On the job with...Dr Madeline Mitchell

EMCR Forum
Dr Madeline Mitchell, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University


We go on the job with ... Dr Madeline Mitchell

Positions: Constellation Lead, Natural Capital for Climate Resilient Farm Systems at Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC)

Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University

I hold dual roles—at the Food Agility CRC, I manage a set of research projects to support growers and better understand the value of natural capital on farms. As a researcher at RMIT, one of the CRC’s partner universities, I will also develop my own research projects.

Time in Role: 8 months (since January 2020)

Something interesting/cool about you

I have broad interests and I actually did work experience in graphic design when I was in Year 10. I also won a prize for science that year and thought it was hilarious because a career in science seemed so unlikely for me at that point.

I did gymnastics and visual arts throughout school and I studied arts/science as an undergrad to keep my options open. When I eventually began my PhD in plant sciences, I took up gymnastics again and even captained the university team.

There’s a stereotype that scientists have a really narrow and intense focus, but I feel my varied experience makes me more creative and effective in my work, as well as generally making life more fun!

Describe a typical day in your job

The biggest change from my postdoc and PhD work is that I no longer spend time in the lab or glasshouse. I do miss working with plants, but my days are still interesting and varied. I spend time in discussion with a whole range of stakeholders, from agtech and business to researchers and farmers. I attend webinars, and read research and general articles to keep up to date in my field.

As part of my work around building projects, I work closely with our innovation managers to support the business development side of things. An important part of how we work at Food Agility, and one of my favourite activities, is the project co-design stage: Design Central workshops. This is where we bring researchers, industry and tech partners, and end users (often producers) into the room to explore the problem and proposed solution. It’s exciting to hear so many different perspectives and then bring them together in a shared vision.

Due to COVID-19, I had a disrupted start to my new role. Now I’m feeling more settled, I hope to spend more time pursuing my own research interests and perhaps even develop a project to bring on a PhD student.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

It can be challenging to engage with so many diverse people across a range of industries, but it is also rewarding and intellectually stimulating. I am learning new ways of working and viewing the world, but this doesn’t always come easily; especially for someone who is used to being (or aiming to be) a subject matter expert. I try to maintain a sense of curiosity and humour, and to be honest when I don’t understand something.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

I enjoy the opportunity to do meaningful work, be creative and continue to learn alongside passionate and engaged colleagues and collaborators. This is what I enjoyed most about my previous roles, and I am glad to have found that in a different context.

How does your PhD help in your daily role?

In my role, I use both the transferrable skills and domain knowledge I developed during my PhD (and postdocs) in plant sciences. The transferrable skills include people and project management, the ability to find, evaluate and synthesise information, and an understanding of how research works. The ability to communicate in different formats and with a range of audiences is crucial to my role. I also use my knowledge of agriculture, plant biology and general science to build, evaluate and communicate about new and existing projects.

Any advice for EMCRs wishing to pursue a career in this area?

I don’t feel as though I am pursuing a career pathway as such. But I have found it helpful to understand my values and strengths when thinking about my next steps. Over the years, I have come to realise that I want to contribute to the sustainability of agriculture, to communicate broadly, connect people and ideas, and build a sense of community. Understanding this has opened up a whole lot more possibilities than finding that next job as a plant scientist. When my current role was advertised, I could see how it would fit my skills and interests as well as give me the opportunity to explore beyond the traditional academic career.

I still love plants and they remain a big part of my life, just not my daily work life. I garden, admire the neighbourhood plants and advise my friends and colleagues on caring for their houseplants! I think it’s worth remembering that not all your passions have to be part of your day job.

Please feel free to contact me via email or Twitter if you’d like to hear more.

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