follow your heart

After a long period of inactivity, finally a new post on cubistcrystal. This post is an abridged version of an introductory speech I gave at a University of Wollongong (UOW) event to celebrate International Women’s Day, plus the full text of the keynote by Dr Belinda Gibbons. That was Tuesday 10 March, 2020. Just 18 days ago, yet it seems like an eon has passed since then: 100 people were in the room, no social distancing, though no handshakes. How things have changed.

Belinda is an inspirational, incredibly talented, values-led academic, with decades of industry experience, who speaks straight from her heart. Her speech touched mine. I hope it speaks to yours too, and provides some calm thoughts to reflect on in these strange and unsettling times.

(italic text in parentheses in Belinda’s speech are my additions to provide context)

IWD 2020 UOW

#EachForEqual – a lifetime ago and yet also only 18 days ago



I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which the University of Wollongong is situated – lands of the Wodi Wodi people of the Dharawal nation. We pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past and present, who are the knowledge holders and teachers. We acknowledge their continued spiritual and cultural connection to Country. As we share knowledge, teaching, learning and research within this University, we also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has been celebrated since 1911; the first gathering was supported by over a million people. Today, on March 10, we continue the 2020 IWD celebrations at UOW, by recognising the achievements of women at UOW, and of all the women in our lives, women who brought us into the world, women who inspire us, women who lead the way.

There is much symbolism in IWD celebrations. Historically the combination of purple, green and white has been used to symbolise women’s equality. Purple signifies justice, dignity and self-respect. Green symbolises hope and new life. White represents purity, but is no longer used by IWD because ‘purity’ is such a controversial concept.

In my choice of IWD-colour themed apparel today, I have chosen additional symbols – a leopard brooch symbolising independence and a fearless attitude to addressing obstacles on the way to success. Importantly, I inherited this brooch from my mother (I love you mum!), my first role model: who became charge nurse of the Operating Theatre Department in a major hospital in Victoria. While raising 9 children.

Perhaps most symbolic of all, I have chosen to wear a dress that has pockets. Real pockets. Functional pockets. Not fake fashion pockets. Real pockets on women’s clothing symbolize Freedom. Power. Equality.

And that neatly leads me into this year’s theme for International Women’s Day ‘An equal world is an enabled world’ – #EachforEqual.



Dr Belinda Gibbons:

I acknowledge that the beautiful land on which we gather today is Aboriginal land. As we are allowed to stand on Mother Earth, may we always realise and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. I pay respect to Elders past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal colleagues here today.

I left school when I was 16 – much to my mother’s horror! I was a straight A student. I was an excellent teenager. I followed all the rules but I found myself at the end of Year 10 staring at a list of subjects in a system that had it all wrong – still does in some regards. I didn’t like what the next 2 years of my life looked like and I always listen to my heart – it speaks very loudly. So I went to my beautiful dad and said that I wanted to go to work. He then convinced mum!…..

I took an office internship with a large retirement village on the south coast of New South Wales. This was in 1988. If any of you can recall 1988, this was the year that IBM released the desktop computer and transformed the office working environment. Given I was the youngest person in the retirement home, I was given full reign to incorporate computers into the practices and procedures of the office. I got to work with the networking technicians, with the software programmers and I just fell in love with the difference that this technology made to people’s lives, and how it connected us like never before. I knew I had found my passion.

So I went to TAFE and completed my Higher School Certificate in one year and then entered a Bachelor of Commerce at UOW. I loved Uni. I published with lecturers, I presented at a conference and upon graduation the Dean asked me if I would like to move into academia as a career. I remember that day in building 40 saying to him “Professor, where am I going to make the most money – here or out there”? He smiled and said, “Definitely not here!” And so I went, and didn’t touch base with the University again for the next 15 years.

I worked in IT and management for multinational companies and loved every day. When I had my first daughter, it was expected that I would return to work after a few weeks. No-one worked from home then. How crazy – it was IT after all. Anyway, as I sat in the child care car park I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t like what the rest of the day looked like for me. And I didn’t want to do this – so I left, and purchased a child development and learning franchise. Random, I know!

After being asked to speak in one of the classes at UOW, I walked into the Faculty of Business at UOW again. I loved it and asked if I could start tutoring. I had a lot of industry experience. Eleven years later I am still here. But it took me a long time to find my academic space – obviously, given I am still an ECR….. Honestly, I am still not sure I have found my academic space – or if I am ever meant to.

I remember a Professor saying to me “Just pick a thesis topic. It will go on the shelf and you probably won’t publish a lot from your original thesis”. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. How can we be trying to find contributions to knowledge that live on a shelf? I can’t help people with findings on a shelf. I questioned the system, and probably still do, but rather than leave it, my heart really wanted to stay and so I try to make the system work for me.

In 2015, I started working on the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when I was nominated to sit on the UN Advisory Committee for Responsible Management Education. At the time I was the Australia and New Zealand Chapter Coordinator for Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME). To be honest it wasn’t a highly contested position. Each university was doing its own thing and the goals were so holistic that they took people out of their discipline – how crazy I thought. We need to come together and share. Sharing took a couple of years.

Collaboration between universities 5 years ago looked a lot different to what it does today. Today PRME has 36 higher education institutions in an established Chapter that have state-based quarterly gatherings and an annual forum. We communicate regularly, share practices and act more like a family than colleagues.

I ventured outside the Management Discipline when I found myself questioning how we would ever realise the SDGs if they were only talked about and actioned in the Business Faculty. I met some amazing people on my travels…..I met George Taciks at my first climate change meeting. He introduced me to Justin Placek who was the General Manager of Healthy Cities Illawarra (HCI) at the time. We decided we would hold a local community event to raise awareness of the SDGs.

I had some money in a Teaching and Learning account, HCI put in some money and we booked a small function room and thought that 20 people might turn up. We didn’t put a limit on Eventbrite as we didn’t think there was a lot of interest at a local level. We were wrong. Within 24 hours, we had 110 people registered covering all sectors. We got a larger room! From there, local interest grew and I started working with councils and industry.

