Recorded: 17 Jan 2003
And then later, I think, coming back as I said I had this, you know, huge boost upwards in being a little bit of a pioneer in recombinant DNA work in Australia, in his background of you know success I guess and some good papers and so on that came out of my work. So that really helped me a lot for a number of years. I think that I’m not really conscious that I personally had any particular problems as a woman—just because I was a woman in progressing through the next phase. I think though for me and certainly for people now, experimental science is a really hard “ask” for anybody. And perhaps more so for women unless they find themselves you know in a particular type of domestic environment.
My most recent job before this one at the university, I continually saw couples, scientific couples, who had come back to Australia maybe one or other of them had the main academic appointment, the other one had some slightly lesser appointment but it was usually the female, I have to say. And then of course being around 30 when they came back they’d be ready to start a family and how often it happened that the man kept working hard at his academic job. The woman went off, had the children, and really found it very hard to break back into a good job at the end of that process while juggling the demands of scientific work. So it became very much a decision for those couples that one or other of them had to be the person that succeeded and the other person took a lesser role.
And interestingly over time some of them have evened up again. And I think that’s really fantastic that that’s happened, but I think it is a hard road. Lab work is very demanding and it’s certainly not 9-to-5. You’ve really got to be able to be there to do the experiments. I mean on many occasions in the past I’ve done all night experiments where you just had to do something every two hours and you had to be there. You had to be able to travel to present your work and find out what’s going on elsewhere. You had to be flexible about all sorts of things. And that’s pretty tough for any person, male or female to do that. So unless you can really organize a supportive environment which gives you the scope to do that then it’s hard. And it’s not only a woman issue, it’s just that more traditionally women have ended up being the compromisers.
But I must say in my own situation a few things happened. One was that I ended up in a very supportive domestic environment so that was great. The second thing was that I didn’t have any children until I was quite late in—not until I was 39, actually, which was about the last possible moment. But it all went fine. By then, of course, I was sufficiently established and my partner was sufficiently established that we could afford to buy help. We had a nanny and all of those things which allowed me to go back to work pretty much straight away, pretty much as full on as I’d been before and very quickly. Absolutely as full on as I had been previously.
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.