For our second instalment to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with Professor Rachel Neale, Group Leader, Cancer Aetiology and Prevention at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Queensland, Australia and Member of the Environmental Effects Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol since 2015. During the interview, Professor Neale advises women and girls considering a career in science to seek mentors who can help and guide them, to be prepared to be flexible, but above all “insist on being recognized for your contributions. Women tend to be very good at getting things done, but not taking the full credit.”
What drew you to science rather than more traditionally accepted societal roles for women?
Rachel Neale presenting to participants at the vitamin D trial
When I was at high school in the 1980s it didn’t occur to me that there were any jobs I could not do; neither did I feel that there were traditionally accepted societal roles for women. My parents encouraged me to believe I could do anything and, perhaps more importantly, my high school did not discriminate between boys and girls. I came to research science via a slightly roundabout route, starting out as a veterinarian. Like many girls who grew up on a farm, riding horses, and watching the popular veterinary TV series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, I dreamed of one day being a vet. I graduated full of optimism, only to discover after a short time as a vet, that I was more interested in the science rather than the practice of veterinary medicine. I embarked on a PhD and stepped on the launch pad for a career as a research scientist.
What were the two main obstacles you encountered in your career as a woman and how did you overcome them?
Obtaining funding to keep my research going has been the biggest obstacle. While this is a challenge for both women and men, the statistics suggest that it disproportionately affects women. There is no single reason for this, but it partly relates to childbearing and the expectation (now starting to change) that women will be the primary carers for young children. I have been lucky to have an incredibly supportive partner who had the flexibility in his career to enable me to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship in Oxford (UK), despite having 2 small daughters. That early experience, along with fabulous mentors, has enabled me to maintain my research program for over 2 decades!
What sacrifices have you had to make to get where you are today, and do you have any regrets?
One of the greatest challenges of maintaining a career as an independent scientist is taking a break without it having a negative career impact. As a consequence, I do feel I sacrificed time with my children. However, I was fortunate to work part-time for a number of years and I certainly don’t regret keeping my career going. It has given me the freedom to be scientifically creative – something I wouldn’t necessarily have had; had I had taken a different path.
What advice, or encouragement, would you give to young girls and women who are considering a career in the sciences?
Science underpins all aspects of our lives, so the opportunities for anybody who has a love of science are vast. Some science careers, such as medicine or engineering, are very applied; others focus on generating new knowledge through research. I would advise those considering a career in science to seek mentors who can help them identify a path that best suits their strengths and passion. It’s also important to have the flexibility to change direction and build on opportunities as they arise. My other advice, for young women in particular, would be to insist on being recognized for your contributions. Women tend to be very good at getting things done, but not taking the full credit.
What has been the highlight - or most memorable event - of your scientific career to date?
The first is my postdoctoral fellowship in Oxford. The time I spent working there will always hold a very special place in my heart. The second is obtaining funding to run Australia’s largest ever clinical trial to assess the effect of vitamin D on health. To be at the helm of the D-Health trial has been an amazing privilege. And finally, it is being made a member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Environmental Effects Assessment Panel. I have met extraordinary scientists, expanded my knowledge well beyond human health, and provided a valuable contribution to the reports informing the parties to the Montreal Protocol.