PERLs of wisdom

Once upon a time, a long time ago, before most of today’s early career researchers were born, there was a young Australian postdoc living in New York. She’d learned a lot overseas and scored a couple of great discoveries/papers. Now, though, she wanted to return home, set up her own lab, lead her own team of scientific discovery hunters, collaborate with the best of the best.

Trouble was, timing wasn’t great. There was a worldwide recession, with very few academic jobs available, and research funding was tight. Her application to the Australian Research Council for a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship was highly ranked but just missed out. It placed in the reserve list. Cripes. What to do now?

Meanwhile, somewhere else – where? – another young postdoc – who? – made a decision that changed our young postdoc’s life. That someone else had been awarded a QEII Fellowship, but declined the offer. Consequently, our protagonist moved up into the funded list and became a QEII Fellow. Hooray! A lifeline had been thrown out: she grabbed it with both hands and (almost) never looked back.

Opportunity is everything as an early career researcher.

Fast forward almost 30 years, that young postdoc is now the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Wollongong (UOW), an Australian university located an hour or so south of Sydney – and one of only two universities in Australia having an Indigenous name in its title. Fantastic!

Trouble is, timing isn’t great. There is a worldwide pandemic, borders are closed to international students, university income has dropped dramatically, academic jobs are being shed, and research funding is tighter than anyone can ever remember. Cripes. What to do now?

The Australian Federal Government provided short-term sustenance in the form of a bonus research block grant, to be expended by universities over 2021/2022. Block grants can be put to many uses, and each university decides on its own priorities – equipment maintenance, new equipment, small grants, large grants, teaching buyout, research support, research fellowships.

UOW is setting aside a large proportion of its bonus research block grant to Prioritise Emerging Research Leaders (PERL) Fellowships and Indigenous PERL Fellowships. This scheme provides a salary, a small grant, and a mentor to support the most vulnerable of our researchers: early career researchers employed on fixed term contracts ending within the next 6 months. Alas, current constraints mean that PERL Fellowships last just18 months, and there are not enough to support everyone that should be supported.

Nevertheless, UOW’s PERLs (of wisdom) Fellows will have a lifeline. Precious PERLs, grab that opportunity and run with it.

After all, opportunity is everything when you are an early career researcher.

a farewell to GRIDD

On 20 February 2019, Griffith University hosted a wonderful farewell event for me (organised by a highly efficient team led by Executive Assistant Sheila Twilley and Institute Manager Ian Hayward – thank you!). The farewell acknowledged my three years as Director of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery and celebrated my new appointment at the University of Wollongong where I will be Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation. I was asked to prepare a 2-minute speech for the event. Below is the transcript of that speech.

(oops, it may have been a little over 2 minutes….but who’s counting?)


There‘s a well-known African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child“. Well, it took many villages to raise this Director, including all of you in this room, as well as many others who couldn’t be here today. I want to thank each and every one of you. Not least for taking time out of very busy lives, to come here today and celebrate all that we have achieved together. Without you, without your help, support and advice we could not begin to realise our goals, our dreams. Together, we have accomplished so much in just three years.

But first, I should let you know that I’ve been banned from thanking each of you individually, so please also know that “my success is your success ……and your success is my success”. I thank you for your success. And I thank you for my success.

Second, I am deeply grateful to Griffith University for the opportunity to lead the remarkable Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (aka GRIDD), and to work with so many incredibly talented and dedicated researchers, professional staff and students.

Obviously I am sad to leave: I care very deeply about GRIDD and the people who joined me on this journey on March 1 2016, a journey that started out by defining our mission and our purpose “Creating knowledge that transforms lives” and our values (ie how we put our purpose into action). I am so proud that we are a values-based research Institute, an Institute that cares about, that exemplifies, that rewards excellence, integrity, respect and collegiality.

And, as somewhat of an aside, there is something quite beautiful about the symmetry of my Griffith start and end dates (1 March 2016 – 1 March 2019) that brings a certain sense of crystallographic joy.

When I step aside in a few days time, there’s no need for me to be concerned about GRIDD because I know it will be in the excellent and highly capable hands of Prof Kathy Andrews as Acting Director and Prof Sally-Ann Poulsen as Acting Deputy Director. My own research team will remain at GRIDD and I will have the pleasure and privilege of co-leading that team with Dr Maria Halili. We will become the Halili-Martin lab. That news makes me very happy….because it means I get to continue to work with a fantastic research group in a wonderful Institute, and it means I’ll be back at GRIDD regularly! (you can’t get rid of me that easily).

