Being the new normal



Women’s AFL has become the new normal. Image:


For me, Australian rules football has always been a jarring event. I always associated it with the cold, dark sadness of winter in conjunction with being dragged along by a former boyfriend to boring endless matches. I’d even change channel to avoid the news highlights, such was my aversion about the game. Some might say that was the real motivation for my leaving Melbourne but that’s pure speculation.

Then came Women’s AFL. Suddenly I cared. Suddenly the results became a mark of personal pride when my team were victors. Not only do I stay tuned to the news highlights about the games but I seek out information about who’s winning and even watch some of the matches. Admittedly only the last quarter but that’s a considerable improvement.

What has impressed me so much is that I can now relate to the game and to the players. Their triumph is my triumph. Even better, because of the brave few who fought for years to get the women’s league happening, now the next generation of women can aspire to play football professionally.

This is game-changing for many football-mad families where the daughters were always told they couldn’t play their favourite sport. A radio host recently admitted that only a couple of years ago he stopped his daughter from playing football because he thought there was no future in it for her.

Now, with the local women’s team winning the AFL Grand Final, the level of support is such that it feels like there was always a women’s league. It’s become the new normal.

This struck me as being so similar to STEM careers. Not very long ago women were actively discouraged from participating in STEM subjects because it was considered that there was no future in it for them. Some brave souls forged their way in through the condescension and insults but many women shied away from it.

Now being a woman in STEM is considerably better but there is still room for improvement. We still need to show the next generation that women can have interesting STEM careers, do them well and love them.

This is where science communication and outreach are critical. Love your work? Let school-aged kids see your passion and hear stories about the amazing work you do. Just being there, as a female talking about your experiences, can have such a positive impact on encouraging young girls into non-traditional careers.

It’s something that we STEM-careers women can easily do to make a difference.

Now we just need to work on that pay gap.

Planning vs doing


Success in a cycling event is much more likely if you’ve previously ridden a bike. Image:

Lab work always benefits from planning. A good experimental design drawn from a solid hypothesis based on current literature is essential for good science. And yet all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the reality of what will happen in the lab. Kind of like a triathlon.

My entire triathlon career consists only of two such events. Ok, mini events. Training for the first triathlon encompassed the two weeks between the actual event and me first hearing about it. Sure, I could have waited a year and actually put in some proper training. Or I could just wing it this time and learn for next time.

Due to several errors in judgement, I opted for the latter. The swim leg turned out to be less to do with swimming as attempting to breath in the seething, churning mass of bodies. The ride leg also wasn’t the best leg, with that event being my first time on a bike in over a decade. The part I most excelled at was the change-over. All my training efforts had gone into putting on my shoes quickly and that’s where I gained most ground. Probably not the best training strategy but at the time it was certainly the most feasible.

Ok, so I probably came about dead last in that event. But at least the practice had taught me a great deal about mini triathlons and about training properly for them. The following year, I was prepared, knew what to expect and finished in a respectable time.

Lab work is much the same in many ways.

No matter how detailed and thorough the planning, there is always something extra to consider. Usually it’s something that no one would ever think of and it won’t be obvious until you get in the lab and try it for the first time.

In theory, the proposed method should work. In reality it might not and this might be due to something as ridiculous as the lack of available glassware. Or that the piece of equipment required for one critical step happens to be in use for the next month.

Little things that can’t be imagined on paper can have a huge impact on experiments.

Proper experiment planning is essential. But before launching into the full experiment, just getting into the lab and trying out some new ideas can be enormously beneficial and time-saving in the long run.

Like actually riding a bike before a cycling event.


The Olympics of scientific conferences


The Olympics closing ceremony resembles the close of a good scientific conference

The truly great thing about the Olympic games is the closing ceremony. Not because I’m anti-sport as some may suggest, but because this is when the athletes dispense with any animosity towards their competitors and enter the arena as friends. This is much like scientific conferences.

One of the key perks of being in research is going to conferences in far away lands. Having said that, my last conference was in my home town, but either way it’s always a great opportunity to meet with your peers.

Conferences can bring moments of great triumph and exhilaration. Like when you see the name tag of the person across from you at the lunch table and realise that you’ve read absolutely all their papers and follow their work obsessively.

