Recently, I've been thinking a lot about human centred design, and how the past two years I've effectively re-designed (or re-engineered?) a career change path that better reflects my values, enables me to stay involved in select astronomy projects, and enables me to work on new challenges with the aim of making a positive impact on the world. It's rare that people have the opportunity to that. Some may see it as completely self-indulgent, others may see it as finding a new calling, others might call it a mid-life career crisis.
But the more people I meet, the more I discover that I'm not the only one who is forging a new and unique pathway to a successful career. Nearly every week I meet people who are eschewing the well-trodden career path and flipping their lifestyle and careers in unexpected ways. For academic researchers this can be a challenge. Leaving the field is often seen as being negative – a failure of sorts, and proof of the "publish or perish" mantra. It can also lead to somewhat of an existential crisis, since much of what you do quickly becomes "your identity" whether you want it to or not.
For me the past two years have been an unexpected adventure. I would not have had as many different experiences and opportunities had I not taken a leap into the unknown, and allowed myself to take a break from full-time work. Although I knew I would be ok – at least financially, this was a very bold move. Throughout the year I said "no" to a number of good opportunities, that would have meant settling for the same type of work. Melbourne's growing startup ecosystem and the need for universities and academics to innovate, as well as the rise of data science in academia and tech, have played a major role in re-designing my career. So was the growing realisation that if I were to leave astronomy research – which to a large extent I already had.... it had to be for something amazing. Something meaningful. Purposeful.
There was another reason for this new mindset. In early 2015 my best friend Jo was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She had already gone through round 1 of breast cancer five years earlier so I knew this was bad. She wasn't about to go down without a proper good fight. Then in early 2016 my mum had major heart surgery. Unbeknown to both, they were primary reasons for moving back to Australia. So leaving my role at Swinburne was, in hindsight, a blessing. It meant I could take time off to help look after mum after her heart valve surgery, and I could be on-call to help out Jo and her family. I could drive her to and from the Alfred, keep her company during chemo sessions, support her during oncology and x-ray appointments, take her out for morning coffee and Jaffles at Stereo Cafe of Coffee Traders, do the kinder drop off and pick up, hang out on thee couch, make cups of tea and gossip about more light-hearted and seemingly inconsequential things.
A year of self-learning, new experiences, and pursuing new opportunities:
- I had the opportunity to take on a number of consulting projects.
- I spent time working at Inspire9 – Richmond and One Roof – Melbourne soaking in the startup freelance culture and meeting talented and interesting people, relentlessly pursuing their passions.
- I spent considerable time learning about and understanding Melbourne's startup ecosystem. I attended numerous Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), Melbourne Conversations, Startup Vic, and Launch Vic events, and digested white papers & reports.
- I met many of the influencers throughout Melbourne's tech community, including the amazingly talented people behind Girl Geek Academy, Fitzroy Academy, That Startup Show, Pause Fest, and Future Assembly.
- Thanks to the Fitzroy Academy, I had the privilege of attending Pause Fest – Australia's premier Creative, Tech and Business conference. I blown away by many of the speakers, notably
- I spoke at Future Assembly – Australia's emergent technology festival. I met the incredibly clever and innovative team behind Saber Astronautics. I test rode a Tesla.
- Iworked with social enterprises and non-profit organisations to develop tech solutions for social challenges.
- I had the privilege of presenting a talk about Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) to technologists at Zendesk (one of RHoKs three national sponsors), alongside fellow RHoK organiser Cal Foulner. As part of RHoK, I also worked with Free to Feed, to overcome technical barriers that were affecting their ability to scale up.
- I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Bay Area reconnecting with old friends, astronomers, and data scientists. I spent a week at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS), learning about data science techniques and tools in academia and industry, machine learning algorithms from an astrophysical "big data" perspective, code optimisation and various other bits'n'bobs. As part of this I had the opportunity to spend a day working at GitHub HQ in SOMA, on new creative coding projects, and to gain insight into what it's like to work for a world leading software company.
- I spent considerable time learning about data science roles and teams in business and tech; understanding what the priorities are, what companies are driven by, how to build effective data science teams, how data scientists work with product and engineering teams, and the value of building cross-functional teams.
- I learned a lot about product, how teams are and should be built, and where product sits within startups and more established tech companies.
- I had the opportunity to learn and practise human centred design methodologies in a variety of contexts; mainly through my work with RHoK partner organisations and non-profits, and working with a small team as part of my IDEO +Acumen Human Centred Design course. I also figured out that it is possible to have a successful career in both data science and human centred design (my ideal role), and that many organisations and companies are embracing this already.
- I had the honour of presenting at the .Astronomy9 conference in Cape Town, and working with incredibly talented and fun research students and postdocs from South Africa, the UK and US. I had the opportunity to explore the South Western Cape, visited a number of national parks and wildlife refuges. I also hugged an African elephant... or rather he hugged me.
It's been a great two years. I didn't achieve everything I set out to do, but it gave me the time and confidence to jump on opportunities that I otherwise would have had to say to no to. It enabled me to explore potential career paths, and opened the door to new experiences and new people.
In most cases I made them happen. They weren't just handed to me for no good reason. All that was required was a shift in mindset, a change of perspective, saying "yes!" to exciting new opportunities, getting out of my comfort zone, and a polite "no" to things that had no real benefit or purpose.
After a full day of Tech Inclusion Melbourne and a Data Science Melbourne panel discussion, a normal person would go home eat dinner and have a bit of rest. I am not normal.
To end a somewhat overwhelming and exhausting day, my friend Mar and I dashed over to Plenary 2 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, just in time for the start of Convergence Science Network's (@ConverSci) latest event: The Science & Ethics of Gene Editing.
This was a fantastic effect and certainly one of the best public science talks I've been to in a long, long time. I didn't know much about gene editing, nor CRISPR-Cas9 but I had heard about it often enough in the news that I knew I wanted to know more. It was a sell-out event. The organisers twice moved it to a much larger venue, in order to fit the diverse audience of ~1700 people, that included high school students. attended the talk. I went away completely and utterly inspired by the magic that is science, and immensely proud to be a woman in science. This weekend I'll be buying Rachel Ignotofsky's Women In Science for my friend's 4 year old daughter. It's never too early to introduce kids to science, and perhaps more importantly introduce them to the people who inspire us.
Professor Jennifer Doudna and Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt talked about genome editing, a technology that is described as a game changes with implications far and wide for society. They are both fantastic science communicators.
Jennifer presented a brief history of CRISPR-Cas9 while raising applications and ethical questions posed by the technology, while Kevin called for greater transparency in science. He also discussed Gene Drives and Daisy Drives, concepts new to many in the audience, in what was a thought provoking presentation.
You can watch all previous talks on the Convergence Science Network YouTube channel
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Melbourne's first Tech Inclusion conference (@techinclusionco). The programme was packed full of incredible speakers, many of whom offered extremely candid and humorous perspectives. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism for the future of tech, a call to arms to change the way we think and act, and an overwhelming sense of unity as we stand up for each other and call out bullshit for what it is – at all levels of the workplace. It was such and an exhausting day and I can't even begin to summarise the key takeaways. Suffice to say there were many fantastic tweets (see #TechInclusion) and a whole new group of remarkably talented and awesome people to follow on Twitter.