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‘Fame fades but influence leaves an indelible mark… that outlives those who influence.’

Have you ever stopped to think how much influence you have?

Recently, I was honoured to be named in the Financial Review’s Top 100 Women of Influence in Australia.

It was humbling because I first arrived with a backpack, $200 and one way ticket to a country that offers freedom of speech and countless opportunities for everyone to exude influence.

I first learned of the nomination weeks earlier when speaking in Rome at an international women’s conference. The news arrived on my phone just as others joined the breakfast table, so naturally I briefly shared the moment.

Shortly after, one handed me some tissues and two Disprin: “I am sorry about your influenza.” Smiling but not wanting to offend, I explained that I felt fine and must have spoken too quickly for her to confuse influence with influenza.

Her kindness was a catalyst for reflection… What is influence?

Our influence may be fleeting or lasting but we are all women – and men – of influence every day in every way. We can all influence a neighbour – or a nation; a person – or a planet; a friend or a foe. Will that influence be positive or negative? Constructive or destructive? Healing or hurting?

That spontaneous gesture from a stranger in Rome was indeed a positive influence in my world that morning.

Two days later, I arrived to speak at another conference in the Middle East. Ironically, I was unable to ‘influence’ the airline to deliver my suitcase to the same city! Luckily, most essentials were in carry-on luggage and a Filipino friend loaned me her abaya (floor length black dress) which reminded me of the universal nature of kindness.

Influence is the fingerprint we leave when offering a helping hand. It is the footprint as we walk in another’s shoes. Yet even with the best intentions, we inevitably point a finger wrongly or step on someone’s toes. But the footprint we ultimately leave – with even the smallest steps we take in the direction of courage and kindness, should hopefully leave the world a slightly better place than when we first learned to walk.

Our parents held our hand as we took those first tentative steps. Many other people who influenced me for the better will never be acknowledged publically – aunties, uncles, neighbours, teachers and role models in the world of work long before I knew that term even existed in the lexicon.

Who are you going to thank for being a positive influence in your life today?

Not everyone is in a position of power within their organisation – but we all have the power to influence. May we appreciate it – and use it – wisely during this frantic festive season as we head towards the New Year.

As William James once said: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

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What did Ita say? And what’s it got to do with anemones?

I love science, I love sea anemones and I know exactly why I am doing a PhD. I want to make a difference with my work. My beautiful friend Carly has Multiple Sclerosis, as does the irreverent comedian Tim Ferguson. They are my inspiration every day. So when the going gets tough and self-doubt creeps in, I remind myself of what Ita said as I head back into the lab and embrace every obstacle as something I just have to get around.

After nearly 10 years with Slade Group, this is my swan song blog as I leave the corporate world to pursue my PhD. But before I launch into my niche area of research, let me tell you what Ita said.

Back in March, I attended a lunch in Lismore where celebrated publisher Ita Buttrose was the guest speaker. We all know her as a successful businesswoman with an extensive media career and an Australian household name. And if the TV series Paper Giants is anything to go by, she has had a pretty tough fight to get to the top of her game.

Personally, I have never been one for taking the easy path either. In my younger years I was computer programmer, well before the information technology industry became what it is now, when even the word IT was brand new. Males certainly outnumbered females in IT in those days.

But back to Ita. She spoke about a range of achievements for women over the past few decades, including women in science. You can watch a short video of her speech from the event. I was captivated by her talk and I had a very specific question for her, which I was thrilled she took the time to answer.

My question: “I assume you had to fight every day to march to the beat of your own drum. Did you ever want to give up? How did you keep yourself motivated in your moments of self-doubt?”

Buttrose replied, “I asked myself why am I here?

Of course she knew exactly why she was there.  But it was not simply passion and determination that took her to the top, she says she loved every one of her jobs. As Editor in Chief of Cleo magazine, The Australian Women’s Weekly and the Daily Telegraph she constantly told herself, “I deserve to be here and I have every right to be here. I choose to work in this jungle.” As to the numerous obstacles she overcame on her career journey from copy girl to be the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia, Buttrose was emphatic in her approach. “I will just find my way around any obstacles,” she said.

So what has all that got to do with my sea change, studying marine biology? It’s another field, as with the Sciences in general, where a lack of female representation is apparent. On completing a Master of Applied Science by Research, I found my current bent as a taxonomist (specialist biologist, no relation to taxation or economist). I am currently completing a Doctorate in the field of Medicinal Chemistry studying sea anemone venoms for use in pharmaceuticals, with practical applications to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is and I love it!

Pharmaceutical research is also highly competitive, as is access to funding. There are only about 15 specialists in my field in the entire world and I’m now one of that exclusive cohort. While it’s not unusual for PhD students to question the value of their pursuits, without a chemistry background, or any prior knowledge genetics, I’ve also had to find my way in a completely new network of people where everyone was an unknown. I certainly know something about the challenges faced when following a less-traditional career path.

That’s why Ita’s talk was exactly what I needed to hear. I thanked Ita Buttrose afterwards for her answer. One-to-one she asked me if I had self-doubts? “Every day!” I said. She reinforced her advice to believe in myself. I have every right to be where I am.

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