On why successful women doubt themselves:

three valuable lessons

It takes a village to raise an award-winning female scientist. L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow, Jacq Romero, talks honestly about the realities of her scientific life, her husband, her children and her feelings of inadequacy, which she struggled to overcome. She is now recognised as one of Australia’s top women scientists.

It has been a great pleasure to be named as one of the four L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellows this year. I am grateful for the response that I received from friends, colleagues and the wider public. Being an inspiration is not really something that I consciously aspire to, that I could be one is a great honour indeed!

It is almost surreal when I recall now how I came to apply for this award.

I moved to Australia in July of 2015 with my husband and two young boys from Scotland. Less than a year after we moved, I took a maternity leave to give birth to our third son. Coping with these life changes has not been easy, and I was feeling so unproductive — despite successfully starting a new experimental vein in our research group and starting my Discovery Early Career Researcher Award fellowship before I went on maternity leave.

Credit for above figure: D Giovannini

Credit for above figure: D Giovannini

It just seems funny now, but when I first wrote the application for this award, I was not mainly thinking of the excellent work that I have done, but of the inadequateness that I felt! I know I am a good scientist, I have a track record to prove it — and now I know that the jury of the L’Oreal-UNESCO prize agree! — but still I was filled with uncertainty then.

Thankfully, I have great mentor in Professor Andrew White. More than myself, I think he was convinced that I could win the fellowship. I am also lucky that we have a past winner in our School, Professor Tamara Davis. I knew that this is a prestigious fellowship and that the competition would be tough.

“Is there a chance that I can win?” I asked her if I should apply.

Above figure: D Giovannini

Professor Tamara Davis

Professor Tamara Davis

Professor Tamara Davis said it is indeed tough competition. She served as a jury member one year and there were about 100 applicants for four fellowships.

Tamara Davis

Tamara Davis

And so, with the help of Andrew, Tamara, and UQ’s Research and Innovation support, I refined my application and submitted it to compete against what turned out to be a pool of 400 applicants this year!

Dr Romero accepts her award: credit L’Oreal Australia

Dr Romero accepts her award: credit L’Oreal Australia

Winning the prize certainly has had a positive effect on my career, but more importantly, it has had a positive effect on the way I view and evaluate myself.

Dr Jaqc Romero with Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences Professor Kaye Basford: Credit L’Oreal Australia

Dr Jaqc Romero with Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences Professor Kaye Basford: Credit L’Oreal Australia

“If you don’t apply, the chance of winning is zero,” Professor Davis told me.

Photo credit: L’Oreal Australia

Three important lessons I learned:

  1. The truth is, as scientists, it is all too easy to feel sub-par when projects and papers are not moving along as quickly as you hoped for. It is all too easy to compare yourself against your peers – who are in a completely different situation – not realising that this is like comparing apples to oranges. As a result, you can massively underestimate your value and achievements. Lucky are those who, like me, have mentors to remind them that they are good.

  2. Sometimes, it helps to not focus on the odds. I was very nervous when I learned that the chance of winning this fellowship was less than 4/100. Thanks to Tamara, I appreciated that four per cent is very different from zero per cent. As it turned out, one per cent is very different from zero per cent – sometimes, you really just have to take the leap!

  3. No matter how much you achieve, there is always something that has to be done. When I told my eldest son that I won the award, he asked me what did I have to do to win. My succinct answer was that I worked hard! When I started as a scientist, I did not set winning the L’Oreal-UNESCO Fellowship as a goal.

My victory was built on little achievements that then lead to greater achievements and so on.

Before you conclude that I am a superhero, I want to say that I have a very supportive husband who does his fair share of household chores and childcare.

Being with someone who values your career as much as you do, and who is willing to show that in a practical way is of utmost importance if we are to engage more women in science.

My husband does the laundry, he irons the shirts, bathes the kids – he is a partner in the domestic tasks of everyday as it should be!

Also, like any other human being, I have good days and bad days. There are days when I wish my children will just sleep right away so I can have quiet time. My husband left for a conference in the USA while I was finishing up my DECRA application – and my son doesn’t go to sleep early; nor sleep through the night!

I clearly remember writing while breastfeeding (it’s possible at the expense of some backache afterwards!). It did drive me mad!

There are days when I feel like an experiment is so difficult I just wish for the ground beneath my feet to cave! But then, I pick up my toddler at the end of the day and he is just so excited to see me.

I feel like I am the most important person in the world, it becomes so easy to forget that lab was a failure that day! On the bad days, I have learnt to let go, and just try to be better the next day.

No matter how cliché it is, if we live the days well, the years will take care of themselves.