Posts Tagged ‘research’

Where could science take you?

In March 2016 on March 30, 2016 at 9:11 pm


Sarah: Research science can be the perfect platform from which to launch a new career. Perhaps you’re interested in marketing, intellectual property, teaching, business management or pharmaceutical sales? After graduating with a biomedical PhD in 2000, now I am a freelance science writer.

Here are my top 6 tips for transitioning from research into another career:

  1. Know yourself. Keep your options broad. Be open to change.
  2. Before you make a move, get extra training if possible.
  3. Offer yourself up for volunteer roles – you’ll learn new skills you didn’t know you didn’t have. And you might love them.
  4. Don’t expect a new career to take off overnight. Aim for a slow transition.
  5. Find great mentors, and work collaboratively and humbly with them.
  6. Be bold enough to design and transition to a career that fits with other responsibilities and loves – whether these are family, an existing job, or a passion such as marathon running or speaking French.

It’s hard to see how each of these points is relevant without a case study. So here’s little more detail of my career history:

I was always the kind of person who was interested in lots of…well…stuff. As a kid and teenager, I read many kinds of books. I played lots of sport. I listened to the radio and loved documentaries. After school finished, I signed up to study Medicine.

But it didn’t work out. Fundamentally, I was unhappy (looking back, I think it was lack of emotional maturity). After switching to a Bachelor of Medical Science, I was lucky enough to conduct an Honours year and subsequently my PhD under the supervision of Sarah Robertson (now Director at the Robinson Research Institute). Sarah R was – and still is – an adept communicator, both in the written and oral forms. She taught me that to cut it as a researcher in reproductive immunology I needed to be able to explain reproduction to immunologists, and conversely to share immunology with reproductive scientists and obstetricians/gynaecologists. This awareness of audience needs was an excellent start to a career in science communication.

Sarah also advised me to join the ASMR, and I subsequently became active with the South Australian branch – including as media officer, my first foray into the world of press releases, briefs and talking to journalists. It was a pleasure working with ASMR stalwarts Moira Clay and Peter O’Loughlin during the mid-late 1990s. And Cath West was a great support from head office.

I became so interested in talking about science to a general audience, that I signed up to study a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication (Central Queensland University). Of course this was a crazy move, given that I was mid-PhD. But once started, it was easy to defer it many times and I finally completed the diploma over 10 years later. This gave me an important theoretical foundation in media and communications. And it showed people that mattered I was investing in my communications career – this fact alone was enough for a well-known media identity (Keith Conlon) to give me a brief spot on his local TV show.

Post PhD, I stuck with research for about 4 more years, working in Australia and Indonesia. A post-doc with American military scientists in Jakarta was an eye-opener to say the least. Here, I developed better skills fending for myself, and was fortunate to work with a fantastic epidemiologist in Dr Kevin Baird.

But that communication bug kept biting, and so I left the academic sector and started working for an Adelaide science and futures consultancy Bridge8. In this company, business owner Kristin Alford focused on digital and novel strategies to tackle big problems related to science and technology. She encouraged me to take up social media and to embrace new challenges I never would have dared confront previously. With my two and then three young children to work around, she was also highly supportive of my need to work odd hours and from home on many occasions. If you provide new parents with flexibility and options, it’s my experience that they will work hard for you.

It became clear that the thing that made me happiest was writing. So I used a blogging project (ScienceforLife365) to announce to the world that I was a freelance science writer. This blog (now in its 5th year) was crucial in refining my writing skills, reaching new audiences, understanding social media better, and formed a great marketing tool as well. I undertook further training in writing, marketing and social media through SA Writers Centre, the Walkley Foundation and Australian Science Communicators. Now I work with a range of clients in academia, publishing, government, social media and digital news services. Many find me through word of mouth; others I meet through networking and introductions from existing clients.

And the crazy thing is, I’m actually a little bit tempted to look into Medicine again. I guess I just like to keep things fresh.

Have you worked out what stuff keeps you motivated? It just might lead you to a new career.