Within UOW, Dominic Riordan (Director, Academic Quality and Standards, UOW) gave me 30 mins one day and opened doorways for me to run an interfaculty student Act4SDG Dean’s Scholar Challenge – which for the past two years has brought together interdisciplinary teams of Dean’s Scholars to tackle global goals at a local level.

Other incredible internal support was given by Dr Tamantha Stutchbury, Prof Chris Gibson and the amazing UOW Global Challenges Program team who single-handily got UOW signed up to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and welcomed me as the 2020 ECR representative; Richard Cook (Program Manager, Research Analytics, Systems and Support, UOW Research Services Office) who asked me to present at the Research For Impact workshops and designed the SDGs into the Planning For Impact canvas; Omar Khalifa (CEO of iAccelerate, UOW’s business incubator and accelerator) and his amazing team invited me to become an Expert-in-Residence allowing me to work with starts-ups who are embedding the SDGs, and Associate Professor Honglin Chen (Acting Dean Graduate Research) who recently embedded the SDGs in a University-wide Responsible Research subject.

Prof Grace McCarthy (Dean, UOW Sydney Business School), Professor Julia Coyle (UOW Pro-Vice Chancellor Students), Associate Professor Tracey Kuit (Teaching Specialist, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences), WATTLE, Sarah Lisle (Director, UOW Pulse), UOW Student Services, the list of those who have helped my passion is long – and then just when I start to think of more I can do to have our University focus on the SDGs, we had an incredible DVC (Research and Innovation) arrive who immediately incorporated the goals into her vision. In January 2019, UOW opted to enter the pilot of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings (UOW ranked =13th in the world in the pilot) and signed the University commitment to the SDGs. Lots of conversations and support has snowballed into an exciting, crazy and grateful couple of years.

I now present on the SDGs 1-2 times a week within Faculties, Schools, Industry – and not because it’s in my workload but because it makes my heart feel full. I was always told in my Career Development Review, and in mentoring sessions, to find your specialty, the thing that you will be known for. I never set out to do that with the SDGs. They provided me with a framework to connect people and make change. That’s what I love to do – its what I have always loved to do.

I follow my heart, my decisions align with my values and I teach, research and collaborate with people in areas that inspire me to be more.

I promise following my heart has also led to some very painful times but I have learned to seize every opportunity and I am very grateful for all the support provided by many amazing people along the way.


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

99% perfect

This post is the text of the eulogy I gave at my mum’s funeral, and a poem chosen and read by my sister Cathy at mum’s burial. Mum was an incredible person and a wonderful, inspirational role model.

We love you mum and will miss you very much. Thank you for everything.


Judith Mary Martin

“Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen and some people wonder what happened” to paraphrase Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut.

Judith Mary Martin – whose life we celebrate today – unquestionably falls into the category of people who made things happen. Mum may not have flown to the moon, but she most certainly reached for the stars.

Born in 1934 in country Victoria, Judy had an older sister Faye, and a twin sister Joy. When still a little girl, her parents separated, and she moved with her mum and two sisters to Melbourne. It was the middle of the depression era: they lived in abject poverty, surviving on bread & dripping at times, doing midnight runners to avoid paying rent, and going to the pawnbrokers to get items out of hock when her mum – a factory worker – got paid. As a young girl, mum had already decided she would never work in a factory; she would get educated, work hard, and make sure that her family would have a stable and loving home life. She achieved all that and much more, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Having to leave school at grade 8 – aged 14 – wasn’t a great start. Mum’s first job was at the Imperial War Graves Commission, but she really wasn’t cut out for office work. She toyed with the idea of becoming a nun, but in the end chose nursing as her vocation. Once the decision was made, she then made it happen. Trouble was, nursing training couldn’t begin till she was 18, and mum was just 16. So she hounded the nursing director till she got a job as a probationer and then after significantly more hounding, she entered nursing training at the tender age of 17 years and 5 months. She was in her element, she loved the work, and she loved the girls she worked with. She said that those years were the best of her life, the most carefree, and loads of fun.


Mum completes her nursing training

She worked hard, was determined to succeed, and eventually became Nurse Unit Manager (Charge Nurse) of the entire operating theatre department at a major Victorian Hospital. Although she left school at 14, she returned to study part-time aged 52, first to complete her VCE and then to graduate with a Bachelor of Nursing in 1992 aged 58; all the while working, and caring for her youngest children. She was still working two nights a week at the age of 72.

Life was anything but plain sailing. Two weeks after she started as a nursing probationer, her adored father died – he was 42 and she just 16; still a child.

Mum married twice, had 10 children and 8 grandchildren. For much of the early years, there was very little money, and life was a constant struggle. By mum’s account, her first marriage was very unhappy and didn’t last long. In her second marriage, it was mum that mostly set the family goals, she who made things happen to achieve her aspirations. She orchestrated family moves upward, including from a “hovel” to a housing commission home (the “lap of luxury”) in country Victoria, by literally begging the local MP who she collared at a school function. She also triggered a later move by reporting the house we lived in to the local council, who swiftly condemned it as unfit to live in.

Meanwhile, there were personal misfortunes to contend with. As an infant, Geoff nearly died from an infection in the mid-60s. Later that same year, Dad was also in hospital for months after a terrible logging accident, leaving mum with a family of 6 kids and one on the way, with no income and no insurance. On Christmas Day 1979, a car ploughed through a red light into ours and mum and dad ended up in hospital for many weeks. Much, much worse though was the loss of two children: in 1973, mum’s 10th child Gerard died in childbirth. And in 1991, her 7th child Peter died aged 25, in a car accident. These tragic events nearly broke her heart. But as she said in her own words many years later:

“There are always things in life you wish you didn’t have to go through, because they hurt so much. But you know what? That’s part of the journey too.”

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward.”


