By Dr Giselle Roberts
Dr Megan Maher knows all about the twists and turns that come with life and science. A senior lecturer and expert on metallobiology – the study of trace elements and their function in cellular systems – Maher has used her own brand of persistence to make her way in science, and mentor a new generation of women researchers in the process.
Last month, Maher received the Georgina Sweet Award for Women in Quantitative Biomedical Science, recognising and supporting mid-career scientists who demonstrate research excellence in an area of biological research that employs a quantitative approach.
GISELLE ROBERTS: Congratulations on the Georgina Sweet Award, Megan. I am interested to learn a little more about your research in structural biology. Could you explain what role trace nutrients play in the human body, and how you are investigating them?
MEGAN MAHER: All forms of life need trace nutrients. Some of those trace nutrients are metals such as iron, magnesium, zinc and manganese – many of the elements you see on a multivitamin label. I am using a holistic approach to understand why they are needed, how they are acquired by cells, how they are managed in biological systems, and how they are expelled in cases where there is an excess. Although these elements are absolutely essential, they are toxic if their concentrations are too high.
GR: What happens when there is too much?
MM: It depends on the organism and the element. There are several diseases that are related to the mishandling of elements. Neurodegenerative conditions like Wilson disease and Menkes disease are related to copper deficiencies and overload. We also know that trace elements play a significant role in infection and immunity. People who are zinc-deficient, for example, have difficulty fighting some bacterial infections, and that is because zinc is used as an antibiotic in the human body. I examine the protein systems that handle trace elements, and figure out how they work by looking at their three-dimensional architecture and structure.
The balancing act
GR: The Georgina Sweet Award was established in 2015 by Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow, Professor Leann Tilley. As a recipient, you will serve as an ambassador for women in science in Australia. What are your thoughts on the issue?
MM: As a scientist, I look at the data. In the academic setting, women outnumber men at Levels A and B, there are equal numbers at Level C, and then there is an incredible drop at Levels D and E. As a teaching academic, I see a relatively equal distribution of men and women in undergraduate classes and postgraduate cohorts. There is not a problem with the pipeline, as far as I can see, but when women get to senior lecturer positions, they drop off.
GR: What do you think is going on?
MM: Perhaps when women get to that senior level they are quite worn out! At that stage, they are generally in their late 30s to early 40s, those who have chosen to have children have done so, and they are juggling the ongoing demands of career and family. The responsibilities at the senior lecturer level are also significant. Perhaps they question whether it is worth all the sacrifices to keep going.
GR: Have you encountered that balancing act too?
MM: Yes. I have two children. My youngest has special needs and has required more time and dedication. Taking breaks to raise children is one thing, but what is not recognised is the impact of primary carer responsibilities in the long term. Often it is very difficult to work at full capacity. Carers lose thinking space, and scientists need a bit of thinking space. That is difficult to account for quantitatively in a track record, for instance.
GR: And the cumulative effect of that is feeling like you are constantly behind.
MM: Yes. I see colleagues of mine who are now professors, and I’m not, perhaps because of the other responsibilities in my life. As a woman, I chose to accept that and keep going regardless. But this is where the tipping point may be, that some women don’t necessarily want to keep going in that setting – because if you compare yourself to your colleagues who do not have significant responsibilities outside of work, then you feel like you are not meeting the same standard.
Passion for persistence
GR: Balancing career and family is tough. What helped you to keep moving forward?
MM: I love my research and I had people along the way who offered me practical support. My husband has been incredible, and my children have never questioned me being a working mum. I also have four mentors (Professor Mitchell Guss, Professor So Iwata, Professor Nick Hoogenraad and Professor Mike Ryan) who absolutely backed me no matter what, and in very practical ways. They gave me resources, collaborated with me, and offered me leadership positions. I don’t think it is enough to have mentors that just listen and give advice. You need people to do things, and these four mentors went above and beyond to take action. I have experienced a number of significant challenges in my career, including serious illness, and I wouldn’t have been able to continue without this support. It is when people take action that it really makes a difference.
GR: What advice would you give women considering a career in science?
MM: My best piece of advice is to keep going, particularly when you encounter challenges or setbacks. Resilience is key. Mitchell Guss once said to me, “When you get old enough, Megan, you will understand that these twists and turns that seem so devastating at the time could actually work out for the best in the end.”
GR: I believe that. And I also believe that we are making progress in gender equity, by engaging in these debates and talking about our experiences. All that leads to change.
MM: We need to remember that we have made significant progress. Take grants, for example. When I had my eldest son I was on an ARC Australia Postdoctoral Fellowship. I took maternity leave, then asked to return to work part time. It was an unbelievably difficult process to navigate. I was recently looking at the Future Fellowship application: in terms of accounting for career disruption, the ARC will award two years for every child and you can argue for more. That is an incredible change in the space of 15 years, and goes some way to recognising that the interruption isn’t just the maternity leave, but what comes afterward. Things are improving. Future scientists will benefit from these advances.