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.

Michela Mitchell

Michela has 15 years experience in payroll, as well as significant human resource experience. At Slade Michela’s responsibilities were managing a team of payroll officers and administrators, overseeing temporary and contractor payrolls, internal payroll, reporting and analysis. Her qualifications are an Associate Diploma of Business (Computing), Computer Programming and Systems Analyst, Bachelor of Science (Hons) and Master of Applied Science. She is currently a PhD student at Monash University.

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