The road travelled.
Trial and error, luck, principles and passion. And a few speed bumps. ACT Scientist of the Year Sophie Lewis writes about her career journey, so far.
I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was four years old. My parents took me stargazing as a young child in the hope of glimpsing Halley’s Comet. We trudged for some time through the open grassy fields and then we waited, and we waited. It was a pale, grey night. In our part of the world, thick banks of cloud masked the comet’s voyage across our skies and there was nothing to be seen that night, but still I was thrilled and became hooked on science.
Over the following years, my family spent a lot of time in the foothills of the Australian Alps. On trips to the country I collected furiously — old bones or teeth, snake skins, tadpoles, feathers, leaves, seed pods, river stones, freshwater yabbies: anything I could get my hands on. My uncle gave me a microscope and slide-making kit, and then a few years later, my grandmother gifted me a small telescope. At any moment, a rock might reveal a fossil and a starry night might show me a particularly breath-taking meteorite.
At high school I studied as much science and maths as I could. A pocketful of seed pods and beetle casings was replaced by notebook sketches of Bunsen burners, atomic models and calculus.
An Honours degree, PhD and postdoc followed. Then another postdoc and a grant to start my own research program. Looking back on these decades, my journey to scientist seems to make sense. It’s textbook really! I wanted to be a scientist and pursued my goal and now I’m doing it.
But there have been speed bumps and bunny hops. Or as my wife would call them — Sophie-isms!
Speed bumps and bunny hops.
In later high school I attended a science camp where engineering, I decided, would be for me. It would be just perfect. It’s just like science, except you get a job at the end… Except it’s not science: it turns out engineering is engineering. I stumbled my way through 18 months — there was the week after week of picking the wrong pencil during drafting classes and getting atrocious marks in return. There was the accident with the hot glue gun when building a prototype. And then there was the particularly ill-designed gantry. Eventually I realised it wasn’t for me and transferred over to science and we are all safer for it!
A few years later, I had my heart set on a particular honours project. My plans were delayed when I suffered a serious bout of flu that left me in bed for over five weeks. One morning I woke with a sudden change of heart about my project. A flurry of emails sent from my sickbed, and I took a sharp turn with another supervisor.
After my Honours year, I accepted an offer into a PhD program at the Australian National University. I knew nothing about ANU, I didn’t have a project, or a supervisor lined up, and I knew next to nothing about Canberra. Unsurprisingly, my PhD research changed directions several times, and my supervisor too, in rather difficult circumstances. A misplaced but valuable specimen and a sample sneezed off the high-precision scales taught me that lab work wasn’t for me.
But I persisted, found my way through and discovered what I loved and what I didn’t.
Professor David Karoly offered me a research position at Melbourne Uni, and I couldn’t say no: the chance to tackle problems around climate change that had been on my mind for over a decade. How are extreme weather and climate events changing and what’s in store for our future?
Once again, all the furniture was packed up and travelled down the Hume Highway. It was an exciting time intellectually. But two years later, when it was clear my partner’s PhD thesis needed to be tackled back in Canberra, the couch got another trip back up the Hume.
There have been many more times since that I’ve taken off from the traffic lights in the wrong gear, hit the curb or missed a turn-off. Even a textbook career in science is filled with wrong turns and speed bumps, and in my case, I’ll admit the career equivalent of lousy driving.
Taking some time to stop and look back on what worked and what didn’t, it turns out — in my experience at least — that a career in science involves a lot of the same scientific thinking needed to do the research itself.
What do I mean by this? What worked for me?
Trial and error:
It took me some time to find out what I loved and what I didn’t, what I was good at and what I clearly wasn’t. It took some testing to work out my values and my ambitions. Just like a scientific hypothesis requires testing, so did my career. Every time I’ve had a failure, or made a mistake, I’ve found myself grateful a few years later. And in many cases, the more catastrophic the failure, the greater the gratitude. Sometimes I had to wait years until I was grateful, but it happened. Most times in our careers, a u-turn can be made, a decision unmade, a trajectory reversed, if we are simply brave enough to try.
Luck is critical in science — paying attention to the right data at the right time, selecting the right sample during field work, or beating another group to publish a snazzy result. Luck has defined my career. I have been lucky to get grants, and to get jobs, and I was lucky to receive the ACT Scientist of the Year award. More than my career luck, I’ve had a lot of luck in life. Parents and educators who loved me and encouraged my passions. And then luckiest of all, I was invited by a friend to a random house party that turned out to be a birthday party for my future wife!
Just like scientists follow key scientific principles about reproducibility and testability of our data, principles are important for our careers. I found that I must abide by my principles in the work I do. I always try to act with integrity in the science I do and the way I relate to others, but it can be hard sometimes to be a good scientist and a good person. Science is not always kind, welcoming or accessible for everyone. My guiding principles include kindness and generosity in our work practices. I don’t always get it right, but I try to build others up and I try to give my time to everyone — the public, students and other researchers.
Just like any aspect of our lives, without passion for our work, we can’t persist, and we won’t be there for the luck. Nearly two years ago we were lucky enough to become parents to a loving, feisty, angry, happy, sassy kid. She has focused my work and passion intently on issues of the environment and sustainability.
In the two years since my daughter was born, literally hundreds of temperature records have been broken in Australia.
Over the last 150 years or so, we’ve experienced about one degree of global warming. One degree of global temperature increase doesn’t sound like much when the weather changes by five, ten or even twenty degrees from day to day.
But that one degree of global warming has a very large impact on weather and climate extremes in particular locations. And it’s these climate system extremes that our health, infrastructure, industries and ecosystems are most vulnerable to.
Global warming doesn’t mean no more BBQs and beers on warm summer evenings or trips to the beach. This excess heat has a very nasty sting.
It’s heatwaves, not bushfires or floods, that are Australia’s most deadly disasters. Extreme heat pushes our ability to cope, leading to increased hospital admissions and deaths. Extreme heat pushes our agricultural and manufacturing industries and stresses our native ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef. Extreme heat also occurs with enhanced bushfire and drought risks, that compound impacts.
By necessity, my daughter gives me great optimism about our future and a way to see through this grief. We must do better for her. At the same time, our children are demanding we do so, empowering themselves to take on their extreme climate futures.