Choosing life before career no barrier to success

UQ's Dr Barbara George-Jaeggli writes about the importance of a good support network, and the changes needed so parents don't have to choose between career and caring.

I’ve never had a career plan, but I’ve always known what I like doing. This meant my career had to fit around my life and not the other way around.

I grew up in Switzerland and was always interested in farming, nature and animals, even though I don’t have a rural background. I contemplated studying veterinary science or agronomy, but chose a master’s degree in biology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. Not because Einstein studied there, but because I didn’t have to choose between zoology or botany, but could tailor the program to suit my interests across many life science subjects.

During my master’s year I worked on a project looking at the conservation of agricultural weeds that have cultural, historical and ecological importance in Switzerland. On a recent trip I could see the fruits of this labour in the form of wheat and barley fields dotted with red poppies and blue cornflowers - a sight that had just about disappeared from the European landscape when I grew up.

I was just about to embark on a PhD when I met my now husband, who was in Switzerland on a farm exchange from Australia. We decided to put off my study and work towards buying a farm in Australia.

In 1996 we moved to a small but very pretty farm in rural Queensland. Our intention was to raise beef cattle and to prop up the business with eco-tourism. It never got to the eco-tourism bit, as I realised that the then Department of Primary Industries operated an agricultural research station not far from us.

I asked whether they had a job for a biologist and soon after started as a casual research assistant at the Hermitage Research Station in Warwick. When a full-time technical position in the biotechnology laboratory came up we decided that I’d apply and my husband would look after the small farm and our two young sons.

Working in a technical role meant I could do my 37 hours per week without worrying about applying for funding or running my own research group. That allowed me to spend time with my children and to help on the farm on weekends. By the time the boys reached school age my husband was ready to go back to work, and I was offered an industry scholarship to undertake a PhD in sorghum crop physiology. Studying for my PhD meant I could organise my time around the children and do my share of after-school care while catching up on my study on weekends. During the extended summer school holidays when I spent hours in the field for my experiments, my parents usually visited from Switzerland to help look after the boys.

After receiving my PhD in 2009, I applied for a permanent research position, but worked part time for a few years to still have some time for the boys and the farm. Once the boys had finished school, I went back to full-time work and in 2015 joined UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. I’m currently a co-investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Translational Photosynthesis which brings together researchers working on different aspects of photosynthesis from lead institutions across Australia and internationally.

I feel privileged to work with world leaders in the field and I didn’t even have to move from where I wanted to live.  

While there was a fair bit of luck involved, I think the strategy of building my career around my life rather than the other way around has worked well for me. I also think that biology was an excellent choice in that it gave me the basics to adapt to just about any area in the life sciences anywhere in the world.

My proudest achievement is to see the relationship my husband has with our now grown sons. He really cherished the chance to be the primary carer when they were very young. I also think sharing bread-winning, caring responsibilities and house and farm duties has made us an excellent team.

It’s said women often face increasing challenges as their careers progress. A large part of that is because many of us have to juggle work and family commitments, but in funding applications, job applications and progression we’re compared with people who’ve had more time to devote to their work. As more and more positions are short-term contracts and securing the next contract relies on winning research grants dependent on previous research output, it affects not just how high women can climb the career ladder, but becomes existential for any employment at all. Beyond family, that affects our entire society.

For the next generation of researchers in STEMM and other areas, I really hope there’ll be enough job security and that we start rewarding things other than quantity of work output so that women and men(!) can choose to slow their career and take on more family responsibility, or follow other life pursuits without risking their entire career. As for me, I’m still young enough to go full steam ahead with my career, but if funding happens to run out, look out for those eco-cabins on a small farm near Warwick.

Dr George-Jaeggli has a Master of Science degree in Biology and a PhD in Crop Physiology. She’s a Research Fellow for the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. She works to increase crop yields in variable environments.