You may wonder then, if I am so sad at leaving, why am I going? The thing is, I have an ulterior motive. You see, at my core, I am an idealist. I am a dreamer. Africa’s First Woman President, and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also a dreamer. She said “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough”. And she’s right. My dream certainly scares me. My dream is to change the world; particularly that part of the world that focuses on how higher ed research is measured and valued. I want researchers to be valued for more than the number of dollars they bring in, the number of papers they publish, the number of HDR students they supervise. I want researchers to also be measured by their values and how they live them; by how they treat other people; by how those at the top support those still climbing the ladder; by how they help underrepresented minorities to succeed; by how they mentor people from outside their own demographic, outside their own team, outside their own organisation. By how they build community.

Most of all I want to help young people achieve their own dreams, whatever path they choose to carve. According to Eleanor Roosevelt, well-known US diplomat and activist, “For our own success to be real, it must contribute to the success of others.” And you know what, that is how I want to be remembered: as someone who used the recognition they’ve been fortunate to receive, the connections they’ve made, and the unearned privilege that society has afforded them, to change the world for the better – to help others succeed, to smash stereotypes and disrupt the status quo.

Finally I’d like to pay tribute to my husband; my rock. He has also taken time off from work today to come here and to support me. Without him, my life and my path would be very different. For 2019 at least, he will live in Brisbane and I will live in Wollongong, and we will commute between those two cities. He promises that during this year he will instil discipline into our two very spoiled cats. Though I have my doubts about that…

Some of you may know that I have always adored cats. Perhaps that is most glaringly obvious from the number of cat videos I share on social media. Did you know that managing academics has been likened to (shares cat video) herding cats*. That simple observation may go some way to explain why it is that I love the challenges and opportunities of academia so much.


* [tongue in cheek] Ummmmm….EDS I know this video was made at the turn of the century, but why are there no women cat-herders featured???? IME they do a much better job of herding cats

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

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.


goosebump moments

It’s been rather hectic these past few months. There’s been little time to sit back and reflect, to prepare for and write a blog post. So, apologies for the delay if you’ve been waiting. You see, I need a chunk of thinking time before I write these things. Finally, I have a few hours to contemplate and muse.

What comes to mind most prominently are the awesome women and men I have had the privilege to meet recently. People who carve their own path, challenge and disrupt societal norms, rewrite the rules, and leave others awestruck. There have been a bunch of mesmerising, goosebump moments for me recently; I’d like to share just three of them with you.

wonder woman

Perhaps the most surprising encounter occurred a month or so ago. After returning from an overseas trip, I found a 5-page letter waiting for me in my office. The first two pages were handwritten in pencil. That was decidedly odd; I don’t often get mail that isn’t electronic and, well, who uses pencils to write with these days? It was all very curious.

Dear Prof Martin”, the letter read,

Our Big Hero 6: from Hypatia to Honey Lemon.

We have been learning a lot about different female scientists throughout history – our scientific heroes! We have read several biographies about women such as Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson to try and understand their scientific work and lives.

We would really like to meet you as a modern-day scientific hero and hear about your work. We are making a film to share with our classmates so they can learn about our heroes too. Mum has written a letter to you as well. We have included some of the questions we would like to ask you there. We really hope we can meet you. We will be happy to come to you at the University at a time that suited you. Thank you for reading our letter.

Yours faithfully

Scarlett (age 10) and Clementine (age 8)

Well who could resist the charm of that appeal! Not I. In the accompanying (typed) letter, their mother Karalyn went on to explain:

I am a mother of four very enthusiastic young scientists (Harry, Scarlett, Clementine, Violet). The children have been active members of the CSIRO double helix science club and also, are keenly involved with science programs at their schools. Every year since Harry started school, we have researched enthusiastically as a family, different science topics at home, too, including: energy; flight; chemistry (molecular gastronomy and also, testing lunchbox contents for the presence of fat, sugar, protein and starch); nanotechnology; light and pinhole photography; space science and astronomy; leukaemia; sport science; the mathematics of origami; nuclear science and “plastic” oceans. In addition to our own background research, we also get creative and make short documentary films…….

This topic (from Hypatia to Honey Lemon) was prompted by Scarlett commenting to me last year that all the scientists we had met/interviewed to date had been men.

I can tell you confidentially that I nearly fell off my chair whilst reading those letters. Who does this? What a super-family. What a wonder woman. What creativity, originality, what a delightful family occupation. It was truly a goosebump moment. Of course, I arranged a meeting as soon as possible.

So during their school holidays in July, the family visited the Martin Lab (as well as many other women scientists’ labs, I might add). We found out then that Karalyn had trained as a lawyer but had always been fascinated by science. She had stepped back from her promising legal career to take on caring responsibilities when the family moved overseas for her husband’s business. Now that the family were back in Australia, and the children all at school, she was about to embark on a new adventure, undertaking a university science diploma – she is enrolled in the UQ School of Mathematics and Physics, taking first year courses, and loving it.