The whole family in 1984 – including the first grandchild

Mum did what she could, with the few resources she had, to improve the family’s lot: buying Lan Choo tea because it came with coupons to claim gifts in the store in town; getting her driver’s licence, and then helping teach many of her kids to drive – even if that did include falling asleep in the passenger seat with Steven at the wheel. In the 1970s, mum’s name was picked out of the barrel to spin the wheel on the Ernie Sigley Show. She won a TV, we think – and a trip to Sydney after Ernie found out she had so many children. Asked what message she wanted to send her family on national telly, mum famously said:

“I just hope someone remembers to make the school lunches”.

Perhaps it was the Ernie Sigley trip that started the travel bug: she began taking road trips with youngest children Jan and Cally – to the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, Sydney. She took her first overseas trip when she was 47, with Cathy to visit Tony and Olga and grandson Eann in Israel and then on to Italy and the UK. Because she was going to be away such a long time, she left us a long list of things to do. Including a fire drill every evening. Which we promptly ignored. Mum took to the jetset life with gusto, soaking up history and cultures, and traveling around the world into her 70s. On one notable occasion, and despite family misgivings, mum set off to Bangkok, by herself, just after 9/11 – aged 67. She was on her way to visit Ian and Cally in London, and nothing was going to stop her from doing that.


“Swanning around Europe” with two family members

One of her greatest delights was creating things for others. After knitting her first jumper at age 11, the knitting needles hardly ever stopped. Look at any family photo from the 60s through to the 80s, and you’ll inevitably see kids sporting mum’s handmade knits. She was a prolific letter-writer too. Seeing her beautiful handwriting on a newly arrived envelope when you were far from home, was certain to lift the spirits – with family news, photos and mum’s life advice. In the 1990s, mum discovered patchwork quilting after a visit to an Amish Village in the USA. She created over 100 exquisite quilts, that are now our treasured heirlooms.

A birthday quilt, one of over 100 quilts mum made, five of them for me


Close-up of text on the birthday quilt “Made during a time of old age and ill-health” Oct 2007-Nov 2010 “From Mum”

Mum didn’t just create tangible things like jumpers, letters and quilts, she also created intangibles – memories, moments, merriment – especially around celebrations of birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. She truly cared about people, and she enjoyed having a bit of fun too! She loved movies and music, and would sing or dance at the drop of a hat.

“Life is to be lived” she said, “to be enjoyed right to the end. Make the most of every moment.”

Coming from good Irish stock, Mum had a fine sense of the absurd. When Tony Abbott announced that he was bringing back Knights and Dames, mum’s planned morning tea morphed into a Royal Tea Party and she crowned herself Lady Muck of …… Some years before, she came to my New York–themed fancy dress party in QLD when I was about to leave for America. There was King Kong, Crocodile Dundee, several movie stars, and as guest of honour I was Madonna. Much to my embarrassment, the guest-of-honour’s mother turned up as a New York bag lady. Oh how she laughed remembering that story recently! Going back even further, when we as kids would ask how old she would be on an upcoming birthday, it would always be 29. Or 28. Or 25.

When mum first let me know a few years ago that she wanted me to give the eulogy at her funeral, I wondered if there was anything particular she wanted me to say.

Mum simply said: “Don’t sugarcoat it; just tell it like it is”.

Me: “OK….. so you don’t want me to say you were perfect?”

Mum, after a moment’s pause: “Hmmm, well, let’s say 99% perfect”

I asked what she was most proud of achieving in her very full life. This time without hesitation, she said

“My family. I feel very, very fortunate with my children. I have a very blessed life. And I love my grandchildren to bits. There’s not a one of them – kids or grandkids – that you wouldn’t be really glad to know. So I am twice blessed.”

Always fiercely independent, after succumbing to side-effects of treatment for multiple myeloma, mum had to let go, to allow her children to arrange her affairs, chauffeur her, take her to appointments, feed and look after her, as she had done singlehandedly for all of us so many years ago. What she didn’t seem to understand was that far from being a burden, doing these things for her was a privilege and an honour. Looking after each other – well you taught us that mum, that is what families are for.

Despite being in constant pain, mum accepted her lot, remaining positive and curious about the world, right to the end. She was anxious about one thing though. Late last year, when Christmas was coming up, followed soon after by several family birthdays, she said:

“I’m looking forward to Christmas so much, seeing everyone together again. It’s extra special this year as I wasn’t meant to be here for this one.  I just don’t want to die on anyone’s birthday.”

Well, mum, you successfully navigated that minefield. Your death was the way you wanted it, peaceful, quick and not coinciding with a family birthday. You were ready to go, even if we weren’t ready for you to leave. We will be reminded of you every day by the simple things you always loved: a Richmond scarf, a cake stall, a flower garden, an old movie, a cup of tea with sympathy.

Personally, I will treasure the times we spent together recently, especially our last day – when you laughed over taking selfies. How many other 82 year olds have an iPhone, I ask you?

Mum, I will never forget that it was you who inspired me to reach for the stars, you who put that first precious sprinkle of stardust into each of your children’s hands, so that we too could aspire to be people who make things happen.

Judith Mary Martin, Judy, Mum, Granny

What an extraordinary life you lived, a life that touched so many

Now, you are, without doubt, forever 29 years old

and 99% perfect


Mum and me together a few years ago


The text below is the poem read out at mum’s burial, by Cathy Martin

“Remember me” David Harkins 1981

Do not shed tears when I have gone but smile instead because I have lived. Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind. I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live only for yesterday or you can be happy for tomorrow because of what happened between us yesterday. You can remember me and grieve that I have gone or you can cherish my memory and let it live on. You can cry and lose yourself, become distraught and turn your back on the world or you can do what I want – smile, wipe away the tears, learn to love again and go on.


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.


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.

event horizon LBS

So. Where was I? Oh yes. The London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Programme (SEP). October last year. In my last post, I wrote that the SEP experience was transformational. But I didn’t explain what the programme was or how it changed my life. A twitter buddy wrote that I left the post on a “cliff-hanger”. In the present post, I want to document what made SEP such a powerful, emotional and delightful experience for me. And in a third post I will write about my transformation. These two new posts, I hope, will address the cliff and the hanger!

