On the job with...Dr Vivien Rolland

Dr Vivien Rolland

LinkedIn: Vivien Rolland


At the moment, I have three hats:

Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food: I conduct plant science research using approaches in synthetic Biology, biotechnology, microimaging and machine learning to deliver impact for people and the environment.

Lead, Black Mountain Microimaging Centre (BMIC): I lead and manage CSIRO Agriculture and Food’s main microimaging facility. We have a range of top-end microscopy equipment adapted to our plant science needs and we provide training, mentoring and plant microimaging expertise to our 100+ users and associated projects.

Co-lead, Object Detection, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Future Science Platform (MLAI FSP): I co-lead and manage a portfolio of ten cross-discipline projects, employing 10 postdocs and involving about 50 scientists across varied horizons. Collaboratively, we develop innovative machine-learning research to address a range of challenges relevant to fisheries, space science, agriculture and livestock, health, and our national plant, insect and algal collections.

Time in role

I joined CSIRO in November 2015, and I have been Managing BMIC since 2018 and co-leading the MLAI FSP activity since January 2020.

Something interesting/cool about you

Maybe I am cool in the eyes of my awesome nine-year-old niece?

Jokes aside, I love to experiment and learn new things so I have a lot of hobbies and interests. My main passion is for the natural world and I have been an avid birdwatcher for over 20 years now! Looking for rare birds has been a thrill for me, come rain, snow or hail. I have actually birded under all these conditions, including looking for a range of owl species in Eastern Ontario by –43 °C! I can’t think of anything more interesting and fulfilling than walking in nature with a pair of binoculars, or a sketchbook to observe changes over the course of the year(s).

At its core, this is very similar to what motivates me in science: observing my surroundings, asking questions I find interesting, and trying to figure out possible answers.

Describe a typical day in your job

It really depends, but it is most certainly a balancing act! Some days I am locked in science, management and leadership meetings all day, others I am knee deep into lab experiments, others I am teaching, training, mentoring or doing outreach, and when I am lucky, I even read or write a paper. But most days I am doing a bit of everything.

I have certainly transitioned from working on my own one or two projects during my PhD, to leading or participating in large multidisciplinary teams to address a range of challenges. I really love it, but I definitely spend most of my days outside of my comfort zone. Although I am starting to feel pretty comfortable about that too as I learn and experiment so much more that way.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Definitely switching between the multitude of tasks I deal with on any given day. The downside to working across so many different domains and having quite a few different hats means that I need to acquire and maintain knowledge and information of very different types. Being organised helps with that: I write down lots of notes about meetings, ideas and experiments in a structured format that I can easily revisit. A great trick I have learnt recently (I wish I had learnt it five years ago!) is to make better use of my email inbox. Now it is always empty, and every email coming in is dealt with in a single click: archive, create a meeting, create a task with a deadline, or delegate and check on later. The next level I am trying to implement is to check my emails only once or twice a day, rather than have them flow in the background constantly, and turn off messaging apps when trying to focus. But this is work in progress…

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

That I get to explore a range of different science topics and do both science and leadership type roles. This diversity means that I interact with scientists, strategic leaders, business development experts and industry across a range of sectors, which is extremely interesting and satisfying. I am often the one with the outsider’s perspective but as I pointed out before this is now my routine so it is no longer intimidating. I really enjoy the opportunity to connect the dots and do meaningful work in multiple domains.

How does your PhD help in your daily role?

I did my PhD at a top research institute in Europe (IMP/IMBA in Vienna), where I was investigating the molecular mechanisms regulating the balance between neuronal differentiation and tumour formation in neural stem cell lineages. I no longer work on stem cells, but what I learnt during my PhD is incredibly valuable today: asking meaningful questions, digesting knowledge of a new domain, designing clever or efficient experiments to test a hypothesis, connecting with the right people, building effective teams to get the job done, communicating science to a range of stakeholders and doing my bit to foster the next generation of scientists. These are all important skills that can be applied to any topic—even beyond academic or industry research roles!

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

I am not the type to make five-year plans so I wouldn’t say that I am ‘pursuing’ a career in a particular area. What I am trying to do is explore enough science domains and types of roles I find interesting to keep me going when the going gets tough. The best things that have happened in my life so far were unexpected and made all the difference. So, I would like to think that I will keep doing that.

My advice would be to make sure you spend enough time on things that give you energy and motivate you. By this I don’t mean to focus on easy tasks, but rather to put energy in things you believe in. All the less exciting tasks will end up on your plate anyways so you might as well make sure it is packed with motivating and rewarding tasks too. That means saying no to a lot of ‘shiny balls’ (definitely a learning curve for me!) and focus on the ones that really make a difference to you. And it also means to be proactive in carving out enough time for important things, rather than waiting for a quieter time. Because it rarely comes!

I feel very lucky to work in science because of the many opportunities to connect, collaborate, explore and contribute to many science areas with diverse and interesting people.


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