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#STEMStories: Dr. Madeline, Plant Scientist, Australia

#STEMStories: Dr. Madeline, Plant Scientist, Australia

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

My name is Dr Madeline Mitchell and I’m a plant scientist at CSIRO in Canberra, Australia. I use biotechnology and synthetic biology to make new crops to benefit consumers, farmers and the environment. My current research focuses on engineering cotton fibres with new and unique properties so we can have biodegradable, renewable alternatives to polluting, plastic-based artificial fibres. Wherever my career takes me in the future, I hope to contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of agriculture.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

The simple story is that I was a kid who loved nature, who studied science as an undergraduate, who was lucky enough to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge and then get a job at CSIRO, Australia’s national science organisation.

But I didn’t grow up thinking I would become a scientist, mostly because I had such a range of interests. In high school, I studied French, literature and art as well as biology, chemistry and maths. At university, I studied history and philosophy of science, French and literature as well as plant sciences and molecular biology and biochemistry. I was drawn to study plants because they are so fundamental to agriculture and ecosystems and I realised I wanted to do something practical.

While I love my job now, I’m on a fixed-term contract so I’m not sure whether I’ll continue as a researcher or whether I will move into other science-related areas. The uncertainty can be challenging, but I also know that studying and working in science has given me lots of skills that are valuable outside the lab.

In the glasshouse with cotton plants. Image credit: CSIRO

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

My work is intellectually engaging and I get to keep learning and being creative. I also enjoy the variety, flexibility and independence of my days. I love being part of the scientific community – this group of bright, engaged people – and also connecting with the wider community about my research. I want my science to make a positive contribution to the world so I am always interested in what value the public sees in it and how I could do better.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

Having a supportive network of friends, family and colleagues has been vital. They are there to hear my concerns, to provide practical advice and, very importantly, to make me laugh and have fun.

Research can be very slow, and failure can feel quite personal, so it’s good to have people around who remind me that I am much more than my work. It’s also great to have a community of peers who understand my frustrations and with whom I can also celebrate the wins. Simple as it sounds, I also make sure I eat well, get enough sleep, exercise and do things I enjoy.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

My role models in science are the people who are passionate about science and generous in their support of others. I am lucky to have been involved in two programs for women in STEM – the global leadership program, Homeward Bound, and Superstars of STEM – that have provided me with wonderful role models. I am now connected to hundreds of diverse and inspiring women who exemplify so many ways of being successful.

Me on trapeze. Having interests outside of work is important and I love the playfulness and challenge of aerial circus.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

Develop your own definitions of success. When I was younger, I often compared myself to others and allowed this to influence my own goals and sense of self-worth. I worried a lot about ‘failing’ and not living up to others’ expectations. I missed opportunities, held back from connecting with people and found it hard to enjoy or appreciate my achievements.

I still have doubts and compare myself to others sometimes, but I am generally more confident in myself with clear ideas about why I do what I do.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Stay curious. You probably already are, or you wouldn’t be interested in STEM, but it’s important to maintain this quality. Staying curious keeps you engaged and asking “why?” and “what if?”, which are important skills for STEM professionals. You won’t always know the answer, which can be exciting and the start of new ideas! At this stage, too, there are probably whole areas of STEM or jobs you’ve never heard of so keep an open mind about where your interests lie.
  2. Build an awareness of what you like to do, what you’re good at and what gives you energy. You might like theoretical studies or physically making things, doing pure research or trying to solve technical problems. There is a lot of variety in STEM so knowing your preferences will help you find your niche.
  3. Remember that studying and working in STEM can lead to so many opportunities and career paths other than becoming a traditional researcher. You might end up applying your skills in areas like policy, research management or education.

8. How do you measure your success?

Success for me is living a life that is consistent with my values. I want to help create a kinder, healthier world through my career and through my relationships with colleagues, family and friends. Research outcomes are important to me but so is advocating for a more diverse and inclusive culture in STEM. I hope to successfully influence for the benefit of others and support the next generation of STEM professionals.

As part of my work to make crease-free cotton, I want to make a new, stretchy building block and send it to the plant cell wall. This image was taken using a confocal microscope and shows my new building block in the walls of leaf epidermal cells (blue) with chloroplasts in yellow/orange for reference. You can also see the outlines of the long thin cells of the leaf veins running through the middle of the image and the rings of chloroplasts inside the guard cells (stomata). Image credit: Madeline Mitchell and Vivien Rolland

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

My work profile has links to some articles and interviews - You can also search for “CSIRO no iron cotton” or something similar and you’ll find news articles.
My social media accounts.

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Twitter: @MaddiePlantSci