Name: Andrea Liebl
Occupation: Assistant Professor - Ecological Epigenetics
Age at interview: 33
Country of residence: America
Languages spoken: English
Advice to other women: "I would say definitely do science only if you love it. It’s not easy, it’s not meant to be easy. It’s very competitive and if you don’t love it you can’t spend the time that you need to be successful."
Can you please describe what it is you do?
So I am a Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota, which is in Vermillion South Dakota, which is in the south eastern tip of the state in the US. I work by teaching molecular biology and teaching animal behaviour but I also do quite a bit of research and so my research interests are in ecology but molecular ecology. I’m interested in how things in the environment work but what the physiological and molecular underpinnings of those things are. Most specifically, I’m interested in how the environment influences phenotypes - so how the environment allows things (to be) the way they look and the way they work and the way they behave more than the genotype. So in high school you learn all about the genotype (genetic code) and how the genotype dictates all of these things – nature versus nurture thing – I’m much more interested in the nurture side, how the environment can over take or supersede the genotype and a lot of that is what epigenetics are.
Wow, all of that sounds really, really interesting and really specific. Have you always wanted to be a scientists?
I always liked science, I think I used to want to be a vet, but to be honest I’m pretty sure I didn’t realise this was a job. I didn’t realise that I could just do research, I could just do this. So, since I’ve known, I think this is what I’ve always wanted to do.
What is it about this aspect of science that captures your imagination specifically?
I like that you can answer things. I feel like in research I have all kinds of questions and by doing the research I can find the answers to them and I can figure out how things work. I can figure out why things are different, what that means and what the causes and consequences are. And that it’s a different every day and I can ask as many questions as I want to ask.
So education wise, it took a bit of a journey to get where you are now, as it is for many people pursuing science. What path academically did you take to get where you are now?
I grew up in a relatively poorer area in the US so my background from high school wasn’t really strong. A lot of people here will graduate with college credits and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I went to a very small liberal arts school which is what I wanted. I did my bachelor degree in something called psycho biology, which is a mix between psychology and biology obviously, but specifically in behavioural psychology. From there I decided I wanted to get a PhD. I wanted to go to grad school. So I moved to New Orleans in 2005 to get a PhD. But I moved there two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, and so my PhD supervisor left. So I ultimately ended up getting a Masters there. After getting my Masters I moved on to getting my PhD. And you can do either in the US. You can either do a Masters and then a PhD or you can just go straight into a PhD. A lot of people just go straight into a PhD because it saves some time. But, I’m really, really happy that I did a Masters first because I feel like I got so much more out of my PhD because of that.
How long was your Masters? I know Masters programs can vary
My Masters was just short of 2 years, but that was very short for the US. It was just that things kind of fell together.
Some listeners may not know, but PhD candidature can vary depending on country and time length can vary. How long was it before you ended up with your PhD?
So my Masters was 2 years and my PhD was 5 years total. In the US science biology PhDs, especially if you’re working in the field, they average about 6 years. But, because I had already done my Masters I could hit the ground running. I was already pretty well figured out with research, so I didn’t really have to go through that hurdle. A lot of my classes were done. And so here I got my candidacy in my 3rd semester, so after a year and a half, and after that it was just research to finish my degree.
Slight tangent but it’s hanging there so I need to ask….how did you cope with Hurricane Katrina? Obviously this is a huge thing that happened and you were quite close to it – did that impact you emotionally and professionally in any way?
