STEMM Profile: Kathy Nicholson | Chief Operating Officer | Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics | Adelaide | SA

Dr Kathy Nicholson

“We need to learn to trust individuals to balance their own lives, and not mandate 20th Century work rules on the 21st century work force”

High quality scientific research is crucial for the continued growth of a strong, healthy and sustainable communities. As Chief Operating Officer for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) my day job enables me to promote, support and encourage amazing science and scientists.

While passionate about assisting academic researchers achieve success, I also work towards influencing both local and national STEM issues including: gender, equity and diversity; non-academic STEM careers and promoting the breadth of a PhD graduates translatable skills; and evolving the conversation from research commercialisation to research utilisation.

I trained as a scientist, earning a Bachelor of Science with Honours (BSc Hon) from Adelaide University and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in microbiology from Monash University with CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories (AAHL). I completed 2-years of postdoctoral training at the Weill-Cornell Medical School in New York City before transitioning through a range of non-academic STEM roles including Director Life Sciences at the New York Academy of Sciences; Development Manager, RiAus; Senior Research Grants Manager, The University of Adelaide and my current role as the CNBP’s Chief Operating Officer. I am also a mentor with the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

As well as being a dedicated Mum to George (born 2012) and Lily (born 2016) my personal interests extend to: STEM activities for children; outdoor fun including hiking, camping and nature play, travel, cooking, gardening and creating unique mosaic art for my garden.

What has been the biggest barrier you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

The need to constantly evolve to ensure work and life are semi-balanced. I was living in the New York City when I chose to leave Academia. Through networking, volunteering and perseverance I found a fantastic opportunity at the New York Academy of Sciences running scientific conferences – a position which I grew from a job title of “conference organiser” to “Director, Life Sciences” over four years. My next barrier was finding a similarly rewarding role home in Australia. Again through networking, putting myself “out there” and a willingness to pivot my skills, I accepted a role as Development Manager at the RiAus in Adelaide.

What are you most proud of in your STEMM career?

I am proud of the nurturing environment that I have helped to create at the CNBP. I am arming a new generation of students and ECRs to be considerate of issues such as: unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion and I am exposing them to a range of STEM career options. Thanks to the Professional Development activities that I organise my members appreciate the challenges and opportunities available to them as STEM PhD graduates. They have the skills and the knowledge to make informed choices about their careers moving forward.

How can we change the organisational culture to improve balancing personal and professional commitments and be more inclusive of a diverse range of women?

We need to learn to trust individuals to balance their own lives, and not mandate 20th Century work rules on the 21st century work force. The majority of STEM professionals work more than the required 40 hr work week. So why require individuals to be “in the office” from 9-5? Why should non-Christians be required to take annual leave based on the Christian calendar with public holidays and annual leave over Easter and Christmas? By empowering individuals to do their job, their way, on their own timelines we can increase accessibility and embrace increased diversity in the work force.

What are your transferable skills from your PhD?

The most translatable skills that I learnt as a PhD student were how to identify and solve problems. Other valuable skills were: Resilience, Collaboration, Communication and Project management. Having “learnt how to find solutions” as a PhD student, I have self-taught multiple skills including: Leadership, Management, Marketing, Financial Management, HR and Legal literacy.

What do you love most about your professional role in STEMM?

I have the best job in the world because I support people who are passionate about what they do. After five years working with the same team I’ve witnessed student’s transition from newby to graduate – and witnessed first-hand their passion, pain and achievements.

I have been instrumental in developing policies and procedures such as a family friendly travel grant, and seen the impact that these policies have for individuals. CNBP’s success is made up of lots of small and big stories from over 200 members, and I am the repository for reporting our success.

LinkedIn: Kathy Nicholson


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