The path that’s made me happy.
My parents’ favourite party story is about how when I was 8 years old I decided I was going to be a scientist and cure the world of disease. They always forget to mention the part in between when I also wanted to be a vet, a doctor, and an artist. But here I am 20 something years later, indeed a scientist and working towards understanding diseases that affect the mind.
If you asked me when I was finishing my undergrad where I would be in five years, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. I had no idea where I was going or what I wanted to do. Medicine had always been high on my list but after working for a few years in the pathology lab at our local hospital I had contact with some very unhappy interns and was turned off. Of course a career in science has not necessarily been easier, as its a path with a different type of pressure.
Within a few months of being an undergraduate researcher, I felt like I’d found the thing I loved. I was captivated, both learning the known intricacies and discovering the new. The brain is an intriguing organ of extreme complexity that controls everything that we are and perceive to be. Research fits with me because I’m a do-er, and research is all about doing.
Deciding that I wanted a full time career in medical research was easy, but figuring out how to do it was much more difficult. I was overwhelmed with all the choices, and being a first-in family academic I didn’t understand the structure of academia or see a clear path forward. A turning point that set me on this trajectory was an early career workshop run by the Australian Society for Medical Research in Sydney. I’ll never forget sitting in the audience that day in awe of über successful early and mid-career researchers who’d trained all over the world. I left that day feeling a pull to go overseas to gain experience, and feeling completely overwhelmed about it.
Doing a postdoc overseas has been my greatest learning experience. Not only have I increased my skillset, but I’ve also learnt to navigate my way around a much bigger group than I was used to. Emotionally, and I suppose you could say politically, I’ve grown. In a large lab, it’s been important to find my voice and speak up when I need support to keep the ball rolling on my projects.
It’s been a lesson in empathy to navigate cultural differences. I work with people from all over the world. In our office alone we span 7 nationalities: Romanian-Canadian, Icelandic, Mexican-German, and me, Australian-Spanish! Although the scientists speak English, some of the support staff do not, and there’s been fun times trying to communicate with sign language and very limited German. I’ve ticked a bunch of things off my postdoc bucket list, and also getting a few extra surprises. Gaining overseas training has been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience.
I suppose the point of this post, other than to tell you a little more about myself, is to round out with a message.
I was told many times, both directly and indirectly, that I wasn’t able to pursue this path. From being a young girl, when the message was clear that I could not be as good as the boys in maths, to being a grad student, when I was told that I shouldn’t get my hopes up because I couldn’t possibly succeed when so many excellent others before me had tried and failed. I’ve been constantly told that I wouldn’t be happy because of the stress and the pressure and the competition that comes with this career.
The negativity in academia and research is intense. And I get it. We’re all vying for limited resources and rejection makes up a large portion of our days. What I don’t think is discussed enough are the very special aspects of being a researcher. The fact that there is intellectual freedom to explore topics and ideas that inspire and intrigue us. To have the opportunity to find our own niche and make a mark. The flexibility in working hours. The glorious feeling of discovering something new, and savouring those moments when you are the only person in the world who knows this new thing. The rewarding feeling of having a paper accepted, a grant awarded and our hard work acknowledged. The amazing friendships we make, the incredible lessons that our mentors teach us.
In addition to my amazingly supportive husband and family, I am proud to say that I am surrounded by a strong, positive, and supportive professional network. I have friends from all around the world and all academic levels, from undergrad to chair of department. These are friends where a win for them is a win for me and vice-versa. We encourage positive interactions and we are actively working towards changing the negative culture associated with research. We know that its a tough road, but by bringing each other up and being generous with all we have to offer, we are making that road an easier one. We remind each other that there is no such thing as failure, they’re just opportunities to learn.
This is a tough world we’re in. Let’s work together to make it a more pleasant, positive, and productive space for all of us.✌️