I couldn’t help but be fascinated and spellbound by the energy, strength and sheer uniqueness of this incredible woman. In one of those uncanny coincidences, Karalyn had baked and decorated a #crystalcake themed morning tea (see above) for the Martin Lab. Not surprisingly, their visit made it onto our lab website, and Karalyn is now an honorary Martin lab member. I’m looking forward to catching up with her on campus very soon.

blue-collared woman

Saturday, another goose bump moment. After being introduced electronically in May, with every intention of catching up soon thereafter, I finally met with the awesome Teagan Dowler, founder of The Blue-Collared Woman (BCW).

In her own words (well somewhat paraphrased) “BCW began a couple of years ago following my experiences as a HR professional, leadership coach and consultant in the construction and mining industries of Australia. As a young woman fresh out of Uni I was motivated to achieve, ready to take on the world and make positive impact on the industries I was passionate about. However after a few years it became apparent that I was experiencing challenges that didn’t seem to bother male colleagues. At the time I thought it was me, that I was failing and that I wasn’t good enough. But then other women began coming to me, talking about their own similar experiences. This made me realise there are gender specific challenges women must navigate when working in a masculine environment.

From this experience I thought there must be other women, all around Australia and across a whole range of industries, that could be feeling the same thing. I started a Facebook page and website/blog as a way to reach out to them. My approach has always been to tell the truth of what it’s like, in all its ugliness and awesomeness and this seems to have resonated with people.

Teagan’s blog describes the realities of being a woman working in a testosterone-rich environment. The BCW website provides advice on how to navigate and overcome problems, how to influence and build relationships. Was I thrilled to find that Teagan runs workshops and information sessions? Yes, I was! How valuable is that going to be for those undertaking the SAGE/Athena SWAN Australian pilot? Teagan is also writing a book which “captures the experiences and advice of a range of women across traditionally masculine industries (resources, construction, engineering, manufacturing).” I cannot wait to read it!

We discussed impostor syndrome, self-awareness training, strategies to develop diversity and many, many other things besides. I was captivated by the powerful, self-confident message this young woman was presenting. Through her own ingenuity she had developed a toolkit of skills for success and influence, and by sharing these was empowering other women and men. So much understanding, so many great ideas, such a clear vision for change. Goosebumps! We will meet again Teagan 🙂

champions of change

The third goosebump moment was last week. I was privileged to attend a lunch forum in Sydney held in honour of Elizabeth Broderick, one of my heroes. Liz is about to step down from her highly successful role as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner after two terms and eight years.

One of the many initiatives she established was the male champions of change (MCC). Some have questioned why these champions of change are male. The reality is that CEOs of major national companies in Australia are almost exclusively men. As MCC Gordon Cairns has said “Men set up the system, men largely run the system, men need to change the system”. Champions of change – whether male or female – recognise that winning the war on talent means supporting all of the population, not half of it. Champions of change disrupt established norms, and rewrite the rules. They develop action plans that support careers of women and men, policies that support work-life balance for everyone, pledges that ensure women’s and men’s voices are heard equally.

The event was a stirring celebration of Liz’s extraordinary, remarkable leadership; of charting a course that will change the world. “We need more decent, powerful men to step up beside women in building a gender equal world” she says. I’d had the honour of meeting Liz earlier this year, and on the occasion last week I was also introduced to another hero of mine, male champion of change David Morrison, former Australian Army chief and star of the viral video that called out sexism in the army.

The MCC message Step Up Together is powerful and consistent. Below are quotes from speakers at the lunch or from the MCC website that hosts videos screened at the event.

Listen. Learn. Lead. Listen to women. Learn what to do. Commit to action. This must start with leaders and executive teams. Fix the system, not the women. Leave excuses at the door. The idea that addressing gender equity will compromise on quality is fanciful. The Australian workplace is deeply embedded with a male way of being and a male way of succeeding.

  1. develop targets with teeth

Gender equity is often last on the list of priorities. This needs to change. Set targets, track progress, incentivise with bonuses, and consequences for failure to act. Remove assumptions about what’s possible. Set stretch targets. Aim high. 40% across all levels. Ensure a balanced short list for new appointments. Ask for daily, weekly, and monthly reports. Targets and merit are not mutually exclusive.

  1. take the panel pledge

Women have important, vibrant and different things to say. If women are not heard, everyone misses out. Commit to increase gender balance in internal and external forums – aim for 50:50 100% of the time; insist on including women; call out imbalances; support balanced conferences – tie sponsorship to diversity. Don’t accept excuses.

  1. all roles flex

What if flexibility was the starting point not the exception? In 2013, Telstra adopted a new and disruptive attitude – all roles were advertised as flexible. Without exception. Other organisations have now followed suit. Ask for flexibility and choice for all.

