Merilyn Sleigh on Advice to Young Scientists
  Merilyn Sleigh     Biography    
Recorded: 17 Jan 2003

Of course, you know, science is a lot of hard work particularly experimental science and anybody who really wants to succeed in science has to be prepared and able to put that hard work in. It means a lot of flexibility and often being quite hard hearted. I think if you’re choosing, for example, a place to do a Ph.D., then you don’t choose the city you want to live in—you choose the lab which is going to be the most productive, that has a really good track record, where the supervisor is well known to be good with students, to publish a lot, I mean, all of those things—those boxes that you have to take in your early career. You really have to focus very hard on how to get those boxes ticked and it often isn’t by working with the person you like the most; it’s working with a person who’s got those achievements there. So making the right decisions is really important and of course getting advice from people but most young students really aren’t very good at that. And so finding people to help you is really important so a mentor, an advisor, people that will encourage you and give you moral support in making the decisions that are really important.

I think moving on self confidence is really important and to do whatever it is that you need to establish that self-confidence, setting yourself challenges and showing yourself that you can succeed. And then I would say once you’ve worked through your Ph.D., your postdoc, you really—there comes a time when you have to make some decisions around whether you really enjoy lab science, whether you’ve got the continued enthusiasm to go on renewing yourself as an experimental scientist. I think it’s actually a very difficult thing to continually have inspiration about experimental science. The people who really go on and have long careers in science have that continual questioning enthusiasm moving onto the next step always from the science they’re doing.

Other people and perhaps I’m one of them are challenged by shorter term questions and then find it as interesting to move to a totally new question once you’ve solved that one as to add the next increment to the first question.

And so my own—where I’ve ended up I suppose reflects more that liking immediate challenges or problems to solve and then moving on, whereas the people who I see succeeding in experimental science really had more of that, you know, the lateral thinking, the broader scientific curiosity and continual excitement about where their science is going. So I think that either direction is perfectly acceptable. You can find a really fantastic job going either way but it’s a good idea to really analyze yourself early on and decide which type of person are you.

Merilyn Sleigh is a pharmacologist, molecular biologist and dean in the Department of Life Sciences at the University of New South Wales. After completing her Ph.D. at the University of Sydney in pharmacology and another PhD in molecular biology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), she came to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work under Joe Sambrook as a postdoctoral fellow researching the protein production of SV40. She returned to CSIRO, establishing one of the first laboratories in Australia using genetic engineering approaches to study influenza virus structure, evolution and gene regulation. She has become involved in developing the biotechnological industry in Australia. Sleigh is founding director of the Australian Biotechnology Association and is currently Chief Executive of EvoGenix, a start-up biotechnology company located in Australia.