Meet Susan Rapley, a behavioural neuroscientist and science communicator, passionate about sharing knowledge!

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

I had a wonderful English teacher in high school who introduced me to sci-fi. In one of the books she recommended to me (“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell) the main woman is a biological anthropologist, and while looking for that book I also found Carl Sagan’s “Contact” about a woman astronomer. That’s the first women as scientists I was exposed to and not long after that, I chose a science major for my university courses. The same English teacher also advised me to just “read widely” and it’s turned out to be the best advice I ever received.

How did you choose your field of study?

read all the things
Read all the things/ Susan Rapley

I didn’t choose it so much as make my way there eventually. My undergrad started out in genetics which I quickly learned was not for me, but psychology was. Our psychology department had a neuroscience/behaviour/pharmacology lab and I did a project there during Honours. The combination of biology with psychology hooked me. My first piece of research was related to brain circuits damaged during a neurological disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. When I started my Master’s, there was the opportunity to shift closer to research on Alzheimer’s disease, which my grandfather had and so had a personal interest aspect to it. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have any magnificent treatment options available at the moment, and my research allowed me to push pre-clinical work in that area forward an ever so tiny amount. Throughout grad school, I also had the chance to teach statistics courses for psychology, which has given me a bit of data-specialisation, and I want to use this more now that studying is finished.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Definitely the lab work in our field! Pre-clinical means I use rodent models of memory. Rats don’t understand 5 pm, or weekends, or public holidays, or illness. Once you’re up and running, you are in the lab testing for long days, sometimes weeks at a time. It’s like an endurance sport. On the plus side, this makes it super satisfying when you finish an experiment and get a few days off!

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

Only all the time! One of the skills you use as a scientist is doubt, skepticism, disbelief until shown otherwise by data. Unfortunately, that can bleed over into doubting your own skills, or whether your work really shows what you think it does. I keep little things around my desk like positive feedback points from my supervisors and thank yous from students to remind me I’m doing OK when I feel like I’m not.

Ready for science/ Susan Rapley

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

I’ve been lucky to find myself surrounded by many supportive people, at all different career stages, and across different academic fields. About half way through my Ph.D. at a networking event, @VicMetcalf_NZ suggested to all young scientists that they be on twitter. I took her advice and then continued to ask for it and she has been a wonderful mentor to me in navigating the transition from Ph.D. candidate to independent researcher.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

Working with rats has been funny and memorable. Rats are very social and clever and when you work with them long enough they develop individual quirks. I had one rat that would only be transported around rooms on my shoulder. There is an escape artist in every group, and rats that get overly excited about testing time in the morning. At one point I was weekend lab tech for our lab and had to give some young rats (6 weeks old) a bath, which might have been the most adorable thing that’s happened while working in science.

Do you come from an academic family?

My sister and I are both first generation University students. She has a degree in History and Political Science with a graduate diploma in journalism. I got a bit carried away and went all the way through Ph.D. My parents have their own business, which they started after Dad completed a technical apprenticeship and certificate in engineering. Mum worked in accountancy after school, then took care of the business finances.

How does your family regard your career choice?

Both of my parents will tell you they always thought I would end up in science. I think they would have liked to see me more often during grad school (which was far from home), but overall they’re very supportive and always indulged me when I felt the need to go on about my PhD

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

Try not to compare yourself to others so much. There’s a quote along the lines of: we go through life comparing other people’s highlights to our own blooper reels. Remember that everyone else has their own blooper reel.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome as a woman in science? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Second question first: Yes – easier! Some male colleagues are shocked speechless by not knowing about women’s experiences in science because it doesn’t happen to them. I’m not sure about the biggest obstacle, but little things add up to big things over time. I’m not only a woman in science but chronically ill in science which adds another level to the little things that add up. Things like being talked over in meetings; having my expertise questioned by male students; having male students try and explain something to you; Having my illness treated as my ‘fault.’ That’s a small handful. There’s also the times when male colleagues make disparaging comments about other women researchers, and it makes you wonder what they’re saying about you to someone else. Facing these obstacles is greatly helped by surrounding yourself with other women, and especially other women who might have additional systemic struggles to deal with alongside sexism. You vent over coffee with them and figure out the best snarky comebacks.

research presentation
Research presentation/ Susan Rapley

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

Goodness, there are so many! One I’ve seen in action is conferences and research institutes having provisions for childcare. At a recent New Zealand conference for science communicators, one of the women came along with her recent offspring. Baby was a model conference attendant and everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy having them there. While childcare provisions aren’t necessarily a concern for all women, a lack of them leads to inaccessibility for a lot of women in research. Small considerations like the ones obviously made at that conference can go a long way towards balancing family and academia, and keeping women in science.


Susan can be found on twitter @myscienceylife where there is plenty of science, but also coffee and cats