Inspiring EMCRs: Getting to know… Bernadette Fitzgibbon

NHMRC Biomedical Research Fellow
Monash University

This inspiring EMCR tells us all about her academic journey, and how she learned to overcome her career challenges by finding the opportunities hidden in them

When asked to write this piece I wrote to my mother in New Zealand and asked her what I was like at school. She responded with ‘a talker, not always completing the written work, which did not endear you to teachers’. Clearly, I wasn’t the obvious choice for most likely to complete a PhD. However, she also revealed that I was anxious about every exam, and determined to get a scholarship into university to study forensic psychology (no doubt linked to a belief that I could be the next Scully).

I was so determined to not only get into university, but to do so with a scholarship offer, that I postponed a needed surgery until three days following my final exams. Happy holidays indeed! Even though I got top scores, and I got into university with a scholarship, that summer didn’t go as planned. The surgery had to be repeated six weeks later, and this delay meant I needed to make a hard decision: to not go with my friends to the University of Auckland, in New Zealand’s big apple, but to spend a semester in a university that was closer to home and had excellent parking. Not a big deal in hindsight, but for a 17-year-old it was a dramatic disappointment and the end of one’s entire life.

So I began university that year close to home, and I eventually got into the city – to what became my social and academic mecca. I was taking classes in all of my interests, from the sciences to women’s studies. I loved it all and I eventually ended up at a crossroads: do I do my honours year in feminist psychology or in human neuroscience? I chose neuroscience and carried out my first-ever year of research, which ended up being an auditory study using electroencephalography. I was hooked – but I didn’t know on what type of neuroscience yet. I had narrowed it down to ‘people, not mice’, and I knew I wanted to contribute to understanding disorders, particularly those that are chronic without clearly known pathophysiology or treatment. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to do a research Masters in neuropsychiatric systemic lupus erythematosus, using magnetic resonance imaging. Yup, I was a people neuroscientist and I was ready for a PhD, but I had itchy feet.

Where was I going to do this PhD? This process took surprisingly longer than I thought it would. It wasn’t as simple as sending in an application and getting a plane ticket. (Who knew about visas?) I was fortunate enough to hold a NZ and an EU passport, and as such had narrowed down my possibilities. While weekends in Spain had caught my wishful eye, I stumbled upon the work of Emeritus Professor John Bradshaw in phantom limb pain. A topic, along with alien hand syndrome and the like, that had grabbed every bit of my interest in my undergraduate studies. So I wrote to John and felt like I’d just won the lotto when I got a favourable response, followed by acceptance and scholarship to Monash University.

And so, I embarked on what has become one of the best decisions in my life. Was it perfect? No. That first year involved personal challenges, an unexpected surgery and a trip home unsure if I’d go back. It also turns out that PhDs are very hard, and require a resilience in which 23-year-old me needed to upskill. I was fortunate, however, to have mentors around me to guide me, listen to my hysteria (shout out to Professor Peter Enticott – sorry about that), and to open doors I wouldn’t even have known were important until…duh duh duunnn…fellowship time.

While my PhD seemed to go from stride to stride, getting published in good journals, landing a feature article in New Scientist, and receiving awards from my school and university for my thesis, I did not walk into a fellowship. I was not successful in my first attempt at an NHMRC early career fellowship and felt like I had failed. It was a low period but it was an invaluable experience and taught me a lot about how to survive now as an academic in a competitive time. I would even go so far as to describe it as a positive experience. That makes no sense, right?! Not getting that fellowship straight after my PhD meant I learnt early on that rejection is part of academia and is normal. Everybody I know, at some point, has missed out on something they really wanted and were competing for.

One part of this story that may set me apart from other people who have missed out in the early stages is that I had the support to keep afloat until I did go on to get my NHMRC early career fellowship. I was employed as a post-doc and I then secured a Monash University early career fellowship to start developing my own research direction. Alongside this, I was surrounded by academics who provided opportunities and invested in me as a scientist. No clearer is this response seen than the first week of my NHMRC fellowship.

One week before my NHMRC fellowship started, I found out I was pregnant. The next week at work began with an awkward door knock, followed by, “Hi Paul, I’m accidentally pregnant and I’m really sorry” to my supervisor and mentor Professor Paul Fitzgerald. At this point I hadn’t quite realised that I was allowed to be happy about this life-changing event, until Paul responded, quite correctly, with how exciting the news was and not once questioned the impact it would have on my work. Because it shouldn’t. I mean, it does, but that’s in the paragraph below.

My fellowship research involves using brain stimulation methods, specifically ones that involve a magnetic field – something I was not going to be able to do while I was pregnant. This was my first lesson that career disruptions rarely involve just the time you are not at work. The first nine months of my fellowship essentially involved five months of bad morning sickness interspersed with finishing up projects in preparation for maternity leave. Returning from maternity leave, I felt like I was starting from scratch while I worked to get my projects up and running again. I was also dealing with the challenge that my maternity leave dates did not exactly fall at the best time to recruit students. I laugh now about my (extreme) naivety, where I thought maternity leave was going to be some extra time for me to analyse data and get a couple of review articles under my belt. I even looked at doing a short course in Astronomy.

These challenging times are where the science village comes in. Surrounding yourself with colleagues (who often hold dual roles as friends) and mentors who lift you up in the hard times, push you through the challenging moments and celebrate with you in the good times. I’ve been surrounded by the best of both. Each day I am reminded of all the different pathways that having a PhD opens up to you, and I’m lucky to work every day with inspirational scientists, particularly inspirational women who actively engage in supporting the development of those coming up behind them (that’s you, Associate Professor Kate Hoy).

In short, despite the ‘academic tone’ I unconsciously use during a presentation, I’m not your obvious academic and my journey has not been a straight line. But I love being a scientist. It is part of who I am as well as a mum and partner. And I will continue to be a scientist as long as science will have me.

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