  1. take action on violence against women

800,000 women in the Australian workforce today are living in, or have lived in, an abusive relationship. For many, their only refuge during the day is their place of work. Violence against women is a workplace issue. A focus on safety and zero harm must include tackling violence against women. Establish a framework. Listen without judgement. Make a start.

not cold, captivated

The dictionary definition of goosebumps is “small raised areas that appear on the skin because of cold, fear, or excitement“. I got goosebumps meeting these three awesome, thought-provoking, inspirational women, and hearing from dozens of male champions of change. I was not cold. I was not afraid. I was captivated, awestruck, spellbound. Each time, I was thinking “this is how individuals change the world for the better – locally, nationally, globally“.

how to measure a professor

“Many of those personal qualities that we hold dear….are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle and occurs gradually”. So wrote Robert Glaser of the USA National Academy of Education in 1987.

Those words – written about the standardised tests used in American schools in the 1980s – ring so true today for the way we assess academics. The things we tend to measure, because they are easy to measure, are things like publication numbers, impact factors, H-index (regrettably not the Happiness index), citations, grant income. And we tend to value most those who have big grants and papers in big name journals. Are we “driving out the very people we need to retain: those who are interested in science as an end in itself…“? Is the current “Impact factor mania (that) benefits a few” forcing academics to participate in a “winner-takes-all economics of science“? Is the “tournament” competition model ruining science by adversely affecting research integrity and creativity? Have we fallen into the trap Glaser warned of: do we now value what we can measure at the cost of losing what is actually most valuable?

Inspired by Glaser, education policy researcher Gerald Bracey generated a list:

Personal Qualities NOT measured by Standardised Tests

creativity     critical thinking    resilience    motivation   persistence    curiosity    question-asking    humour    endurance   reliability     enthusiasm    civic-mindedness    self-awareness    self discipline    empathy    leadership    compassion    courage   sense of beauty    sense of wonder    resourcefulness    spontaneity   humility

Do metrics for academics assess these qualities? In some respects, they do. Publications and grant success require a level of creativity, critical thinking, motivation, persistence, curiosity, question-asking, enthusiasm. But at best they are a proxy measure. And there are deeper issues. Counting grant income as well as scientific publications – well that’s double-dipping. What’s more, current metrics completely ignore many key responsibilities expected of academics. Committee work. Conference organisation. Reviewing. Mentoring. Outreach. I’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic supervisors and collaborators – people I trust, respect and like – but that’s certainly not everyone’s experience in academia. How do we ensure that academics with integrity, empathy, humility and compassion – as well as leadership, critical thinking and creativity – are rated highest and valued most of all if these personal qualities are not assessed or incentivised? In my mind, the best metrics would (1) enable a fair assessment relative to opportunity, (2) assess more of the duties expected of academics and (3) report on the personal qualities we hold dear in people we want to work with.

To address point 1, the metrics for those who have made it – full professors – ought to be different from those we use to assess academics still in the pipeline.

How might we measure a professor? Well let’s imagine a few more new metrics…..

Publication Efficiency. Currently we focus heavily on three metrics: publication quantity, publication quality and grant income – and “more is better”. Professors are expected to secure competitive grants, attract junior researchers (many bringing in their own competitive fellowships) and train scholarship-funded students. The more dollars pulled in (grants, scholarships, fellowships), the more people in the team, and hence the more outputs generated. But large teams are not necessarily better. How productive has the team leader been with those funds? Using the publication efficiency (PE) metric, publication metrics are weighted by income:


where PO is a measure of publication output over the past 5 years (eg POc could be total citations past 5 years, POn number of publications past 5 years etc etc) and RI is the total research income over the past 7 years (that is, the certified total dollar value of all grants, all scholarships and all fellowships to all team members over that time). Seven years is chosen for research income aggregate, rather than five years, because it takes time to generate scientific publications. The higher the PE, the better.

Sponsorship Index. One of the most important roles a professor can take on is training the next generation of research leaders. Trouble is, the way we rank and assess academics leads to a hypercompetitive environment. Take for example publications, the major currency of academia. The senior author position on papers is highly coveted because it identifies the intellectual leader of the research. Future grant success (= future survival) for senior academics requires senior author papers – and the more the better. A well-established professor, leading a large group, traveling extensively and with a large admin/committee/teaching load, relies on mid-career researchers within the team to generate ideas, direct the day-to-day research, train students, analyse results, write the papers. Yet the way the system works at present, the professor needs to take the senior author positions on papers. This is justified because the work was done in the professor’s lab, using equipment or protocols they established and using grant money they brought in to cover the salaries of the team members. The sponsorship index, SI, changes the incentives. It rewards professors for supporting mid-career researchers in a team:

SI = (SAS+2M+4A) / N

where N is the total number of papers from the team in the past 5 years, SAS is the number of papers over that time for which senior authorship was shared between the professor and a team member, M is the number of papers where the professor was middle author and a team member was senior author, and A is the number of papers where a team member is senior author and the professor is gratefully thanked in the acknowledgements (and not by inclusion in the author list). Requiring that a professor maximise their sponsorship index will place greater emphasis on selflessness and in turn this will help ensure career development of the next generation of academics.