Both. So I had just moved to New Orleans, I had only been there for 2 weeks so I had no friends there. I’m from the North East in the US so I had experienced hurricanes but nothing like that, and so when they said to evacuate I got the hell out of there. I didn’t really think about it. But I ended up having to travel almost 10 hours. I went to my best friend’s mum’s house which was 10 hours away. So I had to drive 10 hours and that was the closest I knew. Then for the next 3 days I just watched TV, going between the weather channels and the news, constantly going back and forth. Then there was a long period of waiting, of not knowing what happened and then not knowing what would be beneficial to do. Should I go to another university? Should I wait it out? Because I’d only been there for a couple of weeks, I wasn’t very invested yet. Then I found out that my PhD supervisor was leaving. But for me, I really needed closure I think. I needed to go back and see. And while I was waiting to go back and see, another professor from the college started calling all of the graduate students to make sure they were alive. He said that I could stay with his parents that lived a couple of hours away, so instead of being 10 hours away from New Orleans, I could be 2 hours away and when they opened up the city again I could get back in. But then we started a research project to look at the toxicity of New Orleans. It was meant to just be a couple of months and then it turned into a year and then all of a sudden it became a Masters. And the hurricane was terrible obviously for a lot of reasons, personally for a lot. I lucked out more than others did, but academically actually I think it was better because I could do this Masters and then get a PhD. Also my background from undergrad was very behavioural and I didn’t have any real molecular experience, so I think my Masters degree was what allowed me to develop those skills and realise I could do them.
It’s an amazing story. I find our professional life and our personal life overlap astronomically and we often focus on what a person is doing professionally - and we don’t take on other parts of the story and obviously that (experience) shaped you positively and negatively.
Now, with your PhD you did very, very well. You came out with many publications. I’ve heard different numbers from different people. You’re like a god in that aspect “The student who got a lot of publications” - your name is known far and wide! Can you tell us how many publications you came out with and how you managed to achieve that?
So I got 20 publications in total. That wasn’t necessarily 20 publications during those 5 years….no that’s a lie. I’ve got 21 because 1 just came out recently…but 21 publications have been generated from the time that I spent during my PhD. One of the ways I did that was honestly, I just worked my arse off. Another way I did that was I collaborated. If anyone needed help and there was any way I could help and contribute to the project then I would take that on...which is good in a sense because then I got more publications out of it, but equally that takes a lot of time because a lot of those projects were tangential to what my PhD was. So there’s always a balance between getting stuff out of it and the ability to say no. I probably don’t say no very well. Generally I think I cope with it ok…not all the time, but I think by taking on all these projects and being able to help other people out has led me to be so successful.
For perspective, the normal amount of publications that people come out of a PhD with is about 3-5?
It is an amazing achievement. Obviously publishing in science is very important. What is your take on the ‘publish or perish’ perspective in science?
I mean I can play devil advocate on it to be honest. I mean to be honest it sucks, because it’s hard. It’s a lot of pressure. But equally, as a scientist, this is how we measure science, how we measure other people’s ability to do science and the quality of science that people can achieve. So to some degree it promotes standards. If there is no publish or perish then there’s no reason to publish, and if there is no reason to publish good science in particular, then I think scientific quality falls down. That’s bad for us as scientists because generally I’m interested in doing this because I really enjoy science and I really enjoy research and being able to achieve high quality (research). I want to get the right answers, it’s not a matter of getting any answers for me, it’s about getting the right answers. So if I’m basing some of my research off someone else’s research that isn’t high quality, then that’s going to make my own research suffer. Also its kind of shitty to say, but it’s a hard job and it is supposed to be hard and that’s why not everyone does it. So I think to some degree it’s a harsh standard, but a necessary standard that we have in this field.
There is also a lot of debate about how you publish. You will hear people say that publishing lots of things in a respected journal but not a high ranking journal is important and other people who say they prefer to see a publication in a high ranking journal as opposed to low ranking publications. Do you have a take on that?
I think that that really depends on the stage in your career. One of my committee members when I was doing my PhD told me that at that stage of your career, when you’re a grad student and when you’re a post doc, its quantity over quality – and that’s not to say it should be shitty science or it should be wrong but in that degree having more publications in lower journals is better than having one publication in a really good journal. I think that is really true for younger career stages but I think as the career stage increases, that kind of flip flops. The problem is that people in the higher levels of their career have to mentor people in lower career stages and so there is a bit of a disconnect there. And so it really depends who it’s better for… but both of those things need to be considered for sure.
