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.

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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.

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.