Good Mentorship Score. Following on directly from sponsorship is mentorship. Using current metrics “whether you are the best or worst mentor is irrelevant“. But it’s hardly irrelevant to potential team members and colleagues. How can a PhD student or postdoc find out if a professor is a person they can rely on to help them achieve their career goals (whatever they may be)? Horror stories abound of professors who treat team members appallinglytoxic academic mentors. Sadly, despite university policies that prohibit these behaviours, it’s usually the victims that suffer most. People in positions of power above the professor may not be aware of the problem (asshole behaviour is usually directed downwards) or may have an inkling but the grant income and papers generated by the professor are too valuable to risk losing. So how to address this? My solution – get references. From former team members. HR can provide a random selection of 10 diverse former team members (ie male/female, PhDs/postdocs, different ethnicities). These referees then use a 5 point scale, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, to rate the professor against various statements. You know the sort of thing: “My ideas for developing my research were respected and valued”, “I felt included and appreciated as a team member”, “My goals as a researcher and a person were supported”, “The professor was someone I respected and trusted and want to be like”, “I was confident to speak to the professor about issues that arose regarding my work-life balance”, “I was encouraged to explore career options outside the traditional academic path”. Perhaps we should also poll mid-career colleagues in the same school – for example “The professor actively helps more junior colleagues develop their career”, “The professor takes on a fair and equitable teaching and committee workload”, and “The professor is a positive and encouraging role model”. To generate the good mentorship score (GMS), the scores are averaged across all questions and all reviewers. The GMS can then be used in discussions at performance reviews and considered in a mentoring component of track record assessments for grants and fellowships.

Civic-Mindedness Tally. Academics are expected to do much more than research and teaching – though it is research and (to a lesser extent) teaching that are assessed, measured to the nth degree, and valued most highly. Those other things we do – contributing to department/institute committees, professional societies, conference organisation, peer review and community outreach are difficult to measure, so they tend not to be measured or assessed and therefore are not valued highly. The civic-mindedness tally (CMT) ensures that outstanding professorial citizens, who give their time for the good of society, are recognised for their altruistic contributions. The CMT is simply a sum for each year over the past 5 years of each certified committee, representative role, organisational appointment, grant review panel, editorial responsibility (see also academic karma for a new take on valuing peer review), science communication and community engagement – and yes I think that should include blog posts 🙂 .

I know, it’s too simplistic. But it’s better than nothing, which is what we do now. On its own, a high CMT won’t lead to *favourite* status for a professor. But in combination with current metrics, and the metrics described above, it should do wonders for improving the Happiness Index of institutions.

There you have it. That’s my philosophy for how we should measure a professor. It’s only a start, and no doubt there are many things that could be improved or are still missing (for other ideas see roadmap to academia beyond quantity and is competition ruining science?). So now over to you, what are the measures you think should be implemented to assess the qualities that really matter in our professoriate?

34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.


Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?


*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

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***

the visibility paradox

Growing up in a family of nine children, it was sometimes difficult to get the attention you wanted from mum or dad. There were, quite simply, too many little and not-so-little people clamouring for attention. Pushing the boundaries too far, acting up, or failing an exam at school could be guaranteed to get parents to focus on you alone to the exclusion of other siblings. From a personal point of view, that attention was not a good thing. On the other side, being singled out for positive attention could be achieved by, for example, cracking a funny joke (the Martins love a laugh), winning the school footy game (the Martins love their sport even more than they love a laugh), or making a chocolate cake (the Martins love their food even more than they love their sport). But doing what was expected of you, helping with meals, keeping the house (relatively) tidy, mowing the lawn, taking the bins out to be emptied, basically being orderly and keeping things ticking over – well that was baseline. No brownie points for that, only demerit points if you messed up.

It’s a cruel fact of life for researchers too that doing what you are supposed to do – being clever, curious and productive – is not always enough to succeed. Yes, these are prerequisites, the baseline if you like, but progress through the ranks is improved with visibility. Increased visibility helps get that job, grant, fellowship, promotion, award. One way of getting increased visibility is by speaking about one’s research to an audience – taking opportunities to talk about your favourite scientific subject.

Many new to research and academia don’t know this golden rule and let opportunities slide. They prefer to think they’ve dodged a bullet by avoiding having to speak to an audience. When the call comes out from PhD supervisors asking for volunteers to speak at a symposium/seminar series they don’t respond. When they attend a conference, they choose not to be considered for a talk. It’s too difficult, the work isn’t complete, the questions might be really tough, it’s easier to sit in the audience and listen to others. There are always many reasons not to put their head above the parapet.