Now, about the title of this post. One might argue that using “event horizon” is perhaps a little melodramatic. After all, LBS wasn’t a black hole. It didn’t suck me in so I couldn’t escape. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of ~4 months since graduation, I can clearly see that SEP marked a point of no return – in some senses. So please forgive me my melodrama; it brings me just a little joy to link this post to a key scientific concept.

To paint a clear picture, I should also explain that I am writing this series of three LBS-SEP posts mostly for my own benefit. It’s extraordinarily valuable for me to record my feelings and experiences, so that when I return to them in years to come the detail I might otherwise forget will be crystal clear. (and just in case you didn’t pick that up, “crystal” is another scientific concept that I like including in posts/blogs). Anyway, I hope that these trilogy of posts will benefit others. But I recognise they are very self-focused, so I won’t be at all offended if you are not interested and don’t read any further. Please be gentle with comments. 🙂

So why was LBS SEP such an incredible experience?

powerful, planned, prepared

The gravitational pull began a long way out, ~6 months prior to the course, with the on-line expression of interest. This required detailed responses to questions about where I was in my career, what my learning objectives were, and how and why I thought I would benefit from the course. I had to think deeply about my professional journey (lucky that I’ve been writing blogs on that for a few years!), where I was going, and what was stopping me progressing. Following this, a phone interview was set up with the LBS programme director to ascertain my “interest and suitability“. I was on tenterhooks taking the 30 min call from the UK one evening late in April last year. There was a grilling of course – why LBS? why SEP? how was my organisation supporting my participation? how would I hand over my current roles during the 4 week intensive course (“there’s no way you can do both“)? how would I set aside time for the extensive, compulsory pre-reading and preparation? Fortunately, at the end of the phone interview I was given verbal assurance that I was accepted, though it wasn’t until 8 May 2015 – when I received the official email: I am delighted to confirm that your application has been approved and we would like to offer you a place on the programme” – that I really celebrated. After all, I was about to embark upon an educational journey that will likely transform (my) professional life.” Hurrah! Champagne time.

Information from LBS flowed in regularly from then on. Importantly, we were advised early on that we would have 5 free evenings and 4 free weekend days during the 27 day programme “you may wish to arrange your own social and business activities”. Being an organisationophile, I pre-arranged a weekend visit to friends in Rugby for the single free weekend during SEP, booked a 4th row seat to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 one free Saturday evening, and signed on to attend “Bridging the Gender Gap – How Men Can Be Allies For Women in STEM” in nearby King’s Cross one free Wed evening.

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Preparation didn’t end there of course. There were colleagues to invite (thank you!) to complete questionnaires on my 360° leadership skills and on the organisation’s strategy execution capabilities. I too had to complete those questionnaires as well as surveys on personal health and wellbeing, media background, and Hogan personality (bright side), Hogan development (dark side), and Hogan motives, values and preferences inventories (inside)  (Hogan reports would help reveal my “core values, goals and interests” – “hmm” I thought, “this should be interesting!”). Not to mention the short bio, photo, corporate logo, and org chart (to show where I fit in the organisation) to be uploaded onto the portal. Then there was the email discussion with other participants from this part of the world about our contribution to the mid-programme International evening (what food we would like prepared, what antipodean souvenirs we would bring to showcase this part of the world, what we might present in our 5 minute overview etc). And a week prior to leaving, I downloaded a bunch of pre-reading material (case studies and articles) and printed them off for perusal on the long-haul flight from BNE to LHR via SIN and DXB).

delightful, enchanting, charming

SEP is a residential programme. We were housed in the London Business School campus in Regent’s Park (a posh suburb of London) just a nip down the road to Baker St and Regent’s Park tube stations and Marylebone railway station. Nice. We were allocated “executive” rooms – tiny British bedrooms outfitted with all the mod cons: TV, en-suite, hairdryer, internet (essential for skype calls home). The proverbial cat would have trouble being swung within those confines, but somehow we all managed with our 1 month’s worth of belongings. One overachieving senior exec training for a triathlon whilst undertaking SEP even managed – somehow – to secrete his bicycle into the phone-booth sized bedroom.

My room was on the top floor. Pros: the stunning views across Regent’s Park and the opportunity for extra exercise (more steps in the highly competitive pedometer challenge – spoiler, triathlon man won). Cons: the hot water struggled to make it to the top floor at peak shower times. The food provided on the course was incredible. My only complaint – too much of it for someone with very little yummy food willpower.

Social events were organised throughout the course by the SEP management team “to help capture that London experience“. Early on there was a cocktail reception hosted by the LBS Dean (Sir Andrew Liekerman) in the Dean’s residence – he gave a terrific history of the School and the beautiful Regency building including its bombing during the Blitz. To get our London bearings, we were treated to a dinner cruise on the Thames, with an unexpected “bonus” of a stop-start London A-Z tour during the 1 hour each way 5km trip to the London docks! There was a dinner in a swanky restaurant in the Old Royal Exchange Building mid-programme, and for graduation evening we were packed into a red double-decker bus to transport us to the farewell dinner on the top floor of Tower Bridge (Yes! Dinner in Tower Bridge!). We definitely captured an amazing London experience.

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Souvenir program for Tower Bridge Graduation dinner; restaurant located in the top span with glass floors to watch the traffic below

memorable, immersive, intense

As a strong introvert, the prospect of walking into a room full of people I’d never met, high achievers across the business, not-for-profit and government sectors, was – well – intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt incredibly nervous as I entered the lecture theatre. How do you break down those barriers, put people at ease, create the conversations that build a community from day one? You make it special. You set aside the same beautifully appointed, spacious and modern lecture theatre for the entirety of the programme. You remove the anxiety about where to sit by indicating each person’s spot with large font nameplates that slot into the front of the long curving desktops. On the nameplates you print the participant’s’ name and organisation as well as their home country flag – that’s more than enough to stimulate conversation. For example, my immediate neighbours in week 1 were from Indonesia (bank), Taiwan (pharma) and Nigeria (bank).

