Alumni profile

Dr Annabelle Duncan PSM

PhD in Microbiology, 1987
Doctor of Science (honoris causa), 2019

Chair, New South Wales Physical Sciences Fund

Dr Annabelle Duncan is an educational leader and scientist whose remarkable career has spanned microbiology, university management – and even biological weapons control.


For someone with such a diverse career, it comes as no surprise that Dr Annabelle Duncan (La Trobe Distinguished Alumni Award, 2008) might have also become a brewer. Indeed, after completing a Bachelor of Science, Postgraduate Diploma of Science and Master of Science at the University of Otago, a role in a brewery was one of the first she applied for.

“The job ad offered ‘the right person the chance to train as brewer’. But during the interview, I was told that, as a qualified scientist, I’d likely become bored with what was simply ‘a techie’s job’,” Annabelle says.

“I told them, ‘You said there was an opportunity to train as a brewer. I think that would be interesting.’ They looked me in the eye and said, ‘There’s never been a female brewer in this country.’,” Annabelle says.

Prevailing gender stereotypes are a challenge Annabelle has faced many times throughout her career. However, they’ve taught her a valuable lesson about ‘which battles to fight and which to let go’.

“There were times when it was hard to be accepted if you had a small child and were working full-time. There were barriers put up – not necessarily deliberately, it was just the way people thought at the time. Choosing when to fight that and when to just accept it has been a strong aspect in my career.”

Launching a career as a microbiologist

In the late 80s, Annabelle moved to Melbourne to attain her PhD in Microbiology at La Trobe University.

“When I first walked through the gates of La Trobe University, I had very little understanding of what my education here would lead to. A PhD sounded like a good idea, it seemed interesting and I thought it would open doors for me,” she says.

If someone had told me then, the places I would go post-La Trobe, I would not have believed them.

Annabelle’s PhD investigated the interactions between microorganisms, algae and corals. It led to a 16-year career with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO): first alongside their scientists as a Postdoctoral Fellow; then, as a Research Scientist in the CSIRO’s Division of Chemicals and Polymers; and later, working in the area of fermentation biology, examining the biological production of pharmaceuticals.

In 1996, Annabelle became Program Manager of a team of CSIRO organic chemists involved with the discovery of new agri-chemicals. In 1999, she was appointed Chief of the Division of Molecular Science. So far, her career was still strongly focused on microbiology. But then came her first pivot.

“My CSIRO boss at the time asked me if I’d consider taking on additional duties as an advisor to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on biological weapons control. ‘It would involve a lot of travel to Europe’ he said, trying to tempt me. Well, it sounded like a great opportunity. More work, but lots of challenges and lots of fun,” she says.

But there was a complication – I had a three-year-old child and another baby due in six months. It wasn’t the best time to take on the role, but I discussed it with my husband and we decided we could manage. And we did!

Looking back, Annabelle says she was blessed to have a partner who was supportive and prepared to help out.

“When I was away, it was harder for him in some respects, because he was working in a very conservative industry. Telling his boss, ‘I have to pick the kids up, because my wife’s in Iraq working as a weapons inspector,’ wasn’t going to be well accepted. So we spent a lot of money on other child care,” she says.

So, while still working at the CSIRO, Annabelle stepped into a new community – the arms control community. There, she assessed information, wrote position papers and provided scientific advice to DFAT on biological weapons control. She also became the scientific representative to an Australian delegation involved in meetings of the Ad Hoc Group, who were tasked with developing a protocol to strengthen compliance with the United Nations’ (UN) Biological Weapons Convention.

Becoming a biological weapons inspector

Negotiating a treaty to control biological weapons sounds like a huge job. When asked what the roles involved, however, Annabelle is quick to point out synergies with skills she learnt as a uni student.

“They involved things we can all do and that we all learned at La Trobe: critical thinking, negotiating skills and learning to distinguish between the personal and the professional,” she says.

In such a highly political environment, seeing an individual as separate from their opposing views is something Annabelle believes is essential.

“When I was sitting in the UN, I’d often spend the whole day fighting with somebody else, because the Australian position on an issue differed from the position of that particular delegate and their government. But at the end of the day, there was a good chance we’d catch up at the door of the negotiating chamber and go off and have a beer together. There was no personal animosity between us – it was just our governments that had different positions.”

During this time, as part of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, Annabelle also served as Deputy Chief Inspector of a team looking at major biological weapons production facilities. She describes this role as ‘very much learning on the job’:

Most of all, it was about looking for patterns. If all the laboratories we visited were poorly resourced and equipped, then we visited one that had better equipment than I had at CSIRO, what did it mean? It meant it was one of the major research labs involved in a biological weapons program, as we later found out.

In 1996, Annabelle’s achievements were acknowledged with a Public Service Medal, both for her work in international arms control and disarmament and for her outstanding service as a research scientist and senior scientific advisor.

Moving into executive management

Many of the lessons Annabelle learned in the UN and in Iraq served her in good stead for her later career in management. Among them, she lists clear communication, being ‘firm, but fair’, knowing your strengths and delegating your weaknesses.

After leaving the CSIRO in 2005, Annabelle worked in management roles across several Australian universities. From 2005-2008, she was Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Melbourne Bio21 Institute. From 2008-2010 she took on the role of Executive Director, Science Collaboration and Transition at AgriBio, a centre for agri-bioscience jointly run by La Trobe University and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries. In 2010, she was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of New England, becoming Vice-Chancellor in 2014.

Of all her career achievements, Annabelle says she’s proudest of what she achieved as Vice-Chancellor. 

“The university had been through a tough time. None of the research was showing up in metrics, so I made a lot of changes in that area, both in terms of research outcomes and impact. The people were there, they just needed the opportunity – it was about enabling that,” she says.

Embarking on a board career

Today, Annabelle has pivoted again and is enjoying a board career. She’s Chair of the NSW Physical Sciences Fund, Chair of the Australian College of Learned Academies Expert Work group on Rural and Regional Research Excellence and a member of the Board of the Regional Australia Institute. She sees her ability to change tack in her career as an expression of resilience that comes with ‘learning how to learn’.

“At university, you’ve acquired in-depth knowledge of a discipline, or maybe two disciplines. And while that’s very important, it’s by no means all that you’ve learnt. That disciplinary knowledge will probably get you your first job, maybe your second and maybe even your third. But in a world where you’re likely to have up to 15 jobs and four or five different careers, it’s the other things you’ve learnt that are just as important – things like communication skills, resilience, cross-cultural competencies, critical thinking and, most importantly, you’ve learnt how to learn,” she says.

That may sound trite, but it’s not. As Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, suggests, the ability to pivot, to move to new areas and to learn new skills, is a better measure of resilience than anything else. And I absolutely agree.

Reflecting on her varied career, Annabelle’s advice to alumni of all career stages is to use that ability to learn that La Trobe taught you, and be ever-ready to pivot.

“Opportunities seldom come at the right time, but they don’t always come twice. So have a look at the opportunity. If it looks interesting and fun, turn the corner and take the road.”

Distinguished Science

Last updated: 2nd December 2019