STEMM Profile: Kathryn Burdon | Professor & Professorial Research Fellow | Menzies Institute for Medical Research | University of Tasmania | Hobart | TAS

Professor Kathryn Burdon an eye researcher at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research [picture: Peter Mathew]

“If you’re passionate about something or it makes you happy, find a way to do it, regardless of how other people might categorise it, or you”

Professor Kathryn Burdon is a Principal Research Fellow at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania. Her research aims to identify genetic causes of blindness and visual impairment and use genetic information to improve patient outcomes.

Kathryn completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Tasmania, majoring in Biochemistry and Microbiology before taking up a genetics focussed research project in her honours year. She went on to a PhD, also at the University of Tasmania, in the genetics of childhood cataracts using large families to identify disease causing genes and mutations. Through tapping into the network of her supervisor, she landed a post-doctoral position at the Centre for Human Genomics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. Here she expanded her genetics skills to include complex diseases and population-based studies.

In 2005 she returned to Australia to join the team in the Department of Ophthalmology at Flinders University in Adelaide and expand the genetics research program there. Here she once again picked up her old PhD project on the genetics of congenital cataract and has been working to identify the genetic cause of this disease in Australian patients ever since. She has also developed research programs in a range of other eye diseases and sometimes even works on non-eye related things.

In 2014 she moved back to the University of Tasmania to take up a position at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research. She continues to lead NHMRC-funded research into genetic eye diseases and is also the Theme Leader for the Genetics and Cancer Theme of the Institute.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in STEMM?

STEMM influences so many fields in one way or another. It is not one thing. It pervades our whole world. The choice is not between STEMM or no STEMM, but rather between what drives you and what doesn’t. If you’re passionate about something or it makes you happy, find a way to do it, regardless of how other people might categorise it, or you.

What do you do to cope with the pressures and challenges of leading and/or managing a team?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced with leadership is learning to let go, in multiple contexts. Firstly, I think it is important to let go of the expectation that you will have complete knowledge of all tasks at all times. Trusting the team to reach the end goal via their own pathway relieves pressure on everyone. Secondly, I’m working on letting go in the context of leaving work behind at the end of day and letting my brain and body focus on other things that are important to me. If I’m burnt out, I’m not an effective part of the team.

How do you cope with self‐doubt? How do you cope with imposter syndrome?

To be honest, I think I’ve learned to live with it and in some situations to embrace it. In part, it keeps me moving forward, always trying to do the next thing just a little bit better.  In a practical sense, on the advice of some very clever coaches I worked with once, I do try to review the evidence every now again and remind myself of my achievements. Realising that the standards one sets for oneself often far exceed those set by others can also help put things in perspective.

How do you balance the different activities and tasks you need to perform?

There is no simple answer to this. I keep my diary up to date and have a list of active and pending tasks. I assign tasks to days up to a week ahead. If they don’t get done, I roll them over to the next day with no judgement. I try to balance my week with a mixture of activities and give the science (reading, writing, analysis, project meetings etc) priority above the administration whenever possible. I do rely on lists. Lots of lists………

What do you think is the most important character trait in a successful STEMM academic researcher?

I don’t think success in STEMM academia necessarily requires different character traits than in other fields and success can look different for different people. Motivation is critical. A vision of what you are trying to achieve is important, so you know when you have had success. The ability to find or make opportunities for yourself is also helpful. Resilience is important in research which is driven by constant peer review and a feeling of being judged. Understanding that success is almos always preceded by rejection can help with moving forward.

LinkedIn: Kathryn Burdon

Twitter: @kathrynpenelope

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