Based on that, what is it about producing more publications as opposed to one high ranking one? Is it that you’re showing that you can do multiple things or work through the process of writing?
I think it’s a little bit of both. The ability to multitask is really important but also being able to do one thing really well isn’t good in science… in biology at least, I don’t know about the other sciences. In biology everything is so nuanced and so different experiments are going to have a different quality. They might require different statistical methods and different writing styles and different experimental designs. So if you do one really good paper that’s great. But, it shows that under these circumstances you can do one really good experiment and you can do the analysis really well in this one system. However, I think by having multiple (papers) you can show across systems that you’re quite flexible, because in theory (hopefully) you shouldn’t be doing the same statistical analysis in every single paper. You shouldn’t be having the same exact experimental design in every single one of those… being able to show flexibility as a scientist is really important.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve has to overcome to get where you are now? Has there been a big challenge you’ve had to overcome or has it been smooth sailing for you?
There has been a lot of little things… and at the time they seemed a little bit like the end of the world, but looking back now they seem like not that big of a deal…. That was not true at the time though! I think the biggest hurdle for me was probably a personal thing that happened. My husband who I met in grad school is also a biologist, and so there always been this ominous hurdle that both us were going to have to get a job in the same place at the same time. However, getting an academic position for one person is really difficult and getting an academic position for two people in the same department has been considered as next to impossible. That I guess has always been this overwhelming, lurking, challenge. It’s always been in the back of my head that I need to get over this hurdle…and we did it! We both have jobs here.
Was there a strategy that you took to enable that to happen?
We both agreed we just needed to kick arse at everything basically. Part of the strategy we did choose was that rather than stay together for a post doc (for non-science people that is a short term position you do after you graduate with a PhD, it’s like a residency for a medical student) which for both of us was 3 years, rather than taking one together so we could be together, we took them a part. So I had been international for the last 3 years and we would only see each other for about 6 weeks a year….. which was hard, but that was the calculated risk that we decided to take…. that if we both took the best jobs for each of us respectively rather than trying to focus on us as a whole, that hopefully we would be better off individually to be able to market ourselves to be able to get the dual hire.
How did you manage being away from each other? How did you maintain that relationship and keep things feeling connected during that time?
We just did it (laughs)
It’s just the way it was?
It’s just the way it was. I like to travel so I felt it was a consequence to decisions I had made. When I was working in the field it was easier because I was working so hard. I mean I was working 14 hour days easily and I was just so busy that I didn’t really have time to think about it as much. I mean he might feel differently because he wasn’t usually in the field during that time…but I just got used to it and every time I would come back and then leave again, the first 6 weeks were always the hardest. Then after that it just kind of was. I mean there are so many ways to connect with each other, call each other but also there’s Viber and Whats App and Skype, all these other options which we could use to communicate which was fine.
What about your family? Were they always supportive of you pursuing this path, but also of the fact that you were so far away from home a lot of the time?
Yup. I spent a lot of my PhD candidacy in Kenya which is not the safest place and I’m sure my parents were never terribly excited about that fact. I remember talking to my mum about it once and she said “what was I going to say? I know that if I said no you would do it anyway”.... which is true! (laughs). So I think it was tough for them but I think it's always been expected that I would go away. I went away for college a few hours away and I figure just, no one really expected me to come home. I don’t know it it’s my personality or what, but no one was surprised that I went abroad and I travelled.
You have been to many places around the world and have been to some isolated areas. So here’s a questions for you, what is your favourite place and why?