This is the visibility paradox. Researchers benefit from increased visibility, but a lack of confidence or self-belief stops many – especially early career researchers (ECRs) – from seeking visibility.

This missed opportunity will then go to someone else who does accept the challenge. As a result, that someone else becomes more visible and moves ahead of the pack. That someone else may be naturally more self-confident but is probably no more clever, curious or productive than those that don’t put their hand up.

The increased visibility will have knock-on effects. Their speaking experience builds up a bank from which that someone else draws strength when they volunteer for the next scary speaking opportunity. Their CV will be bolstered, peers will respect them for taking on the daunting challenge of speaking in public, and research leaders in the audience will recall their work when the ECR’s name comes up on selection panels, or when ECRs need to be identified to speak at conferences. Increased visibility leads to increased success, leads to more visibility, leads to more success.

Sadly, many excellent researchers, especially women, lack confidence. As Greg Petsko noted in his Genome Biology commentary “Almost without exception, the talented women I have known believed they had less ability than they actually had. And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more“. This observation is supported by recent research in the field of mathematics, reviewed by Curt Rice who summarised that “Men tended to overestimate their future performance on the arithmetic task, and women tended to underestimate it“.

So, how can we ensure that all clever, hard-working young researchers have an equal chance to succeed regardless of their level of confidence starting out?

Here are some thoughts.

If you are an ECR:

1. First, recognise that you are not alone in being nervous about public speaking. Most people are ridiculously apprehensive when they start out; I certainly was. Panic attacks, weeks of sleepless nights, wobbly voice, I have had them all. I still get edgy before a talk*. Fortunately, speaking in public isn’t actually life-threatening, and nerves do disappear to a great extent with experience. On the other hand, as my mentors advised me early on, nerves shouldn’t disappear altogether – a little adrenaline helps ensure a great presentation. One other thing to remember, people in the audience will want you to succeed – they were young researchers themselves once.

2. Volunteer. Take on the challenge when there is a call for speakers. Yes, it will be tough to put yourself out there, but there are rewards to be gained as well.

3. Practise, practise, practise. The one sure-fire way to help overcome nerves is to take control. Work out what you are going to say, and practise saying it to make sure that all the important points are presented within the allotted speaking time. Don’t read the talk from notes.

4. Ask for help. Give a practise talk in front of your colleagues/ supervisors or anyone else available. Ask for feedback on the presentation (was the text on the slides readable? did the data make sense? was the importance of the work clear? were the conclusions sound?). Ask for questions on the research, to prepare answers in advance of the real thing. Change the presentation in response to your colleagues’ feedback.

5. Celebrate afterwards. With others. Yes, it is stressful to present in front of an audience. Reward yourself on your achievement.

6. Learn and improve. Perhaps you didn’t get across all the points, or you fluffed an answer to an easy question. A day or so after the event, do the post-mortem. Work out how the talk could be improved for next time and make the changes there and then.

If you are a supervisor (or mentor, sponsor, colleague, friend) of an ECR:

1. Don’t assume that every new researcher automagically knows that speaking in public is important for success in research. Share this knowledge with each new team member when they begin their career, and frequently thereafter. Let the message sink in. Ensure ECRs have opportunities to gain confidence speaking, and to hone their presenting skills in group meetings. Reinforce the message when seminar series and conferences come up. Encourage ECRs to nominate to speak.

2. When asked to nominate speakers from your group for a departmental seminar series, don’t request volunteers. Instead, tap people on the shoulder: team members will gain a level of confidence simply from your belief in them. Share the speaking opportunities across all members of your team, especially those that shun the limelight. Ensure diversity – gender, ethnicity, seniority – when you are program coordinator. (check out my post on conference speaker policies).

3. When an ECR asks to be excused from giving a seminar because they don’t feel confident about speaking publicly, or don’t believe they have enough to speak about, don’t let them off easily. Explain the precious opportunity they are giving up.

4. If an ECR lacks confidence in their work, assist them to develop the research story they can present. Offer to help further by listening to a practise talk and providing constructive feedback.

In the end…

….overcoming the visibility paradox is not just about giving talks, it’s about building confidence and supporting diversity in the career progression of the next generation of research leaders.

So, back to the beginning of the post, am I now getting the attention I want from my parents? Well, my mum is now following this blog. Perhaps that might be just a little too much attention.

Only kidding mum! Happy 80th birthday for April 11.