You want to go over to them immediately and gush about how inspirational their work has been but you kind of want to be cool as well.The triumph is when you get the nerve to hold a normal conversation with them without them thinking your crazy. I’m still working on that last bit.

Occasional moments of exhilaration also occur when someone reads your name badge and approaches you to gush about your work. This never gets old. Ever. The struggle for me is to also be cool about it and not give them a great big bear hug of gratitude.

Then there are moments of despair. Like when someone presents their data exactly in your field but they’ve done it better. And with the most advanced technology. And are ready to publish. But always from despair rises hope, usually in the form of a new collaboration.

All this networking is exhausting. But by the end of a good international conference, any barriers between countries have been broken down, new alliances have formed and new ideas are set in motion. This is science at its best.

Now to follow up on all these leads and get some new data to present at the next conference. The training for the next event never ends and that’s just how we like it.



Racing in circles to advance science forward

Research can feel a lot like training for a horse race

The Melbourne cup is run, a horse has won, and we can pack away our frocks and fascinators til next year. The tools downed for the Race That Stops A Nation can again be collected and work continues on just as it always has with scarcely a blip on our event radar.

But behind the 3 minutes of horse racing that most of us will actually watch each year are hours upon hours of hard slog work, getting up at stupid o’clock, and running around in repetitive circles all for the hope of success at the end. Much like science.

Science is not a 9 to 5 job, despite what my contract says. Particularly not biology with the needy-clingy cell cultures that demand attention over weekends and certainly not chemistry with painfully-slow size-exclusion chromatography running 24 hours a day with an inevitable 3 am solvent top-up.

And, of course, there’s the time point analysis where one point always falls on the most inconvenient time no matter how well you try to plan.

On top of that, there is the repetitive work analysing all the nuanced differences associated with testing every possible variable ad nauseam, just prove without doubt that the measured effects are due to exactly what we think they’re due to and not some other random interference.

The repetition and the crazy hours are essential to make science happen. And we do it willingly for the hope that one day we might get to the finish line and find that next cure for cancer, that new method for efficient wine production, that new solar cell that can revolutionize the energy sector, that next step forward.

Having that hope is what makes all those hours of racing in circles all worthwhile. Though I think the odd glass of champagne would be nice too.

Funding science through sport

The Socceroos are not making nearly enough money. And neither is research.

It has been said that it’s a shame research doesn’t draw the same financial interest as spectator sports since it gives so much more to communities in the longer term. But maybe research can rely on sport for funding.

Spectator sports know how to draw the crowds. A clear conflict, clear rules and a clear winner. Not to mention the inherent comradery of team supporters. It unites people. It moves people. And so many people are willing to spend their hard-earned cash in exchange for a couple of hours of entertainment.

Research, on the other hand, is not a spectator sport. At least not when things are running smoothly. Can sport be a way of funding research?

Different research teams around the world are so often competing against each other to achieve a Greater Goal – a new vaccine for malaria, a low fat cheese that actually tastes good, and so many more. Is it therefore an oversight that SportsBet have no tally for these groups? To be fair, this is hardly a quick flutter for punters. Any winnings may only be paid out in retirement. Or bequeathed to their grandkids.

Many research teams in the same country are also vying the same meagre pool of research funds. Betting on which of the massive number of applications will actually go ahead will provide a better chance of collecting winnings in the same lifetime. Of course the odds of winning are only slightly better than the lottery in some cases and with potentially less payout.

This still doesn’t address the issue of science not being a spectator sport. Unless it is an episode of Mythbusters where Big Things Are Blown Up in spectacular fashion for the good of science. Or one of those science shows where the genius presenter can only possibly explain that particular phenomenon by travelling to Madagascar. And Brazil. After a quick stint in Canada. Brian Cox has this gig nailed.

This still lacks the necessary team factor to move and unite an audience. So we need another strategy.

How about funnelling some of the millions of dollars spent on sports players each year into a research fund? A new fund that could provide ongoing support for important research that doesn’t inspire donation drives, like the increasingly desperate need for new antibiotics. It need only be a small percent of the team salaries to produce a decent-sized pool of funding because, despite what the Socceroos have been saying this week, players get paid very well compared to the rest of us.

Research is for the benefit of people and funding largely comes from passively from tax dollars. Linking research to sport provides a more consistent, reliable and active* contribution to research funding. It may even give people more awareness of the great research that being carried out for their benefit.

*See what I did there?