This post was first published in the March 2016 newsletter of the Australian Society for Medical Research

[Image thanks to Chase Elliot Clark, Creative Commons license]



The gift of a baby boy

In November 2014 on November 18, 2014 at 8:08 am

running River

Sarah: Yesterday my 11-year old son learnt that sometimes apparently healthy babies go to bed….and never wake up.

Karl Waddell’s baby boy River died on the 7th of November 2011 at the age of 128 days. We met Karl at the Henley Classic running event, where he was manning the River’s Gift (Stamp Out SIDS) stall to raise funds for research aimed at Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

It was only the freakishly cold winds that lead us to chat. To avoid enduring the 5km jog with bare arms, my son pointed out that Karl was selling lightweight tops with those cool hook-your-thumb-in-option long sleeves. We had a look, Karl told us about River and it seemed a very good idea to buy the shirt.

Apart from the fact that Karl was a lovely bloke, and in addition to the notion that he was making something positive from his loss, I was impressed to read of the way that funds were being directed through the charity. Taken from their marketing material:

Rivers Gift’s primary objective is to fund world leading SIDS Research and make a formidable contribution to the discovery of a cure for this heartbreaking loss of life.

With the help of our sponsors, our primary goal is to raise a minimum of $250,000 per year and in April 2014 we launched River’s International SIDS collaboration between Harvard University – Boston, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health – Melbourne and The University of Adelaide.

The existence of a direct relationship between this kind of fundraising and specific research institutions is a good thing in my opinion. You can read more details of the goals of the fundraising program here.

Thanks for telling us about your baby boy, Karl.

Not that Adam

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm


Sarah: Federal member for Melbourne Adam Bandt featured as a showcase interviewee at ANU’s excellent PhD to Present event last week.

Adam trained as a lawyer, and returned to university for PhD studies after 10 years in the workforce. He made many interesting comments about being a postgrad student, and of the broad value of doing a PhD. I jotted a few of these down in case of general interest.

On the process of starting a PhD:

“For me the biggest barrier was just beginning to write. I though ‘I can’t possible being writing until I understand everything about this field.’ But then someone said to me ‘you’ve just to start writing – it will be rubbish but you have just got to start’.”

On the transferable skills coming from a PhD:

“For me it’s less about methodology and more about being to able think about and distill ideas.”

On knowing when to stop researching and just write it up:

“One of the best things I got from working as a lawyer was a recognition that deadlines insist upon themselves. It’s not always going to be perfect, but sometimes you just have to get it done by a certain date.”

“As long as you’re prepared to acknowledge the limitations of your knowledge.”

On why he got into politics:

“It was actually scientists who convinced me to get into politics – reading the science of climate change.”

In answer to a question relating to whether research is partisan or not:

“I think we do badly in Australia in terms of encouraging pure research and letting people use PhDs as a place to explore ideas”

“We need more money, we need more academic independence, and we need to prioritise research as a country.”

On the value of staffers with postgraduate degrees:

“We’re really lucky in parliament because we have a parliamentary library. It’s full of people with PhDs and we’re better for it.”

On whether having a PhD should be overtly stated:

“It’s not something I hide, but to be frank, I didn’t want to be seen as too up myself.”

“We don’t do ‘the popular academic’ that well in Australia.”

On why he is passionate about research:

“Partly it comes from having done a PhD, but more broadly it’s a debate about which way we want our country to go and what do we want to prioritise.”

“I think someone needs to stand up for pure, undirected research. It’s about saying ‘what kind of society do we want?’”

On the role of expert opinions:

“It’s important, especially when people can advance ideas in the public realm.”

“It is important but it’s not sufficient.”

“The attack on the role and the legitimacy of science and research has been mind-boggling, and has a chilling effect on everyone else. It also de-legitimizes science and research more generally.”

A huge thanks to Adam for contributing to the day, and for his frank revelations.

And I’ll forgive him for not being *that* Adam.