(Laughs) So I don’t have a favourite place. I know everyone will think that is a cop out answer, but it’s true. Every place I go to has new challenges and new excitements and to be honest, most of the things about those new places are the people I meet, and the cultures and the experiences I have. So I’ve been to a lot of these places multiple times but each time I go it’s different and the people that I work with each year make it different. It’s not so much the place but it’s my life in each of those places. I love all of that. I have friends in all of the places that I go and I still stay in contact with people in the field, in Kenya and Australia. I follow up with past students and make sure they’re making good choices in life and all of these things. So, I don’t have a favourite place and I don’t have a favourite year. It’s a combination…which is a cop out but I’m going to stick with it!
I don’t think that is a cop out at all! I mean we often think of things as black and white and good and bad but in actuality it’s a mix. I mean you have good days and bad days and it’s nice to hear that you see value in everywhere you have been.
And luckily I usually remember mostly the good days.
(laughs).. and at least when you do remember the bad you are far enough away to laugh at them?
So moving on a little now, I wanted to get your perspective on being a woman in science and whether you feel your gender has impacted your career at all?
For me personally, no. I’ve never perceived it as. I have to say growing up I never felt I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I never was told that I couldn’t go into science because I was a girl. The undergraduate school that I went to is very science based and there were way more females than there were males. I never felt like my supervisors looked at me differently because I was female. But all of that being said….so my personal experience is no, but generally when I look around at the field I would say definately yes. So all of the departments I’ve been in have been very heavily male dominated, including the department I work in now and I don’t think that is a coincidence. I think they’re trying to make it better but there is definitely a prejudice. There have been a lot of studies showing that if you have the same CV and the same documents but a female name instead of a male name, the same exact person will be chosen if they have a male name over a female name. And I think it’s hard. I think there are a lot more expectations on women, whether we want to say that there is or there isn’t, there are. Between family life and everything else…. there is a lot more concern for females in doing that (having a family). Also the way the academic track is, it’s very difficult – it’s not impossible – but very difficult for women to have both a family and a career. Because, you spend most of your 20's as a student. Then you have to do a post doc. Then you’re in this kind of transition. You’re not in a permanent state. You don’t have a really good salary, even though you’ve been in school since forever…. and then you get a job. So I am 33 and I just got this job. So the first few years I have to work on tenure and the idea of getting tenure while you have a child at home or while you are trying to start a family, is very daunting and by the time I get tenure I will be 38 and it’s….I mean it’s not old but child bearing years are limited.
Do you think there are things in place (in scientific fields) to help women who want to have that balance between family (and career)? Have you seen any strategies being implemented or do you feel it is an area that still needs to be worked on still?
I think it is something that needs to be worked on for sure. I think that they’re starting to get there. I mean most universities will put off tenure decisions, so if normal tenure is 5 years and you have a child you are able to extend tenure for 6 years, not 5 years, which is good. In the UK they were more progressive there where I did my post doc. There are a lot more pretty stringent rules in place about it. In the US we don’t have paid maternity leave. Whether you work in a university or at McDonald’s, it’s not required in this country…. which is devastating and super unfortunate and I think that alone would go a long way, not just in academia, but generally in the world.
What about among your female colleges that you have worked with? Do you find that women are banding together to support each other with challenges that women face?
I find that in theory people do that and I think that if you ever went to someone and said “I’m struggling and need help”, that would happen. But, I think that ultimately people in academia just have so much going on that it is really hard to do that. I know that here (at my university) there is a graduate and undergraduate student group for women in science and I have been to one of their meetings to kind of talk about my experiences and stuff …. but, it is not easy to go to all of their meetings and a lot of their meetings are in the evenings. I don’t have children, but for any young faculty member who does, that isn’t going to make it any easier for them to attend those meetings. So I think in theory yes, but in practicality, not very much.
Is there a lot of support for these groups? Do you feel women are supported to go to these groups even if they are hard to go to practically?
I think so. I think generally in an academic setting most people, certainly not all, but most people recognise that there is some level of inequality…and you’d be hard pressed not to. Just looking around at most departments they are heavily weighted in a male direction. It’s hard to argue the fact that it is not happening and so I think education helps that.
