What is your scientific background?
I did a Bachelor of Forensic Science at Deakin University, majoring in forensic chemistry and forensic biology. From there I did honours in an organic chemistry laboratory working on a biomaterials project. I’ve stayed in materials chemistry since. I did my Ph.D. through CSIRO and Deakin University studying cotton dyeing behaviour. I’m currently employed as a research assistant working on silk-based materials for textile treatments.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Initially, I wanted to be a chef but then I did a hospitality course in high school and absolutely hated it so had to look at other options. My favourite subject at school was chemistry. I thought about studying pharmacy but knew my year 12 marks weren’t going to be high enough to get into the course so science was the next logical step.
How did you choose your field of study?
Chemistry has always been the field I’m most interested in but I never really planned to work in materials. I’ve just sort of ended up there due to the opportunities I’ve been given.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
I’m currently working as a research assistant, a job I picked up towards the end of my Ph.D. when funds were getting tight. I work with silk-based materials for applications in textile treatments. The work is commercially based and involves putting desirable properties of silk into other materials. While natural materials like silk are still a big market, increasing consumption of synthetic materials means there is a demand for synthetic materials that mimic the properties of natural materials. Work like this also provides an avenue to recycle and repurpose silk waste.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
My biggest achievement to date is completing my Ph.D. I was also awarded a scholarship in my honours year. I’ve been fortunate so far to have not had any catastrophic failures. Mostly just the usual rejected papers and job applications. That sort of thing is always going to happen though so you just have to carry on and not let it bother you too much.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
We’re currently in the middle of scaling up our processes so there’s a lot of kinks to iron out as things that work fine on a lab scale may not work, or may not be practical on a larger scale. It’s presenting a lot of obstacles for us right now.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
Not particularly. However, I did attend a youth science conference when I was in year 12 where I got to hear some great talks, including one from Lord Robert Winston, which pretty much cemented that I wanted to study science. Though at that point I was thinking of maybe a career in genetics rather than chemistry.
Do you come from an academic family?
Everyone in my direct family has been to university but none of them are currently working in academia. I do have a few aunts and uncles with PhDs though.
How does your family regard your career choice?
I think that as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing they’re happy and will be supportive. I never really felt pushed into a particular career.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All the time. Especially when I get a rejection letter or when I get asked a question I don’t know the answer to. I guess I take comfort in the fact that almost every scientist I come across seems to have suffered from impostor syndrome at some point. You can’t let rejection or criticism get to you too much otherwise you’ll never get anywhere.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
Currently, things aren’t too stressful but finishing my Ph.D. was pretty tough. It felt like it was never going to end. The biggest motivation was just getting the damn thing done! My supervisors were good at putting things into perspective and pointing out that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I also had some great co-workers who wanted to see me succeed so were very encouraging.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I’m at a point right now where I’m not really sure what direction my career is going to take next. All I really hope is that I’m passionate about whatever I’m doing and getting satisfaction from my work.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
Well the two big ones for me are climate change and antibiotic resistance. I’m a bit scared for the future if things don’t change in these areas.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
The main ones would be my honours and Ph.D. supervisors. One of my honours supervisors was always there for me if I needed anything during my Ph.D. despite not being involved in the project, and is actually my current employer. I also had a great manager in CSIRO who was available if I needed an ear or to bounce something off a third party. I think it’s good to have a bit of support outside of your project. During my Ph.D. other students, either current or recent graduates, were also a great support for me as they had faced the same struggles themselves and knew what I was going through.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
If I was to stay in materials chemistry I’ve always thought that medical textiles or high-performance sportswear would be cool areas to go into.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
The mistakes are always pretty memorable but on the plus side, it stops you from doing it again. There’s always plenty of good times too though like conferences, out of hours functions, and just little in-jokes within the lab.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
My main hobbies are playing roller derby and pole dancing. I love to travel and it has been way too long since my last holiday. I also like reading, baking, crochet, and cross-stitch.
What is a typical day like for you?
It varies from day to day but on average I’d say I probably spend half the day in the lab and half the day at my desk reading and writing, or in meetings. I prefer to work 8-4 rather than 9-5 as the lab is quieter early in the day, it’s easier to get a car park, and you get home that little bit earlier.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I don’t tend to struggle too much with work/life balance but I don’t have a family to look after or anything like that. I try not to bring much work home and to not work on weekends unless it’s absolutely necessary. For me, the biggest issue is that I live 45 minutes away from work. Most days it’s fine but if I have something on after work I end up hanging around because there’s no point driving home and then I don’t get home until late.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
I can be a bit of a perfectionist, which can also cause me to procrastinate. I also have a lot of self-doubts. I think I’ve been very fortunate so far in that I’ve never found my gender to be an obstacle.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I have been quite lucky so far and have never really had to face any prejudices that I can think of aside from the odd joke that was in poor taste. I do get upset when I hear that other women are still having to face prejudices based on their gender in 2017. I’m in my late 20s now so I guess I am a little worried that some employers may turn me down on the assumption that I’ll want to have kids any day now. But I guess any employer who would do that isn’t someone I’d want to work for anyway.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
More visible females, and more females in higher level positions. Also a greater job security but I think that’s something everyone needs.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
That you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take and that things have a way of working out in the end but the final destination may not be the one you expected.
You can follow Genevieve on Twitter!