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, alas, here I am 20 something years later, indeed a scientist (molecular neurobiologist) and working towards understanding some of the world’s most debilitating diseases: diseases that affect the mind.
If you asked me when I was finishing my Bachelor of Medical Science 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 (ala Hope Jahren) 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.
But it’s a path that’s making me happy.
Within a few months of being an undergraduate researcher, I felt like I’d found the thing I loved. The brain is, to me and to most people, an intriguing organ of extreme complexity that controls everything that we are and perceive to be. Neuroscience was my favourite course during undergrad thanks to my lecturer Kelly, who then became my PhD advisor. Kelly inspired me, bringing enthusiasm to every lesson and encouraging the curiosity. There’s something magical about having a young PI as your mentor, when they are actually in the lab with you, working side by side. I was captivated, both learning the known intricacies and discovering the new. The reality is I’m a doer, 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, not really understanding the structure of academia or seeing a clear path forward. I can say without a doubt that the turning point that set my career on this trajectory was the Australian Society for Medical Research’s early career researcher workshop in Sydney. I’ll never forget sitting in the audience that day listening to a series of truth bombs from über successful early and mid career researchers who’d trained in Scotland (Nicola Smith), France (Karen Aubrey), England (Nicole Jackson), Canada (Darren [Daz] Saunders) and NIH/US (Renae Ryan). I left that day with a dull headache, clearly knowing I had to go overseas to train, that the CJ Martin was the holy grail, and completely overwhelmed about it. I used these people as my role models, stalking their CVs (sorry not sorry) and as a true scientist, I attempted to replicate.
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, its 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. Let me tell you, this year has been INSANE to the power of infinity. Gaining overseas training has been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience, and I am now of the club where I can’t recommend highly enough to all early career researchers to swallow your fear and go overseas. I know it sounds cliché, but you learn so much about yourself and the job if you are open to experience and adventure. The highs are higher, the lows and lower, and the experience is SO much richer.
I suppose the point of this post, other than to tell you a little more about the mystical me, is to round out with a message.
I was told many times, both directly and indirectly, that I couldn’t do what I’ve done. From being a young girl, when the message was clear that I could not be as good as the boys in STEM subjects. 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. And most of all, the fact that we have a choice. We can choose to stay or go. We can choose to be a beacon of positivity amongst all the negativity. We have the ability to inspire and teach the next generation. We just have to choose.
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.
For early career researchers, I want you to know that you can do anything you set your mind to. The golden key is to believe in yourself. Turn every experience into opportunity to learn. Ask for help when you need it. And grow your network so that you have a supportive net to catch you and help you bounce back up when you fall. The people to surround yourself with are the ones who always congratulate you for succeeding and the ones who actively help you get there, without expecting anything in return. Celebrate. Every. Single. Success. No matter how small. It is becoming clearer and clearer as I plod along on this crazy journey that attitude is everything. Shifting focus onto the positive is revolutionary, and you will see a shift in both your success and the others around you. And pay it forward. 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.✌️