Meet Dr. Celeste Donato, a microbiologist studying virus evolution!

What is your scientific background?

I studied a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia. I did my honours research year in the Enteric Virus Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. I became really passionate about the research the lab was involved in and it was a fun and supportive atmosphere so I stayed and completed a Ph.D. with the group. The lab was also a rotavirus World Health Organization Collaborating Centre and an amazing environment that provided numerous learning opportunities beyond my research project including vaccine development and global health.

After completing my Ph.D., I spent 2 years as a post-doc at Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore working in pathogen discovery and viral evolution. I recently returned to Australia to join the Laboratory of Virus Evolution in Department of Microbiology at Monash University after I was awarded a Peter Doherty Biomedical Fellowship from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. The research focus of the lab is to understand the ecology and the evolution of RNA viruses, in particular, influenza B, enterovirus 71, astrovirus, and dengue.

Why did you choose to become a scientist? How did you choose your field of study?

I think it was inevitable that I would have a career in microbiology. I received a toy microscope when I was 5 and quickly upgraded to a real microscope from a diagnostic microbiology lab that I bought from a jumble sale. Everything I could find went under the microscope, and it was my prized possession – so much so that I still have it.

In terms of choosing my particular field of study, I think I was always interested in things that other people found weird or gross. I can remember watching the movie ‘Outbreak’ with my grandfather when I was still in primary school and then I did a book report on ‘The Hotzone’ by Richard Preston. I was a little bit obsessed, to say the least and I was very fortunate that my childhood dream was realized when I undertook a placement at the CDC in Atlanta during my Ph.D. Biology was my favorite subject in high school and once I took a first-year microbiology subject called ‘infections and epidemics’ I decided I wanted to do a Ph.D. related to infectious diseases.

Celeste in the lab
Celeste in the lab/ Celeste Donato

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

I did not have a particular role model until I reached my Ph.D., however, I had many individuals play important roles in my education and career development. I had a wonderful biology teacher in high school who really encouraged me. There were several members of the microbiology department at university who took a particular interest in my development from undergraduate classes through to the completion of my Ph.D. During my Ph.D., I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Professor Ruth Bishop (who discovered rotavirus). Both Ruth and my Ph.D. supervisor Dr. Carl Kirkwood have had a huge role in shaping my research interests and career.

Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?

My parents are both high school teachers and my siblings are I were always taught the importance of education. I am the first to get a Ph.D. – there is still some confusion in the wider family about what sort of ‘doctor’ I am. My parents and siblings have been incredibly supportive and encouraging during my Ph.D. studies and early career. My family finds the instability of my career in research really hard to understand at times but I don’t think they could imagine me doing anything else. They are definitely envious of the amount I get to travel.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

To believe in myself more, and to be more confident, because I ended up far more capable than I gave myself credit for in my teens and early 20s. I was incredibly shy and insecure growing up, and I never imagined being able to do some of the things I have done, such as traveling alone, lecturing and giving talks at international conferences. Additional advice would be to take more IT classes in high school and university and get into coding earlier. Also (and probably most importantly), to have more fun and make more time for friends and family.

Celeste and her mentor Prof Ruth Bishop/ Celeste Donato

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Absolutely, I remember the first time I heard about ‘imposter syndrome’ and I thought “Wow, it is not just me then”. I think all scientists doubt their abilities at times when experiments don’t work, papers get rejected, grants are not funded etc. There can be a lot of judgment and criticism at times which can be hard, especially as a junior scientist. I think you learn to find validation in other aspects of the job. It is difficult to handle but having a good support network professionally and personally is invaluable. One of the best things about doing a Ph.D. is the close relationship you build with other Ph.D. students who are probably the only people who really understand what you are going through. I have been incredibly lucky to do placements in the USA, Belgium, and Japan and attended numerous conferences where I have made an amazing global network of friends who provide a huge amount of support and encouragement. Also, never underestimate the power of a cute puppy video to lift your mood, and keep you going on those difficult days.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

Although I am quite fortunate with the research environment in Australia overall. However, there is still a lot of sexism, discrimination and inequality in science and I have witnessed some shocking examples in my relatively short career. I remember at the end of my undergrad degree a rep for a large pharmaceutical company came to a careers seminar and said to the class “it was a waste to hide a pretty girl in the lab when they should be in sales”. I found working in Singapore and Japan difficult because I resented having to wear a dress while the male dress code was better suited to working in a lab. When I succeeded at a grant or fellowship, some male colleagues have remarked that I was only selected to meet a gender quota. I have been spoken over and interrupted at conferences more than my male colleagues. This is where having a mentor can be really helpful to navigate these situations. The most important thing to remember is that confidence is accumulated; you can handle situations better with experience and you build up a network of peers with similar experiences who provide an amazing amount of practical and emotional support.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both? 

It is incredibly hard and I manage it better at some times than others, I don’t think anyone gets the balance right all of the time and there are times (like grants season) where a balance probably doesn’t exist. You try not to beat yourself up when you don’t get it right and take a moment to feel good about yourself when you do. There have been times that my single-mindedness, professional motivations, and perfectionism have really cost me personally and I am incredibly fortunate to have an understanding partner, family, and friends. It is so important to remember that your physical health, mental health, and social network can be damaged so easily when you work long hours in a stressful and demanding environment and it takes much longer to fix this damage than it does for it to develop in the first place.

Celeste sailing the high seas/ Celeste Donato

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

My personal interests are unfortunately quite limited at the moment but I am enjoying mentoring high school students through the BrainSTEM innovation challenge ( I love travelling – I am always planning my next trip and I am very fortunate that I get to travel a lot through work and see some amazing parts of the world. I love the beach and I try to go sailing and hiking whenever I can.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

There is a lot that needs to change in the scientific system in general, in most parts of the world funding is increasingly hard to obtain and retention rates for males and females are decreasing. There needs to be more value placed on science in society and better funding. Science is still attractive to females as almost equal numbers of males and females are completing life science degrees. For math and engineering, a big issue remaining is the stereotypes that female students are still aware of such as “girls are not good at math” or “girls don’t code” and it remains tough to convince students not to fall into this mentality. In my mentoring role, I try to demonstrate the wider applications of math and coding skills beyond being a mathematician or an engineer. I don’t have children yet and the prospect of juggling parenting and the competitive career trajectory is daunting. There needs to be more funding and facilities to help mothers (and fathers) such as flexible working hours, flexible childcare arrangements, travel assistance etc. There are an increasing number of schemes but in place but they are highly competitive and usually available to more senior staff and there is a lot more that could be done.


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