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Nameplate indicates my spot in week 4. Water bottle to the right. LBS loan iPad in front.

At the beginning of each week, nameplates were moved to new positions, so that over the course of 4 weeks each participant would sit in every locale of the theatre, and beside people from all corners of the world. Name badges in lanyards helped with remembering classmates’ names during breaks from the lecture theatre and could also be used to magically procure unlimited free coffees (hot choc in my case) at the local LBS cafe. Also provided on day 1 was the printed SEP course information in a leather-bound LBS folder, LBS pen and notebook (miraculously outfitted with the exact number of pages required for four weeks of copious note-taking), LBS water bottle (for health and wellness – important to stay hydrated), LBS coat and umbrella (it is London after all – people from some parts of Australia and Africa have never seen rain before), and LBS backpack (to carry all the paraphernalia). Well that little lot must account for some huge chunk of the course fee. And of course these “gifts” build a strong connection with LBS (not to mention the brand power when the commodities travel off to 26 countries). On day 1, we were also asked to submit to the programme managers a song that had a special meaning for us – the song should be one that transported us back to a precise moment in our life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Most days began the same way. After early morning wellness sessions (yoga, pilates, exercise class or gym), followed by a (possibly cold) shower, and sumptuous breakfast, we would make our way to the lecture theatre by 8.30 am. Then, when everyone was seated, we would be asked in groups of 4-5 to discuss our major learning from the previous day and appoint a spokesperson to write this on the whiteboard and explain the learning to everyone in one or two sentences. Photos of the whiteboard were loaded onto the programme portal for our records. Finally, 3 or 4 people would be called upon to relate the story behind the song they had nominated. These stories were riveting: hard-nosed senior execs were transformed into vulnerable souls with deep feelings and emotions. Stories of new love, of lives lost too young, of new life directions and of deep passion for country.

After a short break, we’d then move onto lecture content. We were warned beforehand. There would be “long days filled with thought-provoking lectures, activities, exercises, and group work” the emails said. This programme would be a “challenging, inspiring and intense (yet fun) experience” the emails said. And you know what? Those emails were right. It was challenging. It was fun. It was engaging. As evidenced by emails home to my husband, it was intense; Day 1 “It’s been very intense already. Met lots of nice people from all over the world.” Day 2 “Another long day. Started at 7am finished at 9pm. I’m somewhat exhausted” and later “Its certainly an intense course. Not much time left over for anything else.” “Week 2 is even more intense than week 1, if that is possible.” “Another busy day – got up at 6.30 am, wrote up notes, emails, showered, breakfasted then lectures from 8.30 am till 5.45 pm then a Women In STEM event at Kings Cross at 6.30 pm, returned back to room by 10 pm. Some reading homework to do now and then to sleep. I’ll try to get up for a walk tomorrow morning at 6.30 am.

The regular lecture programme was interspersed with extra-ordinary days: a mystery-shopping outing to Oxford St and Regents St for brand evaluation (complete with full-day tube ticket and map); a whole day session at the Royal Society of Arts in central London working with actors on performance skills (“leader as performer” – It was terrific! Lots of ideas on voice, posture and rehearsal); a full day of radio, TV and crisis event media training, including an unexpected and unrehearsed TV vox pop outside the lecture theatre (think hot choc in hand, backpack slung over shoulder, camera in face, mike likewise, interviewer: “Do you think media has too much power?”); and a day devoted to governance and board directorship including role-playing in a dysfunctional board setting.

Lecturers were incredibly skilful at describing new ideas by using a range of engaging techniques: citing the literature (eg how the natural phenomenon of regression to the mean reinforces incorrect use of negative feedback); asking questions rather than telling the answer; using videos to stimulate thinking (eg the invisible gorilla movie highlighting that selective attention in a complex task can lead to important detail being missed); setting a 10-min challenge to design our personal coat of arms (thereby defining our core values); using the marshmallow challenge to stimulate “collaboration, innovation and creativity”.

On graduation, as a record of our time together, we were ceremoniously presented with several items: an LBS graduation certificate (mine is currently being framed for display in my new office), a group photo, a 20 pound voucher to spend in the LBS shop (I bought an LBS fridge magnet and LBS phone charger – which came in handy barely a month later when I was stuck in Kolkata airport for 12 hours) and an LBS USB with MP3s of all the songs selected by participants – which was now the soundtrack of our journey together. What was my song? Well. We’ll have to wait for LBS blogpost 3 to discuss that.

Overall, LBS SEP lived up to its tagline London experience. World Impact. It was indeed a special, life-changing, immersive experience. A turning point for many. A point of no-return for me.


5 things I love about Japan

I’ve been in Japan for the past two weeks on a Japan Society for Promotion of Science short-term Fellowship, visiting laboratories and major research facilities to cement current linkages and to develop new collaborations between Australia and Japan. I’ll need to provide a formal report on my activities from this visit, but what won’t be included in that report are the following important points.

the welcome

I had an unnecessarily long flight to Japan from Brisbane. It was my fault entirely. I had left the travel organisation so late that the only affordable flights were via Singapore. This meant 24 hours of travel from Brisbane to my final destination of Sendai, rather than 14 hours. After arriving in Nagoya, I was already very tired and then a little annoyed when the gate-staff very gently asked me to check-in my hand luggage because it was too large for the commuter flight to Sendai. However my tetchiness melted away when, from my window seat on the plane, I watched the ground staff on the tarmac skilfully prepare the aircraft for takeoff and then alternately bow and wave towards us for several minutes as we pushed back and then taxied out to the runway. Unexpectedly, that sight gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that uplifted me for the whole day and set the scene for the entire 2 weeks. Welcoming and farewelling people arriving and leaving an establishment – hotel, café, restaurant, ticket office, laboratory – is a lovely Japanese custom. I needn’t have worried about my luggage either, it was already making its way around the carousel when I arrived at the baggage collection area in Sendai. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the return 24 hour flight to Brisbane tomorrow.