We’re obviously in a very tense political climate at the moment. There is a lot happening in the world and a lot of threats to the idea of open access to knowledge and science’s place in politics. I was wondering, if you were able to deliver a personal message to people in politics in your country or around the world, what would that be about science?
I think that more and more things are becoming scientific. So more and more we talk about climate change being a problem, but even when we talk about innovation and making money, a lot this comes from a scientific base. I would ask politicians to recognise that and to turn to scientists to be able to help understand and mitigate some of the things that are occurring. You wouldn’t take your car to some blog post writer just because they say they know what they’re talking about. You take your car to a mechanic who has some sort of certification to say they know how cars work. So I would argue that you should take science questions and things that need some kind of scientific basis, to an actual scientist and a scientist who has certification to show they are a scientist…. and in our field that is a PhD in science. I think they (politicians) really need to start leaning more on the experts in an area because they can’t be an expert in everything… and that’s fine, but they need to rely on those who are.
It is a bit terrifying that we live in an age where you can take a fact and completely disregard it for your own purposes.
For something that someone has made up. Opinion does not equal science. We peer review the shit out of all our research for a reason. I can’t just say something is something because I want it to be. This is what peer review is and this is how I have proved myself as a scientist.
Part of being a scientist is putting your opinions out there. It’s about coming up with an idea and putting that idea out there, and that requires a lot of confidence. I know for myself and a lot of people I know, confidence can be quite lacking, in women in particular. So, I just wanted your perspective on how you generate confidence in yourself? Has it been easy for you?
So I think a lot of people who know me would be surprised that I am not a terribly confident person. I second guess myself a lot and as you said, during the peer review system and the grant writing system you get shit on by reviewers all the time…. because it’s anonymous so they have no reason not to tell you. They tell you that you did the worst experiment ever and all of these things and I think the way I exude confidence personally is just kind of a fake it till you make it kind of thing. If you fake it well enough, you convince other people that you are confident and their response to you gives you more confidence. If people think that you are not very confident they are going to treat you one way which is going to make you even less confident. But if people think you are confident, whether you are or not, they are going to treat you as if you are which is going to make you act more confident. I think the other way is partially, I can look back at my track record and I can see what I have done and I can see that I have had success. As a logical person I can think about myself as not just me but as a person on paper. I have had a lot of publications and I have had luck and success at getting grants and things so to some degree I must be good at that. But I didn’t get there by myself - so a big part of confidence is having people to rely on both emotionally but also, people who can train you to do these things well…. because obviously, I wasn’t born knowing how to write a paper, I wasn’t born knowing how to conduct a good experiment. I had to have good supervisors to help me get there.
Stemming from that then – what would your advice be to people hoping to pursue science – do you think who they have supervising them is as important as the project itself?
I think it’s all important but I think the most important thing is you. You have to be willing to work your arse off. I mean, I’ve heard graduate students say “well it's a 40 hour work week” or “I’m only part time so its 20 hours” and that’s just bullshit. If you’re only putting in 20 hours part time and 40 hours full time you’re never going to succeed at this. You have to drive yourself and you have to be willing to make sacrifices and you have to love this because it’s miserable sometimes and that’s all on you. That isn’t anyone else’s responsibility.
Concerning your project, you have to enjoy your project, particularly if you’re going to go into grad school. Although 3 or 5 years doesn’t sound like a long time it is a long time… especially if you’re immersed in it completely and you’re going to hate it some days. But, if you hate it every day then getting up in the morning you’re going to be miserable. They say that graduate students have low mental health and I think a lot of that comes from that. I think a lot of people hate their project and then question what they’re doing, so if you don’t at least enjoy your project… it doesn’t necessarily have be the thing you want to do for the rest of your life, but it at least has to be something you can see yourself doing for a few years.
