More than a vessel

Juggling life as a researcher and a single mother has been the biggest challenge faced by UQ Centre for Clinical Research chief investigator Dr Hanna Sidjabat. Ahead of International Women’s Day, Dr Sidjabat shares her journey from an Indonesian student to a researcher in Australia.

Women play an important role in shaping the next generation, not least of all because they are the vessels for delivering babies into the world.

In the majority of families, mothers play the primary role in raising and educating children, and I believe that women educate their children even during pregnancy. Particularly in the first two years of life, education is important for a child; but at the same time a mother may have a strong desire to be a scientist, researcher or business leader.

Both roles require a lot of time and effort.

In my case, I was born into a family with conservative and traditional Indonesian values, where the common aim for women was to get married and have children. When I graduated from my bachelor’s degree in the 1980s, I knew I wanted to study overseas. I checked the noticeboard at my university every day to see what opportunities were out there. During my third year, I started looking at scholarships to study in Australia, but my family insisted that I get married prior to studying overseas, so I applied for a scholarship and planned my wedding.

I started my studies in Brisbane, less than four months after getting married in 1993, and my son was born in 1996 while I did my master’s degree. I completed my master’s degree, but seven years after getting married my husband passed away.

It was my mum who encouraged me to study a Higher Degree by Research and rekindled my dream to become a researcher. She sent me an advertisement about an Australian scholarship when I was working as a lecturer in Jakarta, and my parents then accompanied me when I moved to Australia with my son in 2003.

My parents helped me find somewhere to live in Brisbane when I started my PhD, and when I graduated in December, 2007, they came to my graduation.

I will never forget seeing them in our traditional costume walking between the cloisters of the Great Court to attend my PhD graduation ceremony.

A few days after my graduation, I went to Pittsburgh, USA, to gain some training as suggested by Professor David Paterson, whose lab I would later work in. The work at the Division of Infectious Diseases in Pittsburgh provided me with a great experience and prepared me for my future work in setting up a laboratory in Brisbane. I was also able to make arrangements for my son’s schooling in Pittsburgh and he joined me.

It has always been important for me to have my son close by to my workplace or our home so that I can manage my family and research life.

We were able to enjoy sightseeing in the US and then in June 2009, we came back to Brisbane and I began my new appointment as a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Paterson. Along with PhD student Dr Benjamin Rogers, we were the only researchers, but it didn’t take too long before the next students enrolled. In 2015, I worked for one year for two groups. From January 2016 until July 2017, I worked only for the otorhinolaryngology (the study of diseases of the ear, nose, and throat) group.

In August 2017, I started my own research group and now one of my greatest achievements is witnessing my students complete their studies.

I’m also very proud to have published 80 peer-reviewed articles.

But my proudest moment has been watching my son, Joshua Tambunan, begin as an Engineering and Science student at UQ in 2014.

Watching him pursue his dreams in electrical engineering and entrepreneurship as well as his voluntary social activities means as much to me as pursuing my own dreams in research.

Learn more about my work at my website (still under construction) mcprobioticdd.com (my son created this for me). Visit my team on Facebook at facebook.com/probioticDD twitter @DrHannaSidjabat.