Inspiring EMCRs: Getting to know Tristan Clemons

tristan clemons portrait, tristan playing hockey, tristan and children

Research Scientist
University of Western Australia
@clemo_11 (Twitter)
@theostrich8 (Instagram)

People often ask me what it is I do for a job. I would describe myself as a ‘slashie’ as I am involved in a number of different pursuits in my life. My two main loves however are my research and my hockey. I am a research scientist at the University of Western Australia where I work on the design, synthesis and application of nanomaterials for the treatment of disease and injury. When I am not in the lab I am usually on a hockey pitch somewhere in Australia or abroad training and playing for the Australian Men’s Hockey Team. Looking back on the relatively short journey to where I am now it is interesting how each of these pursuits have intertwined and for the most part worked in synergy with one another.

I still remember being in year 12 back in my home town of Bunbury, 2 hours’ drive down the coast from Perth, Western Australia and getting a copy of the ‘Job Guide’. It’s a huge book which outlines every career and university course possible from Astronomer at A to Zoologist at Z and everything in between. It’s funny that most in the EMCR category would remember this book, however when I talk to school students today not many kids know what I am talking about, kind of like when you say ‘Hey, roll down the window’. Regardless, as a 16 year old I wasn’t much into reading big books and was more excited about playing hockey. Fortunately for me, my mum had the patience to read through the guide and she came across nanotechnology. I have always been and will continue to be fascinated by the prospect of doing, experiencing and seeing things that not many people get to. I hadn’t even heard of nanotechnology! This is what made it perfect. It was new, it was exciting and it potentially didn’t have any job prospects back in 2003 but I didn’t care, I was in. So thanks to my mum for making the best ever career choice I have been faced with, essentially on my behalf.

I studied my undergraduate degree (BSc Chemistry) with Honours in Nanotechnology at Curtin University. Those days were hard, trying to juggle university classes, lab reports, assignments and exams with hockey training and tournaments along with a steady social life and part-time work. At the end of my honours I was pretty low on confidence and excitement around research. We didn’t get the results in my honours project we had hoped for, my thesis was rushed together and I found it to be a really stressful year. I decided to get a bit of perspective; I would take a ‘year off’ and study my Diploma of Secondary Education (Dip Ed). I have always enjoyed teaching and I love interacting with students and kids and talking about science. My Dip Ed was a great year with a real eclectic mix of people all thrown together from a myriad of backgrounds and with a huge variance in motivations for studying. It was also during this year I met my first true research mentor, Iyer Swaminatha from the University of Western Australia.

Iyer offered me a chance to apply for the Australian Postgraduate Award and do a PhD in his BioNano laboratory at the University of Western Australia, working on nanoparticles for drug delivery in injuries and diseases such as spinal cord injuries, cancer and heart disease. I was hooked! For me medical research is so amazing in that it is easy to wake up and get into work each day, knowing the relevance of your work and the potential benefits for the community. Iyer was an amazing PhD supervisor. He has a ‘can do’ attitude, a knack for thinking up cool ideas and is an amazing people person, able to motivate others and share his vision on a piece of work.

I liked him so much that when I applied for an NHMRC Peter Doherty ECR fellowship it was a no brainer with whom I should continue to develop my research skills. Although unconventional to not move research groups for the fellowship, for me personally this has been a fantastic decision. I now work on nanoapplications for wound healing and scar tissue treatments following burn injuries in conjunction with the amazing burns surgeon Fiona Wood and her foundation (the Fiona Wood Foundation). Staying in Perth has also allowed me to continue my hockey career with the Kookaburras’ daily training environment based here in Perth. I have been very fortunate to have the support of Hockey Australia and my coaches as well as my supervisors, the NHMRC and the University of Western Australia in pursuing both hockey and research. If I am honest, I feel they provide great balance in my life as well as a number of skills which have been transferable across both disciplines. I have developed greatly from my hockey with regards to leadership, teamwork and resiliency; all skills that are important in a research environment. On the flipside my research has taught me about critical thinking, articulating your thoughts and attention to detail, which are all attributes that have helped me in the high performance hockey environment.

If I was to get on my soapbox for 1 minute with this audience [Ed. That gives me an idea for a new EMCR Pathways feature!] it would be remiss of me not to mention my science outreach, which I am very passionate about. Since beginning my PhD I have been active in seeking opportunities and volunteering my time to speak to school students and the wider community about the role of science in society and where a career in science can take you. I think it is so important to relay this message to the next generation of scientists (school students) as well as to the people who ultimately fund the majority of our work (the public). There is so much value in making the time to do this and I would encourage everyone to add this to their CV, during the PhD and EMCR phases of your career especially. I have received so much from a career in science already that I could never give back enough to even the ledger. Working in scientific research is such a privileged position to be in, we get to be curious in everything we do every day, we get variety in what we do and we get to work with some amazing people. What more could you want from a job? It’s important we don’t forget how lucky we are.

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