[image thanks to chris m on flickr]

QnA: Developing skills for scientific enquiry

In June 2014 on June 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm


Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Today a student sent me these two great questions:

Query: I was interested in your point (made during the lecture) about your daughters’ teacher who, although she had never studied science formally, taught children to ask open ended questions/ have an inquiring mind/ participate in open ended conversations. Would you say these inquiry skills are most important for students to learn in science classes at primary school

Students are blogging more and more these days and I thought blogging may be a good way for students to develop their science inquiry skills, ie. question, predict, plan, conduct, process & analyse data, evaluate and especially – communicate. As a notable ‘science blogger’, what do you think about this idea?

Response: Yes, I do think inquiry skills are a critical aspect of primary school education – and not just valuable to science either. The best adult scientists have an awareness that there is never a single or correct answer ‘out there’ to each dilemma. Investigating scientific theories – also know as hypotheses – involves seeking evidence. New information either supports or refutes your hypothesis, and then you refine your hypothesis on the weight of evidence. So learning to keep an open mind, ask lots of questions, not to be put off by different kinds of evidence is an important lesson to learn early. Having teachers who aren’t afraid to say “oh well, that’s interesting/unexpected” and to invite kids to reconsider their thoughts on how things work is so valuable. If kids are taught to seek ‘the answer’ and not be able to discriminate the quality of the information they see, it’s probably very difficult to undo.

I think blogging can also be a useful way to learn research skills – but with some limitations. As long as the blogger has a rigorous approach to seeking and evaluating the quality of evidence, it can work. Seeking confirmation of facts through alternative sources is also important. In addition, using the internet as a research tool has some limitations. For example, using Google to search for evidence will return information tailored to suit the user based on past activity, not on the quality of evidence necessarily. Also, on social media – as in real life – people tend to collect people around them who reflect their own views. These may not necessarily be balanced and evidence-based views.

Addendum: When I posted this same article on the ScienceforLife.365 Facebook community, and shared to my own personal page, I received responses from two teachers whose opinion I respect.

This comment is from a university teacher: Yes and no. Yes, that students need to have open-minded and thoughtful teachers that allow the students to consider things in their own open way (which I think is the essence of the above). However, it is just as important to ask questions that lead to conclusions. Too often ideas are bounced around via open questions that never get resolved. I think that is the second part of the post, and it’s true that students need to come some conclusion in the end that is consistent with what science says.

This comment from a teacher of junior primary aged children: When I pose a question through provocation in the classroom it has a twofold purpose. To invite children in to both the theory and the language of science and to orchestrate the learning to enable the children to achieve the scientific outcomes. When we empower the scientific competencies in even the youngest of children we are inspired by the deep thinking and learning that occurs. We hear the children name themselves as scientists and use complex scientific language in their everyday learning. We look now, always at the child as competent rather than an empty vessel that needs to be filled! Great post!

[image thanks to audio luci store on flickr]


Part time everything

In March 2014 on March 6, 2014 at 9:04 am

kirsti ants in vial text

Kirsti: All that talk of time hasn’t left me. In fact, that Sarah blogged about time and then revisited her blogging every day for AN ENTIRE YEAR (a feat that I think is super-human by the way) reminded me of so many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues (mostly female, but not all) about choosing to work PART TIME. Whether it was after we’d had kids, or just because there are other things in our lives we want to pursue (unpaid – I know, crazy), choosing to work part time comes with both joys and curses.

I’m a passionate women in science advocate.

But I’m actually not talking about just scientists or related to science jobs here either. I’m talking generally. Because going part time has similar drawbacks and benefits in nearly every job, it’s just that in science the drawbacks seemed to be magnified by what feels like 2000 times, and often have serious consequences for future employment.

I decided to work part time after having my daughter, nearly 7 years ago. Before motherhood, I was a fairly ambitious researcher and assumed I would return to part time, then probably full time research within a year of giving birth, and naturally go on to have a spectacularly productive research career and adventure all around the world doing ant ecology on magnificent tropical islands……


When missy moo arrived, apart from all the normal REALLY HARD parts of having a baby and trying to juggle that with RIDICULOUS commitments to an academic world I would return to, my priorities changed so monumentally, so utterly profoundly that going back to full time work made me feel like I would be neglecting the most important thing that had just been given to me. My new family.