As for the supervisor, I think who your supervisor is really important. Everyone is different, is different on the supervisory scale. Ultimately everyone is a person. You’re a person and you have a personality but equally your supervisor is a person and he or she has a personality. There has to be some kind of connection between that because the two of you have to communicate. The two of you have to discuss things and the two of you are going to disagree a lot and you have to overcome these conflicts. Some people are motivated in one way and others are motivated in another way, and that’s fine but I think it’s really important to find something that works for you. If you’re motivated by someone who is going to scream and yell at you like you are in the military, then you are going to find another person than someone who maybe would need to have their hand held a little more. But I think all of those are important but certainly the most important is your attitude and your perspective on your project and what you’re doing.
I was also interested in how you deal with criticism. I know it goes hand in hand with confidence but I’m sure even now professionally, criticism isn’t a nice thing to receive. Do you have a strategy for that or have you developed a ‘thick skin’?
I think alcohol helps (laughs). What I try and do with the reviews is I read through them and I let myself be really upset for a little while and then I don’t look at them again. I tend to obsess about things so my natural reaction after I’ve read something is to read it again and again and again and then maybe fight them on it or something. So I’ll read through all of the reviews one time. I’ll drink a beer… or two beers… or three beers and then the next day I sit down. Because often I find that my gut reaction to some of these reviews are actually not as bad as I read them the first time. Sometimes I might read them and think ‘this person thinks this entire experiment was terrible and I should light it on fire and be done’, when actually they’re saying, “did you consider doing this and maybe you should at least discuss that that is an option?” But I think I need some time away to kind of bring myself down and ground myself. And then most papers are done in collaboration with other people and so it’s really helpful to send those reviews to other people because they may take them differently. I think that it is really good too sometimes because sometimes I will think something is really terrible and somebody else goes, “well actually it’s not that big of a deal, we can totally negate that fact” and equally, they might see another point and go “who the hell is this person? I can’t believe they would say that!” and I can counter that with “well I don’t think it was that bad and we can totally get over that”… and between both of us, hopefully, if you pick your collaborators well, you can kind of balance a lot of the critiques. That being said, sometimes people are just arseholes and you have to accept that maybe they are just unhappy in life and they need to take it out on other people and there is nothing you can do about it.
Thank you for the honest answer. I think the majority of times things can be explained away but sometimes you’re just going to meet someone whose priority is not to make you happy and so just have to accept that you need to move on.
So bringing it back to the practical side of things, you have spent a lot of time in the field and I imagine you have some interesting stories to tell with regard to that. In your field work working in remote locations in a variety of countries, have you ever had any dangerous experiences or incidents that you remember as a highlight for your memory bank?
How much time have you got? (laughs) So, one of my letters of recommendation for this job suggested that I was intrepid – that I have absolutely no concern for my own safety. When I heard that I was a little bit offended, but when I thought about it more and more …. I sometimes think I don’t have much concern for my own safety because I’m constantly thinking about my students. So I’m the total opposite with my students. I’m very concerned about what my students are doing and whether they’re in the safest possible situation. But for myself, that isn’t true and I have found myself on occasion on the very top of a ladder swinging in the breeze in a very unsafe situation…or I’ve found myself walking into an emu which is terrifying because they can eviscerate your stomach.
Just to interrupt, an emu is a very large flightless bird…google it
With very big claws! I’ve also, I saw a snake in the distance once in the Australia and obviously all snakes in Australia could kill you and this one definitely could, it was a king brown snake. But I thought it was dead because it had 3 puncture holes in it and had clearly been picked up by a bird and dropped there. So I took my camera out and I went up really close to it. It didn’t move so obviously it was dead… BUT… then it turns out it wasn’t dead and it struck at me… but it was a really amazing picture I ended up getting. I was holding the camera as it struck at me and I nearly shit myself obviously, but I snapped the picture really quick and now I have this really amazing picture of a snake striking. So that was a little bit not the safest, not a good choice. I would not be happy if one of my students did that. It was a bad choice. I should also mention that if I had been bitten by this snake we were 2 hours away from the nearest hospital so I probably would have died there (laughs).
