“Being a scientist means dealing with complex problems and one faces challenges, small and large, technical and personal, every day. As Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’ sings ‘Swimming, swimming, just keep swimming’”
I am a Research Fellow in the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences and the Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute at Curtin University. My research combines computer simulations and biophysical experiments to understand how venom peptides, compounds that naturally occur in spider venom, interact with cell membranes and how we can use this to develop new pharmaceutical approaches to treating cancer, infectious diseases and neurological disorders.
At the heart of my research lies my curiosity and my fascination with the molecular world. For me being a scientist is like solving complex puzzles. Nonetheless, my journey to work in science was less than ‘straight forward’. Growing up in Switzerland I had the privilege of receiving some of the best public education in the world but health problems prevented me from finishing high school. Instead, I did an apprenticeship as a car parts logistics specialist, followed by a business diploma. For a few years, I worked as a technical project assistant in engineering companies and banks. After migrating to Australia in my mid-twenties, I decided to return to study. I completed a double degree in Chemistry and Computer Science at Curtin University followed by a PhD in Computational Biophysics at the University of Western Australia. Subsequently, I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship (ECF) by the Swiss National Science Foundation, followed by an NHMRC ECF to carry out postdoctoral training at the University of Queensland. In 2016, I returned to Curtin University to pursue my independent research projects while still working under the ‘umbrella’ of a larger research group. I am also the Secretary for the Association of Molecular Modellers of Australasia.
Apart from my research I am passionate about teaching both my coursework and research students to ‘think for themselves’. I am also actively involved the career development of early and mid-career researchers and supporting diversity and equity in science.
What do you think is the most important character trait in a successful scientist?
Persistence and being okay with not always knowing where ‘things are going’. Being a scientist means dealing with complex problems and one faces challenges, small and large, technical and personal, every day. As Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’ sings ‘Swimming, swimming, just keep swimming’.
How do we retain women in STEMM in academic research?
We need to re-assess how we define leadership and success in academic research. While metrics are important they don’t capture a person’s ability to influence or inspire others. Our current definition of success is very narrow and leaves little room for diversity of any kind; be it gender, pathways or types of leadership.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in STEMM?
Surround yourself with positive role models and people that believe in you and your ability. In a hyper-competitive world people and institutions have their own ‘agenda’ and it is critical to know early in your career how the system works. Having supportive people that know you and give you honest advice are important.
What have you learnt during your career to increase your resilience?
Accepting your own limits is critical but not easy. Academic research can involve long hours, rejections and failures. While working at the limit of our comfort zone can help us grow and explore, it is important to know when to stop, rest and re-assess. ‘Success’ in life is more than your work.
If at times your confidence is a little shaky, where do you turn?
My yoga mat, nature, and travelling with my partner. Academic research is a hyper-competitive environment and it is easy to become overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. My yoga and mindfulness practice keeps me grounded while traveling the world reminds me to see the bigger picture and appreciate what I have.
Do you have a 5 year plan or do you go with the flow?
Both. At the start of every year I write down my 1, 3 and 5-year goals but the scarcity of research funding and short-term contracts can make it hard to actually put those plans into practice. Goals that I can work towards keep me on track but it is important to reassess them when situations change.
LinkedIn: Evelyne Deplazes