I’m tall

At 5’4″ (1.63 m) I am relatively short in Australia, but relatively tall in Japan. Well perhaps not so tall, but at least on the upper end of the normal curve rather than the lower end. That meant I was the go-to person in my row of seats to retrieve articles of luggage from the overhead shelf on the Shankensen train. While this relative tallness may seem like a good thing, there are some downsides (pun intended). For example, sometimes when getting up from my seat on a domestic flight I would bang my head on the overhead luggage compartment. Sometimes my feet dangled over the end of the hotel bed when lying at full stretch. Then, perhaps more a consequence of advancing years than advancing height, I couldn’t get comfortable at a restaurant when sitting at a low table on a cushion with my legs folded underneath me in the traditional Japanese manner. “No problem,” said the woman Prof seated beside me “just stretch your legs under the table like I’m doing. No one else will do that, so there’s plenty of room.”

the food

I don’t eat fish. You might think this would make it difficult to find a diversity of good quality food that I would enjoy in Japan. But you’d be wrong. The food is delicious. The flavours are incredible. The diversity is astonishing. I can’t wait to investigate new options on my last day today. On several occasions these past 2 weeks I had been invited to dinner by academic hosts around the country, so I let them know about my food preferences in advance. I was treated to the beauty and theatre of shabu shabu, sukiyaki, teppenyaki, Korean barbecue and tempura meals as well as a traditional Japanese dinner (where I swapped the sushi course with my appreciative neighbour at the table).

My Shabu Shabu meal

My Shabu Shabu meal

One potential difficulty was in Yokohama, a port city renowned for its fish markets and seafood restaurants. In this case, my host’s secretary was charged with the mission of finding a restaurant to suit requirements. An internet search helped her select a new establishment run by a Japanese chef who had trained in France. He was developing – experimenting shall we say – his own dishes in a renovated traditional Japanese home with a beautiful Japanese garden. The whole enterprise was located opposite a famous Buddhist temple in Yokohama. Not content with an internet evaluation only, the secretary paid a site visit to the French-Japan fusion restaurant to go through the menu with the chef to ensure each course – there must have been a dozen – would be appropriate. It was amazing. Shades of Iron Chef. The only little issue was that the seaweed dish was rather slippery and difficult to consume as it slid off chopsticks or fork. Transferring it with the fork to the finger-sized slices of de-crusted homemade bread on the side plate was a winning combination. Verdict. Delicious. Like everything else I’ve had here.

the trains


Shinkansen ticket Tokyo to Sendai

I’m in absolute awe of the rail system in Japan. So many trains. So many directions, speeds, options. So much order in commuting chaos. Long distances. Short distances. It doesn’t matter. The trains don’t just run on time every time, they also stop at exactly the same spot each time. The carriage doors line up with platform queues formed along painted lines assigned to each train carriage. Incredible. You can arrive 10 min before your train does, and make your way to exactly where your carriage will be. None of this frantic lugging of suitcases around from one end of the platform to the other trying to find your carriage and seat. And then there’s the astonishment that comes with the realisation that it doesn’t matter which way up or around the train ticket is inserted into the electronic access reader at the gate, it is still read and stamped and spat out within a millisecond in the correct orientation on the other side of the gate. Thanks Helen_E_MC for pointing out that lovely gem. (caveat – bending the ticket will cause conniptions). The electronic screens inside the carriages on suburban Tokyo trains report and update in real time the number of minutes to reach each of the remaining stations on the journey. In Japanese and English. When the Shinkansen glides into the terminus, and before it glides out again on the return journey, all the seats in all the carriages perform a slow pirouette in unison to face the new direction of travel. What’s not to love about that?


Pot of tea and 3-min timer

the little things

There are so many little things that simply delight. The 3-min timers that accompany teapots to the table at cafes (5-min for coffee pots). Baskets provided at restaurant tables to stow luggage, such as my ratty old backpack which has – let’s be honest – seen better days. The backpack in its basket was often also covered with a large brightly coloured cloth. I was assured this was to protect it from spills and splatters but I suspect it was more likely to protect other patrons from the unpleasant sight underneath. Tiny little kettles in the tiny little hotel rooms, for tea-making (my current hotel has a tiny little induction heater built into the desk for the tiny little kettle). Warm towels handed out ceremoniously before a meal. Beautiful ceramics used to serve food. Self-heating lunchtime bento boxes. The way serving staff accept payment and provide change using both hands. And the ubiquitous vending machines, serving everything from Pocari Sweat to Creamy Blendy. The obsessive replacement of shoes with slippers upon entering not just houses and restaurants and hotel rooms, but also some experimental labs – mass spec, NMR, SAXS and x-ray crystallography. The thoughtful provision of shoehorns to speed up the process of reintroducing feet to shoes (note to self – wear slip-ons rather than lace ups next time in Japan). And I haven’t even mentioned the fascinating electronic toilets.

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

I’ve had a wonderful visit to Japan. I’ve been treated like royalty, by everyone everywhere. Although this isn’t my first visit to Japan by any means – I’ve been here on conferences and synchrotron trips on a number of occasions – it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to really enjoy and travel around this wonderful country. I hope it won’t be the last.

synchronicity, support and sponsorship

Once upon a time, many years ago when I was a young thing in my final year at high school, I had to fill in the form to select my preferred courses for tertiary education. Pretty exciting. No-one in my family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles – had ever gone on to tertiary education apart from one older brother (who is now, I might add, a highly regarded analyst for a major investment bank). Having said that, almost all of my siblings have since taken university degrees, and my mum graduated with a B Appl Sc (Nursing) in 1992 as a mature age student.

