Juggling in STEMM: international research success amidst cultural challenges and family responsibilities

I grew up in Daye, a countryside city of Hubei province in Central China, which traditionally, encouraged ‘male only’ attendance at schools. Thanks to my parents’ openness and support, together with my passion for science, as well as my stubbornness and persistence, I managed to overcome this cultural barrier, to become the only female of my age, in my hometown, to manage to study at University.

Looking back to my successful Bachelor Degree at Hubei Normal University, I chose not to become a high school teacher as many of my classmates ended up doing, but instead, looked to study a Master’s degree in China, to fully explore my potential. This I did and after completing my Master’s degree I got a reasonably good job working in industry. However, this still wasn’t enough for me – my passion for research encouraged me to explore even newer opportunities – to extend myself and study overseas. What helped me to realise this dream was my success in gaining an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship funded by the Australian Government to pursue my PhD studies with Professor Justin Gooding at UNSW.

Chinese born, the biggest challenge I faced at this time was maintaining my desired high levels of productivity while living in Australia, with its differing culture and language. I’ve found that I’ve since adjusted to Aussie life pretty well. I managed a productive three years during this PhD study time with 7 publications as first author and 3 patents as co-inventor. After that, I undertook a post doctorate position with CSIRO and then with UNSW. My biggest learning at this time was don’t underestimate the impact that change can have on your life, but learn to roll with it and to embrace it, and that a positive outlook can make such a difference!

Looking back, another significant transition point of my career was in moving back to China in 2010 to take up an Associate Professor (and research team leader) position at Central China Normal University. Being an academic is centred on three pillars – teaching, research, and service, which essentially involves doing three jobs at once. Managing these responsibilities and the time needed to be successful at each is an incredible challenge. While I was confident in my research, I found it very difficult to prepare and deliver lectures while working in the laboratory with a team of graduate students, serving on committees, organizing activities for student outreach, writing grants and papers and the like.

Meanwhile, I was employed at AgaMatrix Inc. (China) as an R&D Manager focused on the development of reagent formulation for glucose test strips. As such, it was extremely challenging times, but I persevered and was fortunate enough to accumulate valuable research experience in both academia and industry. I am particularly proud of my efforts at this time, which has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my research career to date. Managing my time wisely, planning meticulously and delegating activity where possible – and with the support of my family, I was able to achieve a somewhat reasonable work-life balance. This made it possible for me to manage two full-time jobs while also being a mother of three young and lovely children!

Due to family reasons in March 2015, my whole family moved back to Australia and I took up a full time Research Fellowship position at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) at Macquarie University, exploring advanced nanoscale technology and techniques. Fast forward two years and my research at CNBP has given rise to 15 published journal papers and two patents. One patent has been licenced to Regeneus Pty Ltd, and another has attracted the industry funding from Medtronic. I have been fortunate to be in a positive working environment at the CNBP. The culture, policies and people of the Centre, together with the transdisciplinary scientific approach of the research teams has allowed me to continue to achieve interesting and exciting work. This recently culminated in my being awarded an ARC Future Fellowship, which has opened up new avenues for my nano-focused research as well as provide new networks and resources to align my mid-career research to key challenges facing society in the 21st Century.

In summing up, I am proud of being a motivated and productive researcher focusing on interdisciplinary and translational research while being able to balance the demands of academia with the demands of being a mother of three young children. It is a truism that maintaining scientific excellence takes a huge amount of effort especially for women who may be juggling a career together with family responsibilities. However, if you have a passion for advancing science, and a willingness to develop your potential, and a work-hard ethic, you can achieve great things, regardless of your gender or background. Barriers and challenges are there to be overcome. Believe in yourself and you can absolutely make it!

About the author:

Associate Professor Guozhen Liu, PhD is an ARC Future Fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences, Macquarie University, who holds a Master degree (2000) in Analytical Chemistry from the China University of Geosciences, and a PhD (2006) in Chemistry from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Dr Liu conducted her postdoctoral research at CSIRO (2006-2008) and UNSW (2008-2010), respectively before she accepted a faculty position as the Associate Professor at the Central China Normal University (CCNU). Meanwhile, Dr Liu achieved her industrial experience as the R&D Manager, China (2011-2015) on developing medical devices at AgaMatrix Inc. Before Liu was awarded the ARC Future Fellowship, she worked as the Research Fellow of ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) (2015-2016). Liu has published over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles with a H-index of 23 and 7 patents. She has attracted more than $1.8M research funding from Australia and China. Dr Liu’s research covers areas of nanoscale analysis, active nanoparticles, bionanofabrication, and advanced sensing technologies, with the focus on developing multifunctional theranostic tools for biomedical research. The group is also part of the CNBP where much of Dr Liu’s research has focused on translational research in “Creating Windows to the Body” where biointerfaces are modified for diagnostic devices, bioimaging and biomaterials, as well as more fundamental research on real-time in vivo sensing, cell surface interactions and targeted drug delivery. Dr Liu’s group is also interested in development of assays and portable devices for food safety and early diagnosis of plant diseases.

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