When I was in Kenya I was really kind of oblivious to things going on and I was often working in slums. There was one day when I was capturing birds in a garbage dump in a slum and the police came up and they told me that there was a kidnapping plot against me. There were two men who were plotting to kidnap me for ransom… and I had absolutely no idea this was going down…..also not good choices I guess to be working in slums like that (laughs). Another time when I was in Kenya…..
Sorry, just to interrupt, you just mentioned that quite casually just then (laughs). So what happened?
Well I wasn’t kidnapped obviously! (laughs)
And so they just told you that people were trying to kidnap you?
The police officer came and told me I was going to be kidnapped so he came and made me take down my nets… which I was really unhappy about because I needed to catch the birds…. but I guess I had to do it. But he was a very nice police officer and he ended up taking me to another place that he knew of
that had birds. It was at a mosque which was beautiful and they gave me tea and breakfast - so actually it was a win because I got out of the garbage dump, away from the kidnappers and I got breakfast out of it. So it was a win! (laughs).
Wow, that’s an unexpected end to that story! Now carry on (laughs).
Another time when I was capturing birds in Kenya, I was driving them home as I had to keep them in captivity for a week because I was doing experiments on behaviour trials. So I was keeping them in cages and I was bringing them home to do that and I tend to drive fast. I’ve gotten better recently… but at that point in time I drove fast. I was driving over the speed limit and what I didn’t realise is that in Kenya you get arrested for speeding and so I was arrested and brought to jail. I was told that I had to sit in the jail until the Judge could come and determine if I was guilty or not and I said, “look I was speeding, I’m not trying to fight this in any way, shape or form, I’ll just pay the fine”… which was like $25 or something. I thought I’ll just be super American and just pay it because I have birds in the car and I was worried the birds were going to die. And he said “no you can’t just pay the fine, you need to go in front of the Judge, but it’s lunch time so the judge isn’t here and there are a lot of people in front of you”…. because a lot of people speed because apparently they don’t know they can get arrested…. and he said “so the Judge won’t see you until tomorrow, so you’re going to have spend the night in jail”. And I was like nooo. Nope. This is not an option! I’m not going to spend the night in jail. In a Kenyan jail! So I started fighting with him and I said, “look, if you keep me here you’re going to kill all the birds in my car”, and obviously he didn’t believe that I would have birds in my car because why would you? So I had to take him out and show him. But once I showed him that I did in fact have birds in my car he let me go… so I didn’t even have to pay the fine… I didn’t have to do anything, he just let me go. So that was nice.
(laughs) How many birds were in your car?!
I had 14 birds! And then my last story, I have others but I’ll keep it to this, my last story - which is typically a fan favourite because there are pictures involved – I was actually not doing field work, but I was in Kenya but I was kind of taking the day off and I was sightseeing a little bit. While I was sightseeing I was attacked by a baboon. So I was wearing a purse across my chest because I was afraid that a human would steal it from me. I had my passport and my wallet in there and instead, a baboon grabbed it. When he stood up he was as tall as I am and he was the dominant male. He was huge. He started circling me, so I started circling with him and then he went in the other direction, so I circled back. My cousin was there visiting and she took pictures of this happening, as you would….and then the baboon grabbed my purse but because it was across my chest I couldn’t lift up and around… so he dragged me probably about 15 meters on the ground. My cousin took one picture of that before she put her camera away, when she realised it was serious. And then I ended up being purple from my head all the way down to my ankle on my left side. I was all black and blue and bruised and disgusting…but it’s a good story.
What were you thinking when it dragged you? Were you thinking?
