STEMM PROFILE: Dr Heather Bray | Senior Research Associate | University of Adelaide | Adelaide | SA
“….the biggest hurdle has been remembering to remind myself that my ‘unconventional’ career path is a great strength and not compare myself to others”
I think I’ve always loved learning, but agriculture became ‘my thing’ at high school. I think I was drawn to the combination of both scientific and human aspects, but it was also because I could experience the science in action at the school farm. In Year 12 I was selected to go to the National Youth Science Forum and I vividly remember the then Minister for Science, Barry Jones, telling us that we were the future of Australian science.
After doing a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Hons) at the University of Sydney, I did my PhD on energy metabolism in pigs with pneumonia. I also did some stints at the Sydney Royal Easter and Royal Melbourne Shows in an educational exhibit about the Australian Pig Industry – my first real taste of science communication. After a one-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute for Animal Science and Animal Health in the Netherlands, I worked as a Research Scientist at the Pig and Poultry Production Institute in South Australia.
After two years I left research following some fairly serious personal events and moved into science communication, beginning as a volunteer at the Investigator Science and Technology Centre and working my way up to Programs Officer while I completed my Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication from Central Queensland University. In 2003 I joined the Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre, as the Education Officer, to develop and deliver education programs for schools and the community on the role of gene technology in crop improvement.
I felt very strongly that we needed to rethink how we communicated about science and after completing Masters-level course work in social research methods I began working with Professor Rachel Ankeny in 2011 in the University of Adelaide’ Food Values Research Group in the Department of History. I am currently a Senior Research Associate investigating community attitudes gene technology and farm animal welfare and my goal is to improve community engagement in science in agriculture.
If you have transitioned careers, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
People will tell you that once you leave research that you can never go back but I’m proof that this isn’t true. Yes I had to retrain at each transition, but the biggest hurdle has been remembering to remind myself that my “unconventional” career path is a great strength and not compare myself to others.
How do you cope with self-doubt? How do you cope with imposter syndrome?
Following on from my previous answer, probably not very well! Most of the time I feel like everyone else has nothing to worry about, but I REALLY AM an imposter! You just have to give yourself the pep talk you’d give your best friend. The evidence is there that most of the time you know what you are doing, and usually there is a good day not too far away.
What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?
I’m not sure I have “succeeded” but I’m still here and that’s a measure of success for me. I’m very proud of that actually and I don’t say it enough and never out loud. My life hasn’t been easy and I still face personal challenges every day. I’m either persistent or stubborn! The bottom line is there is nothing else that I want to do more than this.
What advice would you give early career researchers in science today?
Bad stuff happens sometimes and that may mean that you might leave research, or science, for a while or for good. That really knocked me around because it was part of my identity and I thought I had failed. Please don’t do that to yourself. Ask for help if you’re struggling. The sun does come out again.
Who and/or what inspires you to achieve?
We all share this little blue dot, and we all have to eat. Somehow we have to work out a way to come to some consensus about how we can produce safe, nutritious and affordable food for everyone now and into the future without wrecking our home. This starts with improving communication and I’m driven to do all I can to achieve that.
Follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherbray6