels, societies that have no obvious regard for equality, and to shame men I know that accept speaking invitations without considering diversity and who thereby contribute to normalising this persistent abnormality.

This is really important. Not just for conferences. For our future. If we are to solve the many challenging problems our world faces, we need to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, that there is a level playing field, so that we really do end up with the most meritorious people in positions of power, making the big decisions.

Join me to #pressforprogress. Post those #allmalepanels you see advertised, here. And ask questions, like: before I join, what is this society’s speaker policy? why aren’t there any women on the invited speaker list? Inclusiveness and diversity are key to future success, so why should I pay to listen to a panel that isn’t inclusive or diverse?

You never know, we might just change the world one shame at a time.

selfless in seattle

Actually, this post has nothing to do with Seattle. I just liked the title. The theme, eventually, is science leadership through altruism. But to get there, first I need to relate a story that has been on my mind the past week or two.

It’s a story about my highest cited paper. Which happens to be a single author paper. Yet this paper almost didn’t get submitted.

According to Google Scholar (2 Jan 2017) this paper has 785 citations (579 according to the journal). And though it’s more than 20 years old, it still averages 30 cites per year. The paper reports on a protein fold that has been used in Nature to deliver many different enzymatic functions, and in so doing has evolved the most incredible and beautiful diversity of protein architectures.

It is a most enchanting protein fold. (I may be biased).

Sure, after 20 years the paper is probably in need of an update. But as you might imagine, I am inordinately proud of this piece of work. Especially given that at the time I wrote it, I almost talked myself out of submitting it. Funny how things work out, isn’t it.

Let me explain.

A few years before that paper was published, I solved the crystal structure of a then recently discovered bacterial protein (DsbA) that had no detectable sequence relationship to any proteins of known structure. That information implied that its structure would be completely novel. At the time, I was a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University. The structure determination was challenging, for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say that it required some pretty nifty labwork to wrangle the structure out of that crystal. The important point is that to everyone’s surprise, despite the lack of sequence similarity, the structure revealed that my protein was related to an already characterised protein (thioredoxin). Unexpectedly we had found distant protein cousins – but it wasn’t their DNA that gave their relationship away, it was their shape.

I published the structure determination as a short correspondence – which meant there wasn’t enough space to wax lyrical about the surprising relationship between the two proteins. So I followed up that line of enquiry separately. I collected all the published protein structures that contained that fold, I analysed their sequences, their structures, their similarities and differences, I wrote up a draft and sent it to my two co-authors for comment. One co-author was my postdoctoral supervisor – Prof John Kuriyan. The other was a collaborator who had worked on the structures of some of the distant cousin proteins. By this stage though, I had moved to the University of Queensland where I was setting up my own lab. John Kuriyan had very generously – selflessly – encouraged me to take the project with me when I left his lab. (Thank you John!)

Then came the spanner in the works. John insisted that this structural bioinformatics paper was mine; and that he should not be an author. After John took his name off the paper, the other co-author followed suit. Eek. I was on my own. As a new lab head I had sort of been relying on these two to help me write the cover letter, respond to reviewers’ comments. And, you know, give the paper some cachet. Now, the cachet would be left entirely to me. My first reaction when the two co-authors jumped ship was that they must think the paper was a dud. Such is impostor syndrome thinking.

But needs must – I hadn’t had any papers published for 18 months because of the move to Australia and setting up a lab. So I timidly submitted the paper to a good journal and – surprise, surprise – it was sent out for review. The reviewers were supportive. The paper was accepted with minor changes and then published. The rest, as they say, is history.

This story of my almost-not-submitted-top-paper is front of mind at present because:

• I am writing a grant application that requires me to highlight my ten best papers

• there is an upcoming celebration of John Kuriyan’s 30 years as a lab head

• I am reminded of Prof Ben Barres of Stanford University.

On that last point, I was deeply shocked and saddened by the news that Ben passed away recently. Ben – a renowned neuroscientist – had a unique perspective on equity and diversity. He was openly transexual.

In a 2006 commentary he told the story of how, soon after transitioning, he overheard a colleague say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s”.

I never met Ben, but I felt I had. He was inspirational, a champion of those marginalised in academia. He spoke truth to power.

In one of many tributes to Ben, I noted the words of his former postdoc. “Ben told me, ‘Take this work with you to your new lab, Beth. Nobody can do it better than you.’ Mentors aren’t always so generous about ceding areas of research initiated in their lab to trainees headed elsewhere. But Ben was a very special person. Not only was he an incredible scientist, but he also cared deeply about other people, especially his trainees. We were his kids.

Ben believed so deeply on the importance of this point that he wrote an opinion piece in Nature published in August 2017 while “dying of stage four pancreatic cancer“. He argued that lab heads should let junior researchers take their projects with them when they start their own labs because it drives innovation and discovery. That’s what he did for his team. And JK did for me.

So how about it research agencies and organisations? Let’s incentivise innovation. Enable altruism. Support real leadership in science. Metrics for selflessness now!

Vale Ben Barres

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…..

 

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.

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.

photoNPG

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.