Dance. No seriously—stand up and dance! Get your groove on and dance like no one is watching! A really good body-wiggling, arms-waving, hips-waggling dance. Do it with every muscle, tendon, and tissue in your body. Do it with every fibre in your body—with every collagen fibre in your body.
What enables you to boogie like crazy, to bend and twist and groove, is one of nature’s very own building blocks: collagen. Collagen is one of the main structural components of every single tendon, artery, tissue, organ, bone, ligament, cartilage, vein and artery in your body. The structure of collagen often dictates the physical properties of these materials. It makes your body strong, flexible and elastic, so you can pull off your sweet dancing moves and your body will bounce back to its original form.
Collagen materials can also be used to make heart valve leaflet replacements, medical scaffolds for burns, wound healing, hernia repair and tissue engineering applications, sausage casings, and even leather.
My research looks at the nanostructure and strength of collagen in these materials. At ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron, I use light that’s one million times brighter than the sun to explore and define the hierarchical structure of collagen at the nanoscale. I watch what happens to the architecture when you throw different chemicals and mechanical processes at the material, and see how this impacts its strength.
But how did I end up working with the most amazing people on the coolest beamlines in the world? How did I end up working on super cool collagen biomaterials alongside the medical and agricultural industries?
I am half Scottish, half Australian, but 100 per cent a proud Kiwi. Born and raised in New Zealand, I grew up in the outdoors, making bivouacs (on the ground tree huts) with my brother and sister, picking feijoas for pocket money, and training my pet lamb for ‘Pet and Craft Day’ at school. I went to a primary school so small that the whole school, including the principal, could play ‘Go Home Stay Home’ at lunchtime. I grew up barefoot and curious.
Much to my parent’s amusement, my first word was “Why?” From day one of talking, I have always asked questions. I am an engineer, and perhaps I was always meant to be an engineer. But this wasn’t my dream career, or one that I always knew I was destined for. I never knew what I was going to be when I was growing up. I never pulled apart computers and put them back together, or looked at bridges and buildings wondering about the structures holding them up. But there was also no career I saw as impossible. Astronaut, mathematician, rocket scientist—nothing was out of reach. Except becoming a doctor. I hate needles and blood, and I even hate the smell of hospitals. So I take it back ... no career was impossible except becoming a doctor, but that’s down to preference.
I loved problem solving and I always had equal parts of science and creativity flowing through my life. I took physics and chemistry, but also graphic design and textiles. At high school I was told that “engineering is a creative science, focused on solving real problems”. Yes please! That’s me! Where do I sign up?!
One Bachelor of Chemical Engineering and Nanotechnology and one PhD in Engineering later, I am officially an engineer.
However, I still feel like an imposter to this day! I’m asked if I’m an engineer, and I still reply “Sort of, not a proper one though.” I’m asked if I’m a scientist, and I still reply “Oh no, I’m an engineer, but not a real one.” I literally have a PhD in Engineering! If anyone has tips and tricks for winning the battle against imposter syndrome, let me know.
Throughout my PhD at Massey University, New Zealand, I jumped across the ditch to the Australian Synchrotron to complete a number of small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) experiments. It was here that I fell completely and madly in love … with the awesome, shiny, epic, exciting world of the Synchrotron!! Following my PhD, I had one goal and one goal only: to work at the Australian Synchrotron with the brilliant team on the SAXS beamline.
There was only one wee bit of an obstacle.
I knew exactly what I wanted, but there were no opportunities advertised, no postdoctoral fellowship scheme running at the facility, and no clear way forward. But I wasn’t ready to give up. I knocked on the door of the Director of the Australian Synchrotron and asked for a job. Alas, the answer was ‘No can do’ but it did come with a glimmer of hope: maybe if there was funding it could happen. Challenge accepted! I set about raising funds from a number of research organisations, universities, and industry partners. I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and it turns out that works in my favour from time to time. A few weeks later I went back, knocked on the Director’s door again, and announced that I had the funding for a postdoc—when could I start?
To borrow words from Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, my three-year postdoc was absolutely ‘magestical’!! I worked on the shiniest beamline with the most brilliant people and continued researching the nanostructure of collagen biomaterials. I spent three wonderful years connecting synchrotron science to Australian and international research organisations and industry.
Make the most of every opportunity you can. I have definitely tried to do this. Most days I have pulled on my warrior boots, fought for what I believe in, and worked hard for every opportunity. I have tried to put myself out there and have applied for many things (with varying degrees of success). I have formed incredible and valuable networks throughout my career, especially through the Superstars of STEM program run by Science & Technology Australia and through Homeward Bound, a global leadership program for women in STEMM. I love travelling, and through science and engineering, I have travelled around the world, networking and talking about SAXS and collagen biomaterials, from Scotland to Germany to Spain and right down to Antarctica.
I am passionate about inspiring the next generation in STEM and smashing stereotypes surrounding who is (or can be) an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician, a technologist. I want to help actively challenge and change people’s perceptions and confront unconscious bias. We all have the ability to lead others towards a positive change. I want to be a catalyst for change and spark curiosity in STEM in the next generation. Every day that I step through the doors of the synchrotron, the lab, or through a door towards super shiny science infrastructure, I am in awe that a young female engineer like me can be working at such an extraordinary place. I want to show the next generation that no matter what background you’re from, seemingly impossible STEM dreams are actually completely possible!
Throughout my magical STEM rollercoaster ride, I’ve learnt that I am brave, confident, and most definitely willing to put my warrior boots on, to fight for what I want and what I believe in! We can do hard things. Be brave and go for it! And make sure you celebrate every win, no matter how small. Maybe with a happy dance. A real good body-wiggling, arms-waving, hips-waggling happy dance. Just make sure you do it with every collagen fibre in your body.
© 2021 Australian Academy of Science