I was unprepared for my change of feeling about family. Like, totally unprepared.  And it took me quite a few years to completely honour it; to feel satisfied with ‘leaving’ research and academia per se, to live by my newfound life-balancing philosophy.

In that time however, I have fought hard alongside women for flexibility, acknowledgement and creative spaces where women can be full time, part time, any time, and for that to be recognised as VALUABLE, REAL and SUSTAINABLE in academic institutions and other careers. I have learnt to be persistent and consistent in my message over time. I have cried over time for the injustices that happen to brilliant women in the face of linear and traditional expectations.

And I have smiled, admired and celebrated the amazing successes where they exist.

Right now though, I am proud to be a part time everything. I want my life to be full with things that fulfil me, that connect my family and heal others and the world. I’ve discovered that doesn’t happen so well when you work full time on one thing. So here I am, part time researcher, pat time teachers, part time communicator, part time gymnast, part time photographer…….(here’s not where you bring up that I’m a part time mum)…

But you know what? I REEAALLLYY want to go look at those ants under the microscope, but I won’t’ be back at work until next week. CURSES.

If you’re interested in the part time thing in science/academia, I’d recommend you read this great article by Kate O’Brien and Karen Hapgood. They used ecosystem modelling to show how women are driven out of research. Brilliant!

Day 310. Cuttlefish lineup

In June 2013 on June 19, 2013 at 11:24 am

cephalopod research

Now that I’ve got my new book on cephalopods of Australasia (thanks to REDMAP), I’m dying to put it to good use.

One of the best aspects of the book – for me – is the cuttlebone identification guide on the final series of pages.

You’ll see from Day 300 that I found two differently-shaped cuttlebones on my recent long weekend at Marion Bay.

Matching these images to the ones in my new guide, the top bone I believe to have come from Sepia chirotrema, which lives in the waters of Southern Australia from Investigator Strait to Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia.

The bottom bone is puzzling me a bit more. It’s broader, more rounded and has a smaller pointed spine. My best guess it that maybe it’s Sepia mestus (the ‘Reaper Cuttlefish‘). These creatures live in the waters of Eastern Australia; I suppose it’s possible that the bone was carried by waves to South Australia. I’m not certain.

It’s also possible that the Reaper Cuttlefish is expanding in its distribution, but I have no other evidence to support that theory.

If only I’d brought back the bones with me to Adelaide for closer inspection! Next time.

Image shows my son doing cephalopod research, inspired by our fantastic new book. 

Day 277. Hypothetically speaking…

In May 2013 on May 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I have a lovely romantic view of olden days scientists – perhaps better described as naturalists – way back in the days of yore merrily going about recording observations and collecting specimens.

But such an approach doesn’t really cut it if you’re serious about collecting data, and convincing others that you’ve answered a real scientific question.

What you need at the outset is a hypothesis. If you’re being really detailed, a null hypothesis works even better.

But what are these things, and how do they make science so sturdy? And how can we be confident the results of a study are good?

Perhaps you’d better watch the latest TechNyou animation to find out: This Thing Called Science Part 4: Confidently uncertain (produced by Bridge8).

Day 228. The matrix

In March 2013 on March 28, 2013 at 10:02 am


The matrix.

If you’re into sci-fi movies, this means Keanu Reeves, black capes and cyberspace.

If you’re Miranda Ween (winner of the I’m a Scientist. Get me out of here! Australia Disease Zone), matrix is part of working out how to stop potentially deadly bacterial infections.

Confused? Let me take it back a step.

