NHMRC CJ Martin Fellow
Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry (Germany)
My parents’ favourite party story is about how when I was eight years old I spontaneously 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 years later, indeed a scientist (molecular neurobiologist) and working towards curing at least some of the world’s most debilitating diseases.
If you asked me when I was finishing my Bachelor of Medical Science where I would be in five years, I would have been stumped. I legitimately 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 at our local hospital and seeing the stress and pressure on the interns (one was my best friend), it rapidly lost its appeal.
Of course a career in science has not necessarily been an easier path, but it appeared to be in the beginning. And in the end it has been a path that has made me happy.
From the first few months of my honours studies, I felt like I’d found the thing that I loved. The brain is, both to me and to most people, an intriguing organ that controls everything that we are and perceive to be. Neuroscience was my favourite course during undergrad and I was eager to learn anything I could about the brain. When I started to actually do research on the brain, that was just the coolest. Not only did I learn new things about the brain, but also I was learning new things about the brain that no one else yet knew!
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 identified early on that my best chance to give myself a step up was to get some overseas experience. With the support of my husband and help of a former postdoc from my PhD lab, I made some connections with the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, where I headed over for an internship. My time in Munich was incredible; I loved the city, the people, and my work. And I wanted to go back.
The institute in Munich was very focused on stress research, and understanding how stress contributes to the development of mental disorders like PTSD and depression. I thought this was incredibly interesting, because stress is something we all experience, yet only a proportion of us go on to develop mental health conditions. I was curious about why some people were at risk why others were resilient. And it wasn’t just ‘in our genes’—twin and familial studies have shown that there is more to it than that.
That was when I started to learn about epigenetics, which is all the ways our genes are regulated without affecting the underlying DNA structure. It’s an exploding field of research but I noticed that not a lot was known about epigenetic mechanisms directly in the brain, or how they might contribute to mental health disorders.
As a postmortem brain researcher, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap both in the literature and at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. I began applying for fellowship grants, and in the next year, my husband and I were off to Munich, me as an independently funded postdoctoral fellow and my husband continuing to run his IT business remotely.
Starting as a postdoc in a new lab was a great learning experience. Not only have I increased my skillset, with exposure to many techniques at the forefront of neuroscience and genomics research, but I’ve also learnt to navigate my way around a much bigger lab than I was used to. It has also been interesting experiencing cultural differences as I work with people from all over the world, and although all the scientists speak English, some of the support staff do not and it has been fun at times trying to communicate with sign language and my very limited German!
In terms of my work, productivity definitely takes a little hit when you move, but this is just part of the package deal. In the end, if you make the right move to the right lab, it all evens out. The experience is priceless and a lot of problems can be mitigated with good planning. In a large lab it has also been important to find my voice and speak up when I need support to keep the ball rolling on my projects. In this way, you have to be very self-driven, and that is perfect for me. I’m also slowly ticking things off my postdoc bucket list, and also getting a few extra lovely surprises (like being a Forbes 30 under 30!)
Gaining overseas training has been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience. It sounds cliché but you can learn so much about yourself if you are open to experience and adventure. As my friends told me before I left, the highs are higher and the lows and lower, but having a supportive network both here and in Munich, and even around the world, has made all the difference to my experience and successes.
We have been living in Munich 10 months now, and already made friends that are like family, enjoy spending time in the Alps (1 hour away on the train) and visiting nearby countries. We’ve been to Spain, France, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, England and Switzerland, and looking forward to more adventures in the coming year. The northern lights in Iceland and Greenland are on our agenda.
I am looking forward to coming home with hippocampi full of exceptional memories, new skills and a desire to make a difference. A nice publication or two couldn’t hurt either … just saying.
[Ed. Natalie’s blog includes resources for early career researchers, particularly on transitioning from PhD to postdoc.]
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