Published online 5 July 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.330

News: Q&A

The next trailblazer of Australian science

Suzanne Cory is the first woman to take on the top job at the Australian Academy of Science.

Suzanne CoryCory will continue to lead her research team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute while serving as AAS president.The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

Suzanne Cory became the first elected female president of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) on 7 May. Hers is the latest in a string of recent appointments that have seen women installed in top Australian scientific posts, including that of the chief scientist for Australia and the head of CSIRO, the nation's largest research network (see 'Change of guard for Australian science').

Originally from Melbourne, Cory pursued her molecular biology interests at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and later at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She returned to Australia in 1971 with her researcher husband, Jerry Adams, to work on the genetic basis of antibody diversity at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne. In the 1980s, the pair turned their attention to cancer, making significant inroads into understanding the genes that control cancer and cell death. Cory, who retired as director of WEHI last year, will continue to lead her research team while serving her four-year term as AAS president.

Cory talks to Nature about her plans at the helm of the AAS.

You are the first female elected president of the AAS. What do you think your appointment means for female scientists in Australia?

I was elected as a scientist, not as a woman, but I hope my appointment is one more thing that will encourage women to stay in science.

How does the attitude towards gender compare with when you first started in science?

When I first looked into studying at Cambridge, I was astonished and angry that most of the scholarships stipulated "for men only". A few years later, when I was a new postdoc giving my first lecture at a scientific meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, I recall that there were only two women speakers in the programme.

Things have improved a lot since then, but around the world there is still the same problem: not enough women are staying in science for their full careers. I'd like to encourage more women to hang in there for the long haul.

Roughly equal numbers of men and women enrol in natural and physical science degrees at Australian universities, yet the number of women promoted to higher positions in academia or private enterprise diminishes the farther they progress. Why is that?

The obvious reason that women drop out of the profession is that it is still very difficult to combine a family and a career in science. Science is like an express train: once you get off, it is very difficult to get back on again. So we have to encourage women to stay on board by enabling them to have more flexibility during that period.

This means that institutions and funding agencies need to allow flexibility in their time frame for progression up the career ladder. Most organizations are very aware of the issues now, and there have been a lot of changes, but more still needs to be done to keep women in the profession.

At the AAS, we must make sure that when the time is appropriate, the names of high-achieving women are brought forward for election as academy fellows. But it is also important that the same standards are used for women and men.

Some have questioned whether the AAS has been as vocal and independent on scientific issues compared with other international academies, such as the UK Royal Society and the US National Academies. Do you think this is the case?

I think the academy has been just as strong in its discussion of certain key scientific issues — for example, stem-cell science and the importance of international collaborations — as any of the international academies. Some of those academies have many more resources than the AAS. Financial independence gives you greater freedom to speak out, and over time we would like to develop further resources ourselves.

What key areas would you like the AAS to foster under your stewardship?

I'd like to expand our activities to nurture early-career scientists. An important role will be to keep talking to government about the need for strong ongoing investment in research grants and positions in this country.

We are currently thinking about what additional activities we could do to foster the career development of young researchers — for instance, new ways of mentoring.

Another area in which the AAS will continue to work very hard is in producing information papers on complex scientific issues. We would like the policies of this country — for example, on climate change — to be informed by the best possible science facts. It is important for the academy to be an independent and reliable source of information for public policy-makers at all levels.

What future 'hot topics' will the academy be engaging in?

A major question is how we decide what is a sustainable population goal for Australia. We will be holding an international conference on that topic in May next year. In 2012, we are planning a symposium examining the role of Antarctica in modern science, for example in informing the climate-change debate.

You have been recognized for your strong commitment to science education. What are your plans for the AAS to improve science awareness?

Science education is one of the most important things the AAS does and I'm keen to see that continue. Central to this is enhancing the capacity of school teachers to teach science more effectively, and providing them with good-quality curricular material. Last year, we introduced a programme called Primary Connections, which is now in more than 50% of all primary schools nationwide. This year, we are continuing to develop a new programme called Science by Doing, for teachers of early secondary-school students. Both programmes have already attracted strong international interest.

What fuels your enthusiasm for science education?

Like many scientists, it was one teacher at school who ignited my passion for science. I have therefore always had great respect for science teachers and am keen to help them inspire young people. School is where it all begins — that's where our young scientists are 'born', and we need to give them the best science education we possibly can, all the way from primary school through to university and then on to postgraduate education. 

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