In a biology sense, if cells could be considered as bricks, the mortar-like stuff which surrounds them and pads them out is called matrix (also referred to as extracellular – or ‘outside the cell’ – matrix). Although it’s not technically living tissue per se, matrix is really important. Here’s why:

  • Matrix keeps cells organised in the right structure so that bodily functions can happen normally
    eg it keeps your lung cells in a ‘lung shape’, so that transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide can occur when you breathe;
  • Matrix provides a support system for cells to divide and move in a normal way
    eg when eggs in the ovary mature and are released once a month during the menstrual cycle;
  • Matrix acts like a storage and release system for growth and repair factors
    eg when you cut your finger, the repair of skin cells happens with the support of the matrix around the damaged tissue.

In other words, matrix is pretty well essential to ensure that all tissues in your body are set up in the right way and maintain themselves to function normally even when injury occurs.

Enter bacteria. In some tissues, bacteria seem to have worked out how to convince matrix to let them move on in and set up shop. This is not good. Part of Miranda’s research is aimed at working out which bacteria-produced proteins give them this matrix-busting capacity.

As an interesting side-note, Miranda’s expertise in the area of matrix was actually developed working in a completely different field: ovarian cancer research. Her story is a great example of how knowledge of one key, central component of biology can offer you the capacity to move successfully into a completely different area of science.

[image thanks to stockerre on flickr]

Day 170. Cricket vs science

In January 2013 on January 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm


“As Michael Clarke and his teammates sweated out a test match draw against South Africa at the hallowed grounds of Adelaide Oval in late 2012, more than 600 researchers gathered nearby at the Adelaide Convention Centre to share their latest findings in health and medical research”.

This is an excerpt from my latest piece of writing for BioInnovationSA.

To read more, follow this link, and click on the BioNews January 2013 PDF image.

Day 38. Spitfire

In September 2012 on September 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

My 7-year old daughter has a wonderful teacher who excels in many things. These things do not include insect wrangling.

This morning she sent me the photo shown here, with the message,

What the hell. A random black cluster of writhing black spikey mean wormie things near my front door. Please explain, Sarah Keenihan, you’re the science person!

Only too happy to oblige, I turned to my most sciencey, nerdy and steeped-in-tradition method of research. Social media. Facebook and twitter, stat.

@Mozziebites or any other entomologists/nature enthusiasts know what these critters are? En masse in #adelaide this am (with photo attached).

Within minutes, my buddy James Hutson (@jameshutson) had replied on Facebook:


and posted a link to a web page at the Australian Museum:

In almost perfect synchrony, Remma Rattan (@reemarattan) replied on twitter:

Sawfire larvae, also known as spitfire.

With a name to work with, I then turned to my trusty friend Professor Google and hence found lots of further information on a ‘bug of the month’ page at Museum Victoria:

  • Steel Blue Sawflies are native to Australia, and closely related to wasps. The adult insect does not bite however;
  • The name ‘sawfly’ derives from a ‘sawbench’ under the abdomen of the female with which she lays eggs;
  • The larvae (which feature in the photograph) hatch and feed on gum leaves, grouping together for protection in a rosette pattern, similar to the head-outwards stance adopted by Bison when under attack. This is known as a ‘ring defence’, or cycloalexy. As the larvae grow, they collect in larger groups around branches during the day and spread out to feed at night.
  • When ready to pupate, the larvae leave the host tree and burrow down to make mass cocoons in the soil. Here they sit through spring and summer to emerge in early autumn. Adults have no mouthparts and do not feed, living only for a week or so;
  • Sawfly larvae have an unusual defensive mechanism that has given them the name ‘spitfires’. They store eucalyptus oil in a small sac in their gut, and regurgitate this oil when under threat. Despite their nickname, they are unable to actually spit this fluid and the oil itself is harmless unless eaten (like all eucalyptus oil). In fact it has a very pleasant eucalytpusy smell.

With this new information, and given that ‘spitfire’ is not accurate, I think we should come up with a new nickname for the Steel Blue Sawfly .

Oil vomiter? Eucalyptus breath? Gum dribbler?

Love to hear your ideas.

P.S. Let the record show that entomologist @MozzieBites later replied to conform Reema’s response