It’s funny thinking about one’s career in retrospect, and contemplating how it ended up where it has. For mine, there have been risks, as well as some dumb luck along the way. Not to mention a fair share of mistakes. One of the silliest mistakes was to assume – when I was a young student at Pharmacy College in Melbourne – that the academics instructing me always knew they wanted to be academics and that they’d all had a smooth career path in reaching that point. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as I learned from my own academic journey. Bumps and hurdles, both personal and professional, abounded on the way to where I am now. I certainly didn’t start out knowing that I wanted to be an academic. Far from it.
I was lucky in many ways early on. For one thing, although I was born into a poor family I was reasonably clever, did well at school and I had the opportunity to move out of poverty. Unlike my parents who both left school at 13 or 14, I had the chance of a tertiary education. Without incurring a hideously large debt. Yes, tertiary education in Australia was free when I was an undergraduate. That was a great bit of dumb luck. It required being born at the right time.
Second, there were strong female role models in my life who, either through necessity or chance, had taken paths that diverged from the norm for women of low socioeconomic status. My mother – with 9 children – became charge nurse in a hospital operating theatre when I was still at home. My aunt, a nun, had a successful nursing career in a major city hospital. My high school physics and chemistry teacher was a woman. These women weren’t simply passive objects in a male-dominated world, and they showed by example that getting married and having children was not the only option for a young girl from the sticks. A good thing really. For an excruciatingly shy young girl, if marriage and children were the only measure of success I would have been a complete failure.
Don’t get me wrong. Tertiary education was not all beer and skittles. In fact there was no beer. And no skittles. To attend college I had a 90 minute commute each way on public transport (it’s probably no coincidence that ever since then my commute has been 15 min or less). Domestic duties awaited when I returned home every night: cooking, doing the dishes, the laundry, etc for a large family. With travel, undergrad lectures, long pracs, nightly revision of lecture notes as well as home duties, there was no time for the usual student social life at college. On the flip side, I did gain important time-management skills. 🙂 And I loved the pharmacy course. Indeed, it was a revelation to see the chemistry underpinning a drug:receptor interaction and to find that drug design was not merely the stuff of science fiction. So it was no trouble to absorb the course information and, perhaps in part because I had none of the beer and skittles distractions, I aced the degree. That early success set me up for a competitive government scholarship towards a Masters research degree. A postgraduate degree. I had certainly not planned that when I started out. And it was a bit of a risk moving into research when my peers were moving into well-paying positions as pharmacists. But that is what I chose to do. The thrill of discovery beckoned.
As I described in a previous post, I wasn’t really sure what to do after the Masters degree…research or pharmacy? pharmacy or research? At the time, what I really wanted to do was travel. There was a whole wide world waiting to be discovered. And there was that little issue of a young man I’d met during my Masters degree who had returned to the UK after a year in industry in Australia. I took another risk. I planned a trip through Nepal and India on my own (what was I thinking?) and applied for PhD scholarships in the UK. If I was awarded a scholarship I would move into research. If I didn’t, I would spend a few months on a working holiday in Europe and return to Australia to a job in pharmacy.
If you’ve read that earlier post, you’ll know the scholarships came along just in the nick of time, and I earned a D Phil degree at Oxford University. By then the young man was history (well let’s face it, he was never that into me anyway). So there’s another bit of dumb luck that turned out to be a huge cornerstone of my career. Likely, I wouldn’t have a degree from Oxford if I’d not fallen for a Brit boy and not had the support of mentors directing me to a research degree there.
So there I was with a DPhil degree from Oxford. You can imagine, I was on top of the world. Where would I go? What would I do next? After several years in the UK, I was desperately homesick and longing for a bit of sun. As luck would have it, a new private university had opened in Queensland, and I accepted a 3-year postdoctoral position there. Big mistake. Within 6 months of my arriving, the university closed the entire science and technology school; it was too expensive to run. Along with scores of others, I was unemployed. The world that had been my oyster had slammed shut. But then, another bit of dumb luck. I was mobile. I didn’t have a mortgage or a family to support. I could go overseas. Two positions came up, one at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the other at Rockefeller University in New York. I ummed and ahhed. Both were great labs, great opportunities. Which one should I choose? In the end, I opted for New York. I thought it might be marginally safer than Tel Aviv (the first Gulf war was raging at the time). Funny thing is, a year earlier I had stated categorically that I would never work in the USA. Now I was having to eat those words. Big time. New York was probably the last place I would have chosen to go in the US had it not been for the circumstances. Yet it turned out to be a great career move. I worked hard at Rockefeller University for two years and generated two high profile first author papers. That decision was a good one. Even if it was precipitated by bad luck.
For personal reasons, after the Big Apple I decided it was time to return to Australia for good. This time to the University of Queensland in Brisbane with my own fellowship, and my own set-up money. I had been given a golden opportunity to establish a protein crystallography lab, in the Drug Design and Development Centre. I ran with that opportunity, and I’ve now been at UQ for 22 years. There have been ups and downs of course. Personally, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. For a couple of years I was in a….well, let’s say a troubled relationship at home. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on my partner. And we didn’t have children. So although it was very distressing, I was able to extricate myself after a couple of turbulent years – with the help of friends and colleagues. My self-confidence and self-esteem suffered, and I lived alone for a long time after that. The experience did teach me a very valuable lesson about defining what I wanted in a relationship. That was definitely a good bit of planning.
A few years later, I met my now husband. We met late in life and neither of us had married before. The whole marriage thing was a bit of a gamble for both of us. But that risk was well worth it; in hindsight, the decision to share my life with him was easily the most brilliant decision ever.
So things are going well. My research is at an all-time high, I work with a great team of young and enthusiastic scientists, and my other great passion – gender equity in Australian science – is firmly on the national agenda.
If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to capitalise on success. Now is the time to put myself out there, take a step out of my comfort zone. And so I recently accepted the role of Director of the Eskitis Drug Discovery Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. I begin in March, and am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my research and step up to a more senior role. I’m also just a little terrified by leaving the known (UQ) for the unknown (GU).
Lucky I completed that Senior Executive Program at the London Business School last year. Must write about that next time.