Melanie Thomson

STEMM PROFILE: Dr Melanie Thomson | Microbiologist and Science Communicator | Deakin University | Geelong | VIC

Mel and plate
Dr Melanie Thomson [Image: Deakin University]

“I overcame … artificial barriers erected by the naysayers, by demonstrating that they were incorrect to assume they could decide my goals for me”

Dr Mel Thomson completed her Honours degree in microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne (1998). She then migrated to the UK where she worked on various projects as diverse as allergy and cancer before undertaking further studies. She completed a Masters of Research then a PhD in microbial genetic regulation in Neisseria species, both at University of York, UK. After the award of her PhD in 2009, she became interested the host-pathogen interactions at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine, UK.

Dr Thomson returned to Australia in 2011 to start her own research group at Deakin Medical School and is now situated in the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases. A passionate science communicator, she has recently become a national ‘torch bearer’ for the concept of crowd funding academic research, which a track record of three successful ‘Pozible’ crowd funding campaigns, ‘Mighty Maggots’, ‘Hips 4 Hipsters’ and ‘No more Poo Taboo’. She is involved with advocacy as an Executive Member for Women in Science AUSTRALIA and occasionally offers ‘Twitter mentoring’ services to early career researchers.

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

People – often paternalistic senior men in my experience – trying to dissuade me from achieving my ambitions. Comments like ‘You’re too nice, why do you want to do a PhD?’ and ‘I don’t see you as an academic leading your own research group’ are two that stick in my mind from my early days. Thankfully, I’m stubborn and refuse to be pigeon-holed by the roles that other people have picked out for me (which are generally servile in nature!). I overcame these artificial barriers erected by the naysayers, by demonstrating that they were incorrect to assume they could decide my goals for me.

What is the biggest challenge to all women pursuing a career in science?

The persistence of the ‘gate keeper’ culture, enforced by the concept of the ‘meritocracy’. It seems to me that you need to be brilliant as well as have the right ‘patronage’. It’s my impression that early or mid-career women in science are often offered the weaker version of ‘mentorship’ versus the full endorsement and real world support of a senior patron. This may be due to implicit or explicit cultural biases within the industry, combined with the pervasive social conditioning of some women, to wait for their talents to be noticed, instead of being proactive, to seek such arrangements.

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

Curiosity.

What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?

Emotional resilience and self-reflection are both equally important attributes, to survive the hard knocks, and learn from your mistakes, in the science industry. My life outside of science has landed on me several ‘hits’ that give me perspective and subsequently provide me with on-going personal strength, to persist in the face of adversity.

What support structures did/do you have in place that have facilitated your success?

The ability to have flexible living arrangements, to allow me to grasp out-of-hours networking opportunities and travel for conference invitations as they arise. I currently have a stay at home partner, so I can at times live the ‘1950’s Man’ model of domestic arrangements, as all childcare, cleaning and food shopping is done by my spouse. It was something that I learned from the only two female professors with children, who I met during my PhD. Both had home making spouses to support them to focus on ‘playing the game’ as it currently stands, which benefits those who have this arrangement. I recognise that I am privileged in this regard, and wish that more successful scientists of all genders would also recognise this advantage in their own careers. I also recognise that it is an out dated paradigm and far from ideal, particularly in light of the increasing economic necessity of maintaining two incomes.  

Connect with Mel on LinkedIn: Melanie Thomson

Follow Mel on Twitter: @DrMel_T