Anyway, when I was filling in that form, I knew there was quite simply no alternative, I had to take vet science. I loved animals, and wanted to look after them, patch them up and make them well. I could so see myself doing that. There was no question, vet science was my top choice. Mum insisted that I put medicine (at two alternate universities) as my second and third choices – although to be honest I wasn’t that keen on medicine myself. Then the career counsellor at high school threw in a curve ball. “Why not” she said, “include pharmacy as the next choice?”. Mmm. That wasn’t something I’d considered before. But yeah, that sounded good. Without much thought at all really, pharmacy became my 4th choice.

I did well at my HSC subjects – English, Chemistry, Physics, Pure Maths and Applied Maths – but not well enough to get into vet science. And I didn’t get into the medicine courses either. However, I was selected into the pharmacy degree, which at that time was taught at the Victorian College of Pharmacy, an independent institute not connected with a university.

Supremely disappointed, I accepted the offer into pharmacy. My new plan was to do so well in 1stst year pharmacy that I would be able to transfer into vet science the following year. Then two things happened to change my mind. Firstly, the 1st year physiol pracs included experiments on animals. It didn’t take long to realise that I really did not have the stomach for animal work; even now as a scientist I choose to work with proteins and bacteria, and not with animals. The second thing was that, happily, I loved the pharmacy course. The concept that a chemical interacts with a protein to generate a pharmacological effect was quite simply a revelation to me. The course content, prac labs and College staff were all fantastic. So I never did transfer to vet science. In the end, I did very well in the undergrad course earning the Gold Medal for my year along with 10 other undergrad prizes.

After a 1-year traineeship in a hospital pharmacy department, I returned to the Pharmacy College to undertake an MPharm research degree with Peter Andrews. I’ve mentioned him in my previous posts, he is truly an inspirational character, an übermentor as others have described him. So I really enjoyed the Masters degree too, learning a lot about research, and publishing 4 papers. Then came a dilemma. Should I continue as a pharmacist or drop that and do research?

I decided to put the decision in the hands of fate. At that point in my life (I was in my mid 20s) what I really I wanted to do was travel. So I organised to go to Europe via some trekking in Nepal and sight-seeing in India. As I’ve mentioned before, it was Peter Andrews who suggested that I apply to the DPhil program at Oxford. My plan was that if I was awarded a scholarship I would do the DPhil and be a scientist and if I didn’t get a scholarship I would work as a pharmacist on a working holiday visa for 6 months. Pretty clever plan, eh? Either way though, I was doing that trekking in Nepal and sightseeing in India. Over a period of about 6 months before I left Australia, I applied for every scholarship going. And over that same period, I received rejection letters from almost every scholarship going. Looked like fate was decreeing a pharmacy career.

Anyway, before I knew it I was at Melbourne airport waving goodbye to family and friends and on my way to Nepal and a 6-month trip to Europe. Little did I know that once I stepped through the door and made my way through passport control everything would change. When I got to the boarding gate I found there was an urgent message for me from another übermentor, Professor Geoff Vaughan, then Dean of the Pharmacy College. I used my last 20c piece to make a call to him from the pay-phone (no mobile phones in those days). Geoff told me that he had received a telegram (this was a long time ago folks) to say that I had been awarded a prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship. That news meant I wouldn’t be returning to Australia in 6 months, instead I would be undertaking a DPhil at Oxford and not returning for 4 years. What a life-changing moment. And there was no-one to share it with. I’d already said goodbye to my family, and they were all on their way home – which was a 1 hour trip from the airport. Geoff Vaughan offered to call them that evening, to let them know the good news. And I was able to follow up with a call at great expense (actually I suspect it might have been reverse charges) from my stopover in Bangkok. After that, I traveled on to Kathmandu for a few weeks trekking, white-water rafting and jungle safari-ing in Nepal. Sometimes when I look back I wonder if all this really happened to me or to someone else. It seems so far-fetched. Especially the bit about a woman traveling alone in Nepal and India at 24 years of age. What was I thinking?

But the far-fetchedness doesn’t end there.

The funny thing about life is that sometimes it never rains but it pours. Once the 1851 scholarship was awarded, other bursaries and scholarships that I’d applied for came in too. My college at Oxford provided a bursary for purchasing textbooks, the UK Government awarded me an Overseas Student Scholarship to pay for the University fees, and there was also an Australian Federation of University Women award. The last of a total of five awards, was a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award for Young Australians. My dad had found that one advertised in the newspaper a week or so before I was due to leave Australia. Yes my whole family were on the lookout to help me get the funding I needed to study overseas. So I applied. In fact the letter was posted at Melbourne airport on the same fateful day that I received the telegram news relayed by Geoff Vaughan about the 1851 scholarship.

Some weeks later, I was requested to attend an interview in Melbourne for the QEII award. But by that time I was already in the UK. Once again, it was Geoff Vaughan who let me know the news. He received the letter from the committee, contacted my family to get my phone number and negotiated with several u/g students to track me down (I was dossing at a friend’s place in a residential college at another university while touring the UK before starting the DPhil at Oxford). Anyway, he eventually found me and after discussing this new turn of events, I indicated to Geoff that it didn’t seem right. I really didn’t need the award what with all the others I had and it would be better if it could be given to someone who needed it more than me. Geoff asked me to write this in a letter that he could provide to the committee. So I did. There was no email then – so I wrote a letter to say that I had already been awarded sufficient funds to support my studies and that it would be best for the committee to use the funds to support someone who really needed the money. Unbeknownst to me, Geoff arranged to attend the interview in my place. He tells the story that he had to wait in a room with several other awardees for this “Young  Australians” interview. As required by eligibility criteria for the award, they were all under 25. Geoff was in his mid-40s. Then the call came out for Miss Jenny Martin to be interviewed. One can only imagine the look of shock on the faces of the others when Geoff stood up to take his turn. He took my letter into the interview committee and somehow persuaded them, despite the indications in my letter, to give me an award. In the end I used this to purchase a PC on which I wrote my doctoral thesis.

When I think back to those events, I wonder how many other Deans of Colleges would take it upon themselves to attend an off-campus interview on behalf of a postgraduate student to argue their case for an award. Not many, I suspect.

