Inspiring EMCRs

EMCR Forum
Debbie Watson’s story is an inspiring example of resilience and motivation.


Debbie Watson

I am writing this to tell my story of becoming a scientist and a group leader, and to highlight that everyone’s journey is different. But even based on my experience, which has not always been easy, I would encourage early- and mid-career researchers to never give up.

I lived on the South Coast of New South Wales and loved the beach and surfing. I was first in family to go to university. I loved school, was very academic and studied hard, as I wanted to be a vet. But I didn’t get the marks to get into vet science, so I started a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) degree at Macquarie University majoring in maths–makes sense. I loved maths at school, not so much at uni. So, I switched in my second year to biology and majored in molecular biology.

I had moved from the South Coast to Sydney to go to uni and lived in shared houses, so needed work to support myself. I was lucky enough to start an 18-month traineeship with CSIRO while completing my uni degree part-time. I loved working in the lab environment, despite doing hundreds of minipreps and filling lots of tip boxes, this was a fantastic experience. I knew I wanted to be a scientist and do lab-based medical research. When I completed my traineeship, I continued to work part-time in research labs at Macquarie University, while completing my degree part-time. This included a sheep genetics lab, and a Drosophila (fruit fly) genetics lab.

Two research projects

My Honours involved completing two research projects: the first was on X inactivation in marsupials (this project resulted in my first first-author publication) and the second on integrons and bacterial resistance genes. Throughout my Honours year, I still worked in the Drosophila genetics lab for one hour each day washing up the food bottles used for the fruit flies. It wasn’t the most pleasant job, but I earned $20 per hour ($100 each week), which I needed to support myself. I understand how tough an Honours year can be without funding to support you.

At the end of Honours, I applied for a job doing immunology research at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney. I was offered the job on the condition I start straight away, so went from my Honours year to full-time Research Assistant. My first year was tough, and the person I worked for did not treat me very well, but after a year I no longer worked with this person, and the organisation kept me on. This taught me to be resilient and keep trying, no matter what. I worked hard as a Research Assistant and learnt a range of techniques over a few years, and really liked my lab group and the research we were doing in immunology. I was about to start a PhD (with the promise of a top-up salary), had supervisors lined up and a project, when I became pregnant, so I deferred my PhD scholarship (NHMRC Dora Lush) and project for one year.

This taught me to be resilient and keep trying, no matter what.

Around this time, a new Head of the lab started, Professor Stephen Alexander, now my long-time mentor. When I first met Steve, I was pregnant and had very bad morning sickness so many times he would be meeting with me and I would run off to throw up. I don’t think he took it too personally. Steve’s interest was in immunology and transplantation. I remember doing lots of mouse models at 35 weeks pregnant, with Steve helping me, but then I had to go to hospital early due to high blood pressure, which was a result of preeclampsia. So, Steve was left to check the mice, and I think he felt bad for working me so hard. After two weeks in hospital, I had a beautiful baby boy, Dillon, who was tiny—less than 2 kg when he was born (he is now 18, and just started uni).

I came back from maternity leave after five months and started my PhD. I was lucky to have my partner stay at home with our son while I completed my PhD full-time. Did I have mother guilt? Yes, I did, but I adapted and did not work on weekends. When I went back to work, however, my original supervisors had left, so Steve became my PhD supervisor, and my project was on transplantation.

Career development

Steve was a great supervisor, easy to approach, thoughtful, he would ask how you and your family were, and he was not only there to support you but also to support your career development. I try to have the same mind-set when supervising my undergraduate, Honours and PhD students; supporting them but also supporting their career development. Steve always encouraged us to apply for awards and prizes, to attend conferences and present our research, and to publish our data.

I was lucky enough to go to Paris, Seattle and Boston to present at international conferences, and attended the National Transplantation Society (TSANZ) meeting each year, where I won the top award—the  prestigious President’s prize. I remember rocking my baby boy to sleep, just before presenting my talk at this conference, so I was very proud when I won this award.

My PhD focused on transplantation and ways to manipulate the immune system to prevent rejection. I did have some difficult times during my PhD. In my second year, nothing really worked, but in the end I had enough data for publication and had some interesting results, and I was able to complete my PhD. Importantly my supervisor was there to support me and was understanding when my cousin Kelly-Rae with Cystic Fibrosis passed away at aged 25 at Westmead Hospital in my second year. Also, at the end of my PhD, my partner had severe depression (later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder) and we separated. This was also a very difficult time, and this led to me leaving the Children’s Hospital at Westmead and my amazing supervisor and mentor Steve, who had guided me to the start of a successful career, to head back to the South Coast for family support.

Major impact

This had a major impact on my career and was the start of my career disruption. I went from a researcher completing experiments, presenting at national and international conferences (World Transplant Congress) and publishing my research, to not having a job and living in a small coastal village on the South Coast, wondering if I would continue being a scientist at all. I asked Steve if I could still work for him part-time, as I wasn’t ready to give up research. I would encourage EMCRs to always ask—you never know what the answer will be if you don’t ask. I spent two years travelling to Sydney once per fortnight working on weekends in the lab.

I would encourage EMCRs to always ask—you never know what the answer will be if you don’t ask.

It was great to live on the South Coast, my son started school, I got to spend time with my family, my mum and my son, and to live by the beach. I took up surfing again and reconnected with old school friends—but this was not good for my career development. One day, I decided to find a lab space so that I could set up a genetics lab, and continue my research. I became an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wollongong and started to set up a genetics lab at the Shoalhaven campus, with Steve’s support. I used second-hand equipment in the beginning and slowly built up more and more equipment to be able to complete more techniques by applying for equipment grants and funding. Although I was an Honorary Fellow, every year, I applied for grants and looked for funding opportunities.

I was awarded a NHMRC Australian Research Training Fellowship (part-time) and travelled between Sydney and Wollongong to complete this research. I was part-time, as I was a single mum, so had to work within school hours some days, which was difficult when doing lab-based research, but I persisted, and did my best, and was lucky to have my mum’s support.

Close collaborator

During this time, I met Professor Ronald Sluyter at an immunology conference, and we both were from the University of Wollongong. Ron was working on a cell signalling molecule P2X7 associated with inflammation, and by that time I was interested in an inflammatory disease, graft-versus-host disease, so we applied for funding with Professor Alexander and began our collaboration. Ron has been a great mentor and has given me lots of advice on how to supervise students, and to progress my career, and he remains a close collaborator now. We co-supervise students and work on projects together that examine P2X7 in graft-versus-host disease.

However, over the years, I have been an ‘unfunded scientist’, which was very difficult. I was an unfunded scientist on and off for five years, but I remained an Honorary Fellow (which means no salary) and kept building my CV, supervising students, presenting at conferences, collaborating, publishing papers, applying for funding and awards. To be honest, I didn’t know what else to do! My persistence paid off, I was awarded one-year grant from the AMP Tomorrow Fund to support myself and my research, and then a Cancer Council NSW grant for three years to work on therapeutic strategies to prevent graft-versus-host disease.

I am now a Group Leader of the Genetics and Immunology and Research Laboratory (GIRL) at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), and Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong. I have one PhD completion, and I currently supervise three PhD students, three Honours students, and have a part-time Research Assistant.

So, my advice is to stay strong, be resilient, ask for help, find a mentor, find opportunities to collaborate and maintain a good work–life balance—but most of all never give up.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science