What does it take to win Australia’s top science prize?

What does it take to win Australia’s top science prize?

La Trobe University geneticist and Distinguished Professor Jenny Graves AO has been awarded Australia’s most coveted science prize – the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. She shares seven cornerstones of a prize-winning science career.

1. Be a detective

Science is a never-ending search. Whatever your field, you need an investigate ethos and the patience to build your knowledge over time.

“I love science because it’s fascinating. It’s a detective story. When you phrase one question and answer it, there’s a hundred more questions. It just leads you on and on and on,” Jenny says.

“When you first start you’re exploring just a little territory. You feel like a little kid and it’s quite scary. But as you explore more and more, you get a bigger and bigger picture.”

2. Draw links between things that appear very different

While choosing to study a branch of science that’s unusual may feel isolating at first, your bravery can pay off in the long run.

“I used to think I was very much on the outer, because I worked on platypuses and kangaroos and everybody else worked on mice and humans. But because I worked on animals that were far distant, I’d often accidentally find things that other people had missed,” Jenny says.

By asking, ‘Here’s a gene in humans, where is it in kangaroos and what does it do?’, Jenny has compared distantly related mammals to make remarkable discoveries about how they came to be.

“A lot of people don’t realise that we share practically all of our genes with kangaroos and platypuses – and also with fish! No gene comes from nothing. It always comes from a gene that was there beforehand. And those genes have been around a long time. They’ve been evolving differently in us and in a lamprey, but they’re recognisably the same and do essentially the same job.”

“Science is all about having wild ideas,” says Distinguished Professor Jenny Graves AO.

3. Think creatively as well as critically

Throughout your science career, you’ll apply reason, logic and analytical skills in order to solve problems and process new information and ideas. But you’ll also need to be adaptable, imaginative and innovative. These two complimentary ways of thinking – critical and creative – typify successful scientists.

“To me, science is all about having wild ideas that come out of goodness knows where – your knowledge, but also your creativity,” Jenny says.

“The highest echelons of the sciences are full of creative people. It’s interesting to me that a lot of these people sing, or compose music or are sculptors. There’s a lot of overlap, much more than you’d think, with creativity.”

4. Persevere when experiments don’t work

Do your friends describe you as optimistic? Perhaps you’re someone who bounces back from adversity? Perseverance and resilience are qualities Jenny finds in herself and fellow scientists.

“There’s many days when things just don’t seem to work. I’m naturally a very optimistic person – I think, ‘Oh, it’ll work tomorrow’. I can’t imagine how you’d survive if you didn’t have that level of faith and optimism,” Jenny says.

“Some of my favourite scientists and students share that kind of optimistic, positive feeling. Like, ‘Well, we’ll just tweak it a bit and have another go and tomorrow it will work!’ But I’ve also had students who, if something doesn’t work, they’ll go away for two weeks. And I think, ‘No, no. They’re better off doing something else’.”

5. Skill up in big data

Gone are the days when scientists had lots of great ideas and no real way of testing them. Thanks to genomics you can now access huge amounts of data and use it to test fundamental questions.

“When I started in molecular biology, we had such tiny little fragments of data. Now we have thousands of whole genomes,” Jenny says.

“There’s a big call for people who can handle very big data sets, and who are familiar with getting this data in the lab and crunching it. Training at the lab bench with computers and molecular biology and bioinformatics is extremely powerful.”

Jenny Graves AO has mapped the genomes of the kangaroo and platypus: “When I started, we had such tiny fragments of data. Now we have thousands of genomes!”

6. Collaborate with scientists from other fields

Part of the detective work of science is teaming up with people who are experts in other areas.

“I always needed to collaborate with somebody who knew more than I did about growing cells, or about animals. I never did zoology, so I really depended on people like embryologists who made their lives studying the way kangaroos and platypuses reproduce,” Jenny says.

“A few years ago, friends of mine were looking at lizards. I had my molecular biology and cell biology, and they had the ecology and the animals, and we got together in an amazing project. It’s the most successful thing I’ve ever been involved with.”

7. Embrace the unexpected

In science, accidents can be fruitful – so you need to feel comfortable and excited by uncertainty.

“Every day is different. You never know what’s going to come out of the research you’re doing. It may not even sound very exciting, but the results may give you something totally out of left-field that sets you off on a completely different direction,” says Jenny.

“Almost everything my teams are famous for was unexpected. We discovered 14 novel human genes, all by accident, because they were all bands of a gel we couldn’t explain. We discovered a new gene on the X chromosome that way, which turns out to be absolutely essential for making brains. And we weren’t even looking for it!”

Start your search for the unexpected – study Science at La Trobe.

Jenny Graves AO

Jenny Graves AO is a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow and Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University.