STEMM Profile: Associate Professor Susan Rowland | Teaching-focused Academic | School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences | Associate Dean Academic (Future Students and Employability) | Faculty of Science | The University of Queensland | Brisbane | QLD

Susan Rowland [Image: The University of Queensland]

“…I ask people for help or input by approaching them, introducing the issue, and then saying ‘I would value your opinion’. This has changed my life”

Associate Professor Susan Rowland completed a BSc Hons and PhD in biochemistry at The University of Sydney, Australia, and a Human Frontiers in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Connecticut in the United States. She also holds a Graduate Certificate in Education from The University of Queensland (UQ).

At UQ Susan is a teaching-focused academic in the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences and is Associate Dean Academic (Future Students and Employability) for the Faculty of Science. Susan has been a Manning Clark Fellow, an American Society for Microbiology Biology Scholar, and a UQ Teaching Fellow. She teaches biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology and is chair of the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education Special Interest Group. Susan has won multiple awards for her teaching and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is also a UQ Ally; in this role she helps create a safe, welcoming and inclusive space for sex, gender and sexuality diverse people.

Susan started her science career researching the biochemistry of bacterial cell division proteins and bacterial signal sensing proteins, but she is now a social scientist. Susan and her group focus on the development of student professionalism and employability; they have particular interests in undergraduate research experiences, work-integrated learning, and science communication.

At home, Susan shares her life with her two fabulous and independent teenagers (Aidan and Gemma) and her equally independent and fabulous husband (Glenn, also a scientist). All of the household members know how to cook, iron, look after themselves, and care for their demanding cats (Pippi and Erik) and needy chickens (Goldie and Layla). Susan enjoys spending time with family and friends and fostering for the RSPCA. She also loves traveling, singing, cooking, making jewelry, wearing awesome shoes, and serving on the board of a local organization that combats youth homelessness.

How do you cope with loss or rejection (e.g. rejected papers, non-funded grants)?

I know some people respond to these challenges by beating themselves up. In my opinion, getting upset just wastes time. My response to losing is righteous anger, which gives me lots of energy to deal with whatever issue is at hand! Of course, I don’t use the anger to rush up to someone and vent. Instead, I use it as impetus to re-write the paper, consider how else I will get money to fund my work, or solicit an opinion from someone who knows more about things than I do. The righteous anger can also be an excellent balm for people you are leading or working with (e.g., “We are a fabulous team – how dare they not fund our awesome grant!”). Anger doesn’t have to be negative. It can be a manifestation of self-confidence, and an affirmation of the value of what you are doing.

If you have transitioned careers, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?

I am a biochemist who now works as a Science Education researcher using social science approaches. This has been quite a learning journey for me – it has taken me more than ten years to become a relatively competent social scientist. The most difficult thing about the process has been the ingrained ideas that people in science have about what “counts” as legitimate work and legitimate research for a scientist. For example, I have had colleagues tell me that I can’t supervise students, because “what you do isn’t research”. In my own head I have also questioned the rigour of social science, but the more skilled I become as a social scientist, the more I respect the discipline. My increased skill also means I am more able to explain the value of the approaches to others, so it’s a win-win.

What do you believe are the greatest attributes of a successful leader?

An ability and willingness to read the power landscape, examine what needs to be done, and find the gaps where you can contribute by leading an initiative. Leaders need to be going somewhere, and bringing others with them. My philosophy is that I should be going somewhere important – if I do that, other people will want to come too. 

What advice would you give early career researchers – especially women – in science today?

Consider whether you really want to stay in science research, or whether you want to use the skills you have to enter another area of work. Science research is super competitive, and you need to be in the right place at the right time to advance. If things aren’t panning out after your post-doc, think about getting out, and using your amazing skills elsewhere. You are smart, capable, creative, and trained in logical thinking. This is something the world needs.

What is the most important advice you have ever been given?

About four years ago I did a 360 degree evaluation that showed I didn’t consult with others. This was true, and it was a manifestation of my wish to appear competent. I hadn’t worked out how to ask for input without looking weak.

My mentor at the time suggested I ask people for help or input by approaching them, introducing the issue, and then saying “I would value your opinion”. This has changed my life. When you tell people you would value their opinion, they give it to you, and they are happy about it, and everyone retains some power in the exchange. I wish I had learned this approach when I was 16. It would have saved me a lot of time.

LinkedIn: Susan Rowland


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