Feeling edgy about talks probably harks back to the time when I started in research – and 35 mm photographic slides were used rather than a software program. The slides had to be loaded into a cassette upside down or back to front (or both?) to be projected correctly on to the screen. “Recipe for disaster” is an understatement there. Then there was the cassette. Inevitably, if you didn’t put the lid on carefully you’d end up dropping the whole thing on the floor, and there’d be a mad scramble to put all the slides together again in the right sequence and the right orientation. The most memorable occasion was when an eminent scientist discovered upon beginning his talk that the slide projector had morphed into a toaster. Every touch of the slide forward button launched another slide several metres into the air. Truly, it was hilarious. I have to say he took it in very good grace.


Related article:

mentors and dementors

When I speak at career forums, I often begin by asking the audience what they consider to be the major reason for the high attrition of women in the academic pipeline. The two most common responses are (i) childcare responsibilities and (ii) sexism. My last post focused on sexism. And I’ll address caring responsibilities in future posts. But in this post, I want to highlight why I almost left academia 10 years ago.

Greg Petsko decribed beautifully the academic career as apprentice (PhD), journeyman (postdoc) and master (academic) and pointed out the disconnect between what we are trained to do as apprentices and journeymen, and what we need to do to succeed as academics. The academic master is key to a young apprentice’s progression. She or he will set the project, direct the apprentice, provide advice and career guidance, act as a referee and do much more besides. But the academic master is trained to be a researcher, not to manage people, or to be a good mentor. What if the academic supervisor is a dementor?

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard in my academic career. My early supervisors gave me great advice and help: they actively sponsored me to succeed. For example, after completing my MPharm degree in 1986, I decided it was time to see the world. My MPharm supervisor, Peter Andrews, advised me to use the opportunity to undertake a PhD overseas. He recommended working with a colleague at Oxford University who was doing some really exciting research.

Wow. I was simply planning to go on a working holiday for 6 months. I was just a girl from Dandenong (a low socio-economic outer suburb of Melbourne). I never imagined studying at Oxford. Yet here was a professor telling me it was possible. He believed in me. So maybe I was good enough. Maybe I could do it.

Thing is, without that seed of an idea, and without the encouragement from a senior academic, I would never have had the courage or conviction to proceed. Some women leave at this point because “no-one encourages them to go on“. I was encouraged, and I did proceed.

So, how to find funding? Again Peter to the rescue. He pointed me to the Grants Register. After poring over the pages at the back index, I identified dozens of possibilities. Scholarships for women. Bursaries for Australians. Awards for young people to go to the UK. I applied for everything that I was eligible to apply for, and Peter helped by providing constructive advice for specific questions and by writing strong letters of support. In the end I was awarded a total of 5 scholarships, bursaries and awards for my DPhil studies. (Mind you, that was after dozens and dozens of rejections, but that’s a story for another day).

In Oxford and later in New York, I also had outstanding mentors in my corner, supporting and sponsoring me to succeed. However, there have also been obstacles to overcome without a mentor’s support.

After 2 consecutive Fellowships at the early and mid-career level, I failed to secure a Fellowship in 2004, 10 years after establishing my independent group. This meant someone else had to cover my salary. My annual performance appraisal that year was conducted with three senior academics – all male – rather than the usual one. Presumably, (I wasn’t told explicitly) this committee had to decide whether I was worth supporting. I provided the review documents the required week in advance. When the appraisal began, the chair of the panel began by thanking me for the documents but then explained that regretfully he hadn’t had time to read them.

Hmm. I thought. This is not a good start. I must be very low on his list of priorities. Perhaps I should excuse myself and come back when he has read them? After all, the relevant appraisal policy requires that the appraiser read the documents before the meeting. But I felt my job was on the line and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I didn’t say anything. And neither did the other two committee members.

In the next breath, the committee chair offered this, “You know, the problem with you Jenny is that you are not seen as a leader.” Ouch. That hurt. Like a kick in the guts. I responded timidly….. “But I am a leader in my field. I am president of the national society, a member of the Academy of Science National Committee, I am on the scientific advisory committee of…..” but I was cut off. These were not evidence of leadership, these were service roles. Apparently I was elected/nominated to these offices, because nobody else wanted to do them. They didn’t count. If I wanted to succeed in science, I needed to be known for something. Something scientific. I tried again “But I am known for my work on disulfide bond forming proteins, there’s my seminal Nature paper of 10 years ago, several papers in Structure, and my PNAS paper this year, and in total I have over 60 papers mostly as senior author……..”. But no, apparently this wasn’t what they meant either.

To this day, I still don’t really know what they meant, because I switched off at about that point. I sat in self-imposed silence, nodding occasionally, while the panel mansplained to me why I wasn’t good enough. My silence was a self-preservation response that – only just – prevented me from bursting into tears right then and there.

