A post-doctoral scientist’s 5-step guide for emerging women scientists

Dream. Do. Role models. Self-confidence. Share.

I love science and at a young age I’ve always dreamed to go behind the scenes of the life of a researcher. It wasn’t until I was given a great opportunity to join a one-year work experience program at either an academic or private institute, which was offered during my undergraduate science course at Swinburne University. I was fortunate enough to have gained experience at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, which confirmed my love for science and gave me encouragement to pursue research as a career. Not only was I able to translate what was taught in lectures into the laboratory, but most importantly I was “DO-ing” science. As a student, observation was key and I often wondered about gender equality in the scientific field. Traditionally, it was observed that the majority of laboratory group leaders were male, however, during my time as an undergraduate student researcher (yes I had a title!), it was an exciting era where there were emerging women leaders within the institute.

These women were my role models. Role models every budding woman scientist deserves.

I knew I wanted to make a difference, to make a mark as a woman scientist in the growing field of cancer research and to empower and inspire other emerging women to do the same. Therefore, after completing my undergraduate degree, I transferred to the University of Melbourne where I undertook my Honours degree at the Royal Women’s Hospital. My two supervisors were inspiring women who had been in the cancer field for >10 years. They too were my role models. My thesis evaluated the effect of the Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine that was distributed to all young girls in Australia as a move to reduce the development of pre-cancerous lesions. The move worked and is now offered to young boys too. It was such a wonderful feeling to have made a contribution to science, knowing your efforts was a piece of the puzzle to help others and build a better future for the next generation and the generations to come. This is why I love science.

After my Honours year, I was contemplating on pursuing a Ph.D., however unlike my peers, I just missed out on receiving a scholarship and I felt a great lack of confidence in myself and in my career as a scientist. I reconnected and spoke to my role models that I’ve previously met through my journey and with their invaluable words of encouragement and support, my burning desire to make a difference in the scientific community was reignited and so I persisted.

Whilst staying in the same laboratory would be comfortable and “safe”, I realised that one key aspect to strive in the scientific field is to learn as many techniques as you can and to build on your networking skills. With this in mind, I knew I needed to branch out to another laboratory to pursue my Ph.D. My desires lead me to undertake my Ph.D. at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I loved my project. It gave me the opportunity to investigate novel inhibitors against key tumour driving pathways in an aim to reduce the burden of colon cancer.

Throughout my journey as a student scientist, I’ve learnt invaluable lessons, techniques and most importantly I have grown as a more confident person. What was once an intimidating term, “self-confidence”, isn’t just important for your career but it is also critical for your mental well-being. Confidence matters and even to this day as a first year post-doctoral scientist I am still learning to build my confidence in all areas, in particularly public speaking. I personally believe it isn’t just me who struggles with the lack of self-confidence. In fact most emerging female scientists who I have encountered, have the same struggles. Whether it’s exam results, job rejections or a general feeling of “I can’t do this”, impacts on self-confidence and it can be a great struggle to get through. Often we don’t even realise this could impact on our mental well-being (which could lead to depression and anxiety) and instead we see it as a part of life.

During these moments, it was so important for me to reach out and share the highs and the lows of my experiences as an emerging female scientist. I learnt that sharing my concerns and self-doubt with my peers was tremendously helpful for my own mental well-being and to re-gain a positive attitude towards my career. More importantly the concept of sharing, listening and supporting one another provided relief to both parties who were experiencing the same worries as you. Remember that you are not alone.

As my journey as an emerging woman scientist continues, I hope to remind you that no matter what stage you are at with your career in science, remember: dream, do, find role models, have self-confidence and share your experiences with others.

My favourite quote, which got me through my days of self-doubt is,

Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think” – A.A. Milne

About the author:

Portrait_Fiona-TAN-e1545388771852.pngDr Fiona Tan is a Post-Doctoral Scientist in the Head and Neck Cancer Signalling laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VCCC, Melbourne, Australia. She received her Bachelor of Science (Biotechnology) from Swinburne University and her Honours degree and Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne which was completed in April 2018. During her studies, she was employed as a student research assistant at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (2012-2013) and undertook a research assistant position at RMIT during her final year of Ph.D. (2017-2018). Throughout her experiences, she has published 5 manuscripts related to cervical, colon, brain and skin cancer. She is currently preparing for another 5 manuscripts related to cancer research in the upcoming year. Her current research focuses on identifying preventative strategies as a means to pinpoint signs of early cellular changes related to the development of head and neck cancer. When she isn’t glued to her laboratory bench or endless Pubmed searches, she spends time as a calligraphy and watercolour artist as a means to relax and recuperate. She strongly believes to make a mark as a woman scientist in cancer research and to empower and inspire other emerging women to do the same.

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