The saying goes that there is no such thing as luck, that you make your own luck. Certainly I have worked hard to achieve my career goals. On the other hand, I know I was fortunate to fall into pharmacy as a career; it wasn’t what I intended to do but I ended up enjoying it immensely and it became the springboard from which my current research themes emerged. I was lucky that circumstance led me to work with Peter Andrews and Geoff Vaughan. Two amazing mentors, that have been my role models for mentorship. More than that, they both actively sponsored me – and many others – to succeed. And importantly for me, I never felt that I was treated any different to others in this environment. It didn’t matter that I was a woman. Never mind my own insecurities and lack of confidence, to these two leaders I was simply part of team Pharmacy. That was all that mattered.

And that’s as it should be.



whatever it takes?

The 2014 Australian Football League (AFL) season begins this coming week and, as everyone who grows up in Melbourne knows, it’s obligatory to support one of the local teams. My team was Essendon. My dad barracked for Essendon and so did 4 of my siblings. On the other side was Richmond, supported by my mum and 3 siblings. Uncanny. That distribution is almost genetic. Except for one brother – he supported Collingwood. (There’s always one).

I used the phrase “my team was Essendon” on purpose above, rather than “my team is Essendon”. As of last year I no longer support them. Why? Because they took their slogan “whatever it takes” far too literally. The team injected players with substances that may or may not have been banned, may or may not have been performance-enhancing and which possibly had not been tested in humans before. Apparently no-one can be too sure of any of these things, because Essendon FC couldn’t provide detailed records as to what was injected, when it was injected, or where the injected substance was sourced from.

Ethics approval? Duty of care? Health and safety of players? Apparently these didn’t matter. “Whatever it takes” was the Essendon slogan and “whatever it takes to win” the message. Essendon FC was rightly stripped of premiership points by the AFL and didn’t take part in the 2013 finals series. The Essendon coach, a former golden-haired boy from his playing days, was fined and banned from coaching for a year. The only redeeming feature if any, was that the team self-reported its use of “supplements” to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and the AFL early in 2013 when it became concerned that perhaps this wasn’t doing the right thing by the players or the game.

When does “whatever it takes” cross the line? When does it no longer fit with an individual’s moral and ethical standpoint? For me, the Essendon supplements program did cross the line of what was morally and ethically acceptable. So I walked away from my team.

By this stage, you are probably wondering to yourself, what does this have to do with women in academia?

The thing is, I was reminded of the slogan “whatever it takes” and therefore the “Essendon supplements” saga by several posts I’ve read over the past few weeks.

One was Athene Donald’s post what does it take to get to the top where Athene reflected on what is valued in academia, what is not valued, and how we need to change the status quo. On reading through interviews with successful women at Cambridge, Athene noted “I was particularly struck by the person who said she didn’t care about the publication of a paper in a high impact factor journal as much as she cared that no one felt trampled on in order to achieve it; or the person who valued empathy and communication over a dictatorial attitude.

These are opinions I share, and I am sure many other academics share them too. Yet, there are many highly successful academics who do trample, and who don’t value empathy and communication. Because, well “whatever it takes”.

The second post that got me thinking about “whatever it takes” was my re-reading of why women leave academia by another of my favourite bloggers, Curt Rice. This 2012 post focused on a report on why female chemistry PhD students leave academia in greater numbers than male PhD students. Cited by the students themselves were reasons of poor job security, the intensely competitive nature of academia combined with a lack of self-confidence, and being told specifically that “they would encounter problems simply because they were women“. What stood out particularly for me on re-reading was this comment “Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless”.

In any setting, it’s important to be true to yourself, to your own code of ethics and your own dreams and plans for the future. When it comes to a career in academia, most of us choose this path because we are curious about our world, driven by the thrill of discovery in research and the joy of training the next generation. Research is fun. At least it is when you start out. We don’t realise often until it is too late that success in academia is measured by specific numerical indicators – number of papers, number of papers in high impact factor journals, number of first author papers, citations to papers, etc etc etc. All of these can be manipulated if you are so inclined. You can push your way onto papers that perhaps you shouldn’t be an author on. You can argue why you shouldn’t share the first authorship with someone else. You can harangue editors of high impact factor journals to send your paper out for review. You can even turn up on the editor’s doorstep to argue face-to-face why your paper is so much more important than any other. You can treat your PhD students like so much cannon fodder, requiring more and more hours of work, till they reach the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and sometimes worse. You can even manipulate or fabricate scientific data to get that big paper. It happens. “Whatever it takes”.

Academia, particularly academic research, is a career that generally comes with poor pay, long hours, insecure prospects and regular if not frequent relocations often to different continents (Australia, UK, Australia, US, Australia for me). This lifestyle clearly impacts on family life, yet many continue to pursue an academic career despite these downsides because of the other side of the coin: because research and discovery is fun, addictive even. And for me personally, there are the major attractions of working with an amazing team of clever young people, and collaborating with awe-inspiring thinkers that I trust, respect and like. But “whatever it takes”? No time for anything else? Trampling on others? Dictatorial attitudes? Aggression? Intimidation? Sexism? Harrassment? Discrimination?

At some point personal scientific success, with the emphasis on “whatever it takes”, is simply not worth it. It will cross the line of what a good, bright, young researcher considers acceptable. They will choose to walk away. As Athene Donald and colleagues have pointed out, this situation is wasting much of our best talent. We need to stop rewarding selfishness, and start valuing other measures of success. We need to promote leadership traits that foster cooperation and collaboration, that support our best and brightest into careers in science without asking them to give up everything else in order to succeed.

We could even look to Essendon FC’s original motto for guidance:

Suaviter in modo; fortiter in re – gentle in manner; resolute in action.

That’s not a bad motto to live by in academia or sport. You never know, perhaps Essendon FC might consider using it again, and then I might consider supporting them again. Either that or I will have to start following Richmond FC. After all, it’s in the genes – and Richmond is a progressive team, recently appointing the first woman President of any AFL club.

Go Tiges?