I am a cognitive neuroscientist and NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow at NICM, Western Sydney University. The work that my team and I do spans the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of people at risk of dementia.
I was so lucky to have an amazing experience during my undergraduate studies. I volunteered in a psychophysiology laboratory and fell in love with research. My supervisor was passionate about the area, and this really inspired me, so I went on to complete my honours and PhD in the same lab. I’ve always had a fascination with the way the brain works, particularly how we remember information and learn new things. It was a natural progression to take this work into the dementia space, where people experience changes in their memory and thinking.
I also wanted to tell my story about how I got to where I am now, as I think it was another real turning point in my career and may help junior researchers. During the first year of my PhD, I went to a fabulous ‘Life in Academia’ conference that was MC-ed by Richard Morecroft (ABC News Sydney, Letters and Numbers etc.), and focused on different pathways and career progression opportunities in academia. One of the presenters at this conference said something that really resonated with me: when you’re in the last year of your PhD, write a grant application so you can create a job for yourself to walk into when you finish. This really seeded my strategic career planning from the start of my PhD candidature. I explored fellowship options and did some benchmarking so I knew the kind of things that needed to be on my CV by the end of my PhD in order for me to be successful with a fellowship. During my PhD, I sat on committees as a student representative, published extra papers, helped organise conferences, applied for prizes, and peer-reviewed manuscripts. Then, four months before submitting my PhD, I started speaking with potential fellowship supervisors from other universities. As soon as I had submitted my PhD, I started working on my fellowship application. My PhD was literally conferred about one week before I submitted an application for an NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship. Before the end of the year, I found out that my application was successful, and this gave my career the hugest boost I could have hoped for!
To me, the human brain is the most fascinating thing in the universe. There is so much that we just don’t know about the ‘wet-ware’ that makes us who we are. As a neuroscientist, you are continually working at the edge of discovery: the very forefront of new knowledge. My number one value in life is continuous learning and bettering myself, and I am just so fortunate to have a job that gives me so much meaning and fulfilment in life.
Failure and people management! In research, rejections are a dime a dozen, so get used to it. The sooner your skin thickens, then the sooner you’ll realise that failure and rejection is just part of the job. One of my favourite mottos at work and in life is that winning doesn’t make you grow. It’s all of life’s failures that challenge us and push us to change, grow and improve. Failure is a good thing – celebrate it!
The other challenging aspect of work is people management. I went into research because, (probably) like you, I have an unhealthy fascination with data! When you step up into leadership roles, it means that you end up getting further away from data and need to learn new leadership and management skills. This can be really challenging at first, so it’s great to get some formal training in this area (e.g. leadership programs offered by your organisation) as well as mentoring. Western Sydney University are wonderfully supportive in this space and have provided me with many leadership opportunities and training to match.
My job is so varied! I work on a wide range of projects that are based in the lab all the way through to the community. Some days I’ll be circumnavigating Greater Sydney going to meetings with collaborators and stakeholders at different campuses, institutes and universities. Other days I’ll be in the lab training students on EEG and ultrasound, collecting and processing blood samples, or teaching troubleshooting skills. I try to be available and make time for my students, so we might meet in my office or via online video conferencing to discuss data or their latest manuscript draft. There are a few conferences we attend each year, so practice talks are a must! I try to do at least one community outreach event per month – this might mean a presentation on our research to an aged care facility or seniors group, or running a fundraising event. Then, there are meetings and committees. The rest of the time I am writing, writing, writing manuscripts and grants. I really try to be disciplined with my writing and regularly set aside half or full days to do this – I’m selfish with the time and don’t let emails and meetings take over.
Because of my fascination in learning and memory, my PhD was originally going to be focused on validating a neurophysiological diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s disease. We realised quickly at the start that a lot more groundwork needed to be completed to provide empirical evidence for the theory we wanted to test before being able to apply it to a clinical population. So my PhD explored the fundamental mechanisms of working memory neuronal encoding. This served me really well, as I was then able to take the findings from this fundamental science and translate it into research involving people with mild cognitive impairment (the early signs of dementia) following my PhD.
Keep your chin up! You need to work hard, but you also need to work smart – be strategic with your collaborations and the work you take on. It’s very easy to load up on opportunities, but you need to make sure that the ones you say yes to will take your career in the right direction. Make some two, three and five-year plans and review them regularly. Get plenty of mentors for your ‘bank’. Mentors for different areas are fabulous. I have career advice mentors, strategy mentors, conflict resolution mentors, research mentors and leadership mentors. Mentor your students and your colleagues. Think about how you can create opportunities for them. Collaborate with academics at your level (these are your future colleagues) – find people you can trust and are accountable to work with, and put energy and effort into those projects and collaborations. Try to work with people outside of your field, as this pushes you to look at things differently and inevitably increases the reach of your work. Last, but certainly not least, network, network, network! Put your hat in the ring and introduce yourself to new people. Oh, and get Twitter and use it regularly (follow me: @DoktorGen and @HEADBOXLab)!
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