I was. So I was trying to think of what to do! So I was wearing flip flops or ‘thongs’ as you Australians call them…and so all I kept thinking was, if I kick it there’s a couple of options; maybe I kick it and he realises I’m serious and leaves me alone, OR, I kick him and I glance him and he gets really angry and he attacks me. OR, maybe I kick him and he gets really angry and attacks me and all the other 30 baboons that are around get angry and attack me. Then I thought about Ebola because there had been an Ebola outbreak at that point and then I thought I had just got a rabies shot because I was attacked by a dog a couple of weeks before, so I was good to go on rabies and I’m good to go on Tetanus but Ebola was still a concern.
Isn’t it amazing how in a stressful situation you can think of so much in such a short period of time?
I also thought, because baboons are really smart and so you’re always told that if you pick up a stick, they’ll pick up a stick, and so I also thought that as well, but I can’t pick up a stick because if I do he’ll pick up a stick!
Did you get your purse back? Did he break your purse?
He did. So the way he ended up getting it was between he and I, we were shredding my purse. So he got my purse and he went into my purse and he took my passport and threw it, and he took my wallet and he threw it, and I had some bread in there that he kept and I had some bug bite ointment that he really seemed to like – ‘Burt's Bees' bug bite ointment which he kept as well.
(laughs) Well Mr Baboon if you’re listening to this, you’re a bit of a jerk!
But less itchy! (laughs)
Well thank you for sharing that story. I sometimes think that stories from when things don’t necessarily go according to plan are some of the best.
They’re character building!
So I was also interested in who inspires you and why, as a scientist? And just putting it out there they don’t have to be in science – just because you work in science doesn’t mean you are always inspired by a scientist.
I think I am inspired by a lot of people. I was always inspired by my mum. She was part of the reason I enjoyed science. She wasn’t a scientist at all but I was one of those super annoying children who asked questions all the time and while she couldn’t answer my questions all the time, I think she tried. She never put me off from asking questions. So that inspired me to be encouraging of people who ask questions and people who have a wonder of the world. There are a lot of scientists that I’ve come in contact with that I look at and think they have been successful at this, and women in science who have been successful and they have a family even though it’s difficult, and women in science who are in their 60’s now. I know as difficult as it is now, it was certainly much more difficult 30 or 40 years ago. So I’m inspired by them. But I’m also inspired by a lot of my students. Everyone has something that they’re over coming and everyone has something that they bring. Scientifically I’m interested in variation and how variation arises and so I think kinda in this sense it’s the same thing – I’m inspired by how different people are and by how different people interact and how they get to the same goals in different ways.
So looking back now with experience, is there any advice you would give your younger self?
I think I’d tell myself that it works out. I think I gave myself a lot of anxiety, a lot of grief and a lot of stress thinking that I was doing all of this work for no reason. I would at least like to know that the hard work does pay off.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession that you would like to set straight? Is there one thing that really bugs you that you’d like to correct?
It really annoys me when people think that doing field work is like going on holiday. I would say that field work is definitely harder than what a lot of people do for work for sure. You’re up before the sun gets up, you’re often not back before the sun goes down, it’s physically demanding and mentally demanding and it’s every single day. It’s not like you go to work for 40 hours a week and then come home. It’s 7 days a week, often 14 hours a day and it’s draining and you’re with the same people over and over again, which is emotionally exhausting. So it’s not this tropical sunshine holiday that a lot of people think it is. I LOVE field work, but it’s not like a holiday.
So what would you say to women trying to pursue a career, either in the same field as yourself or in science generally?
I would say definitely do it only if you love it. It’s not easy, it’s not meant to be easy. It’s very competitive and if you don’t love it you can’t spend the time on it that you need to spend on it to be successful. Because you have to work so hard and so long to be successful, if you’re miserable doing it, get out. There’s no point doing this. You’re going to be miserable some days. Everybody is miserable in their jobs some days, but if you’re more often miserable than not than it’s probably not for you. I think academia to some degree is sometimes romanticised. A lot of people think it’s easier… you have really nice hours you can do whatever you want, but it’s not really like that. So, be sure you’re ready to put in the time and I think the only way to commit that much time is to enjoy what you’re doing.