STEMM PROFILE: Dr Kate Howell, PhD | Research Fellow | University of Western Australia | Perth | WA

Dr Kate Howell [Image: Colin White]

“It’s important for leaders … to set an example – by taking regular holidays, planning meetings at appropriate times and being open about their commitments and interests outside of work”

Dr Kate Howell is currently a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at The University of Western Australia (UWA) and the Higher Degree Research Education Coordinator for the Fremantle and Broome campuses at The University of Notre Dame Australia.

Kate graduated with First Class Honours in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from UWA in 2000. After backpacking through Central America she returned to UWA to start a PhD to investigate the molecular processes occurring in germinating rice seeds, which she completed in 2005, the same year she married her husband – a chef and windsurfer from Germany. She stayed on at UWA as a Research Associate until 2007 and, after a 5 month driving holiday around Australia, moved to Potsdam to undertake research at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology. She returned to UWA in 2010 and commenced at The University of Notre Dame Australia in 2015. She is a former recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship (2008-2009) and one of the inaugural Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (2012-2015).

As well as a love of travel, one of Kate’s favourite past-times is long distance open water swimming. She’s completed the Rottnest Channel Swim (19.7 km) 3 times as a solo swimmer and was the 3rd female in an intercontinental swim from Europe to Asia (the Hellespont). She believes long distance open water swimming has many parallels with being a scientist. You need to train and work hard; you require strength, endurance and resilience; it takes individual effort but is easier and more enjoyable with a good support team and the camaraderie of others facing the same challenges; finally achieving a goal can leave you on an adrenalin-fuelled high; and you have to be a little bit crazy to dive in!

Kate has a passion for long distance open water swimming [Image: Jens Bischof]

Who and/or what inspires you to achieve?

My father. When my mother got a great job offer in Australia he retired early and became a stay-at-home dad to look after my sister and I, so my mother could focus on her career. He brought us up to believe we could do or be anything, and also instilled in us the importance of making a contribution to society. He passed away last year but I know he will continue to influence and inspire me.

What do you think is the most important character trait in a successful scientist?

This depends somewhat on your definition of success – I think inherent curiosity and the motivation to make a difference in the world is important. But as you progress in your career it becomes increasingly important to have good interpersonal skills to manage and motivate teams to work well together.

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

To me, a successful leader is someone who is self-aware and authentic, they value diversity and they inspire and motivate people through positivity, enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour, rather than through fear. And while they may not necessarily be in a formal leadership position, others still “follow” them.

How do we keep more women engaged in scientific careers? How do we retain women?

Role models are crucial, including ensuring gender balance on panels and of speakers at seminar series and conferences. Cultural change in the workplace is needed that acknowledges, accommodates for and values caring/family responsibilities, diverse/non-linear career paths and the “invisible” work that women often do.

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance?

Changing the workaholic culture could have a big impact on retaining female scientists. It’s important for leaders (both male and female) to set an example – by taking regular holidays, planning meetings at appropriate times and being open about their commitments and interests outside of work.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @DrKateHowell

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