I left work early that day, almost immediately after the appraisal. Walking to my car, I did burst into tears. Round and round my head went the words, “You are not a leader”. “You should be more like X, Y, Z” (insert any stereotypical white middle-aged male scientific leader name you like). But, I thought, I’m not them, and I don’t want to be them. I want to be me. And I can’t work any harder than I am already. If what I am doing is not valued, if I am not seen as a leader, then perhaps it’s time to leave.

This performance appraisal fanned the embers of self-doubt, low self-confidence, low self-esteem that many women harbour. For weeks, I pondered whether to return to my long-lost former career as a pharmacist. I was still registered, though I had not practised for almost 20 years. I investigated what it would take, and found that I’d have to re-train, and sit practical and theoretical exams; it would take time, but I could do it.

In the end, I didn’t leave, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post. Over the next 2 years, I applied for but failed to secure a Fellowship, though I was awarded several national prizes and my salary continued to be paid (so the panel must have believed in me to some extent!). Then, in 2007 I was awarded not one but two highly competitive Fellowships. My promotion to Professor was also approved that year. And in 2009, I was awarded the most prestigious Fellowship in the Australian Research Council scheme, the Australian Laureate Fellowship (a follow-up to the former Federation Fellowship but which now emphasised mentorship as well as research leadership). I became the first woman in the biological/biochemical sciences to be awarded either a Federation or a Laureate Fellowship. This just five years after being told I was not a scientific leader.

So, I think back to that performance appraisal. Was I being prepared for being booted out? Was I being given a kick up the butt to try harder? Either way, the approach used didn’t work with me. I lost motivation. I did not feel valued. I did not feel supported. I did not feel included. Yet, I succeeded anyway. Some may argue that my later success was because of, rather than despite, the dementoring. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was after this episode that I came closest to leaving academia. I wonder how many other women and men of merit would have left in the same situation. It takes extreme determination and self-will to continue on, when your superiors express a lack of faith in you, and your own self-confidence is at an all-time low.

So that was my dementor “soul-sucking” experience. Perhaps not as bad as some others I’ve heard about. But enough to make me seriously contemplate leaving academia. I’ve asked colleagues if they would share their mentor and dementor experiences. Here are some of them.

•”The contract offered a lectureship at Level B. I was so excited I signed it immediately. A senior male academic was horrified. “Don’t sign the contract, always negotiate.” He advised me what to do. I pulled the contract out and tore it up. I asked the Executive Dean for a meeting. I was nervous, but I put to him that based on my CV I should be appointed at the top of Level B and that I wanted his support for promotion to Level C the following year. Without blinking he agreed. Not only was I promoted the following year, the ED had seen my CV, I was on the radar.”

•”I was awarded a highly competitive Fellowship, and was placed with someone in the department who was meant to support me and my research. He never helped at all, but insisted on being listed on all my papers, and on using funds that I should have received to pay himself a top-up for mentoring me.”

•”My husband and I are academics at the same department. I am currently on my second national Fellowship. We have two children and we share the caring responsibilities. He has recently been offered a lectureship. I have been advised not to continue in science, that it’s too difficult for women.”

•”I arranged a meeting with my HoS to discuss the increasingly difficult situation of working with this person. When I arrived, the HoS was sitting together with this person, they were sharing a beer. It was clear they were mates.”

•”When she was overseas, she always delegated someone to fill in, to sign the forms and to take responsibility. She rotated that task across 5 people in turn. It meant everyone got an opportunity to lead.”

•”Lab meetings often included alcohol. My supervisor – a recently divorced 50-ish man – would regale us with stories of the young chicks he had picked up on the weekend.”

•”When he came in he changed the structure so that everyone reported directly to him. He didn’t inform anyone in positions of responsibility below him. They all found out together in public, in a presentation he made to 150 people showing the new organisational chart on a slide. They had been moved off to the side, without a title or a line of command. It became pretty clear very soon that he wanted total control and that there was no pathway for anyone except him. It was about domination not collaboration.”

•”She was grounded and had lots of life experience and perspective. She made the place positive, you felt like you were part of a team, that your contribution was valued.”

One colleague noted “When I was going through my dementor battle, three of my friends were battling their own dementors. We were all 30-something females – and had hit a wall with some insecure 50-something male dementors. It’s interesting to see 10 years later that although one of my friends did leave academia, the rest of us are now doing better than our dementors.”

Perhaps the life lesson here is that everyone has dementors to tackle, and that it’s part of the process of growing up as an academic. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as my mum would say. Not very helpful, but there it is. The best advice I can give is to find your own mentor, or better yet a circle of peers that you can meet with regularly to discuss challenges and obstacles to your career.

And when it comes to dementors, how can you avoid having your soul sucked out? Well you can do what I’ve learned to do from my own circle of peers: be proactive and practice your own patronus charm.

So when you hear me muttering “Expecto patronum!” under my breath, you’ll know why…..