The EMCR Forum Executive is delighted to welcome new Program Manager Dr Mari Kondo. Mari is an EMCR herself, and comes to this role from academia. Get to know Mari Q&A-style below!
I joined the Australian Academy of Science’s Diversity and Inclusion team in July 2022 as the EMCR (Early- and Mid-Career Researcher) Program Manager. This has been a career leap for me from being in academia, but I’m really happy to be in this role where I can push for positive change for the EMCR community and under-represented individuals within the STEM sector.
In 2011, I completed my PhD in neuroscience at the University of Melbourne, examining the role of environment (social, cognitive and physical stimulation) on symptom onset and progression in Rett Syndrome model mice. I then did a postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA, in a molecular psychiatry lab examining mechanisms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder using a variety of models and tools. It was during this time that I first became heavily involved in working with other EMCRs to advocate for improved opportunities, support and professional development. I saw the power that collective action had to achieve wins for EMCRs at the institutional level and made some wonderful friends. Working in a highly collaborative, world-class lab; taking on leadership roles in the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association; doing things that had a positive impact for others; having my first child – it was a really rewarding period in my life!
A few years later, I was awarded a competitive postdoctoral fellowship and came back to Australia full of hope for a bright academic career. But slowly, barriers emerged that made my progress along the ‘recommended path’ feel insecure. In one of my first roles upon returning to Australia, I experienced workplace bullying and harassment which severely impacted my self-confidence and sense of worth as a researcher. I had my second child while nursing those psychological wounds and contemplated leaving research.
Instead, I changed fields, where I met a wonderful supervisor at the UNSW Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing. Unfortunately, I also experienced increasing headaches and neck pain, which ultimately became chronic and debilitating until I could not hold my head at certain angles or do lab work. On bad days, the pain would make me vomit, looking at screens was unbearable, and I lost control of my left hand. Scans identified severely degenerated cervical vertebrae and structural deformity, causing inflammation and bone to grind on bone. My experience made me question the accessibility of lab-based research – and academia more broadly – for people living with a disability. I wondered just how many others were in similar positions where their physical abilities were limiting work opportunities. So I tried to find meaning by throwing myself into advocacy for EMCRs facing additional barriers, this time at NECTAR (Network for Early Career Teachers, Academics and Researchers at ANU).
Over time, I’ve become better at managing my condition by learning pain management skills and prioritising my health. I started searching for an alternative career that would allow me to balance my health, family and interests.
I feel very lucky to now be working at the Australian Academy of Science in the Diversity and Inclusion team as the EMCR Program Manager. I empathise with the challenges faced by EMCRs in Australia and I passionately want to improve our situation – making STEM accessible for everyone.
My background is Japanese, and I live and grew up in Ngunnawal country (Canberra).
In my role at the Academy, I’m involved in basically every project that has to do with EMCRs. I work with internal and external stakeholders to help them understand the EMCR perspective and try to devise solutions. It’s interesting that – depending on who I’m talking to – there is limited understanding of the challenges faced by EMCRs, such as insecure jobs, the intense publish or perish culture, and the hyper-competitive funding environment that takes substantial time away from doing research. This is why it’s so important to have organisations like the EMCR Forum which gives EMCRs a platform from which to speak out.
I also get asked a lot of random brain-related questions.
The Diversity and Inclusion team deals with a lot of complex matters. The interconnected nature and the largeness of the issues can seem overwhelming at times, but if being a researcher has taught me anything, it’s resilience. It also helps to be part of a great team!
I’m really excited to be working with the EMCR Forum executive members who are all dedicated to making things better for EMCRs in Australia. It’s great to be working with my peers – I feel energised by the passion that they bring and their diversity of disciplines, views, backgrounds and experiences. The EMCR Forum has a lot of great initiatives, so I want to do whatever I can to make these a success. I’ll also try my best to represent the voices of the EMCR Forum in my interactions with stakeholders. I’m looking forward to connecting with EMCRs throughout Australia to learn more about the unique challenges that exist so that we can be impactful at the national level.
I used to be in a circus! I think it was the physical activity and creative outlet that kept me sane while doing my PhD. I love reading and crochet too. I feel very lucky to have two bubbly children and a wonderful partner.
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