Go hard,
Go now!

Sarah Steane's labour of love

Sarah Steane

For Sarah Steane, research is an absolute labour of love.

“It’s exciting. It’s like constantly unwrapping Christmas presents every day, except 95 per cent of the results aren’t the ones you want!” she jokes.

“A lot of experiments don’t give you the findings you want. They’re still important, but they leave you feeling a little disappointed.”

Even so, Sarah’s always found comfort working under a microscope.

After nearly 20 years as a dedicated research assistant at The University of Queensland, Sarah is now studying a PhD after receiving a scholarship from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

While the harmful effects of alcohol during pregnancy have been well documented, Sarah’s research is unique in that it’s studying the effects of drinking only around the time of conception, which is less well understood.

“Alcohol plays a big role in Australian society and it can have long-lasting effects on unborn children,” Sarah says.

“Women might drink right up to, and in the early days following, conception because they might not know they’re pregnant.”

Sarah is trying to determine if micronutrient supplements can prevent or reduce the impact of alcohol around conception and restore normal development.

Starting a PhD has been a lifelong dream for Sarah, but she’s had to be patient, raising three children and managing three overseas moves around her career.

“I had just started my first job at UQ when I found out I was having a baby. Life’s full of surprises.”

From the Yorkshire Dales to sunny Queensland, Sarah fell in love with Australia when she first arrived as a backpacker at the age of 19. She convinced her English boyfriend, now husband, to emigrate with her and they soon started a family here.

“It was like going from a black-and-white photo into colour. I didn’t even know the sky could be that blue or that so many different coloured birds existed,” she says.

But after five years, Sarah’s yearning for Yorkshire puddings and woolly Christmases lured the family back to England for another four years before they realised they just couldn’t shake the Aussie lifestyle.

“I had my youngest child in York. Having to put snow suits on three little kids so we could go down to the park was too much,” Sarah recounts.

“Australia opened our eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. My kids always joke that I think everything is better in England, but I had to move away to really appreciate it.”

Sarah's kids on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, 2019

Sarah's kids on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, 2019

Sarah's kids on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, 2019

Now aged 18, 15 and 12 years old, Sarah’s kids understand her work better and often ask her lots of questions about her PhD.

“I think they’re quite proud of their mum embarking on a new challenge,” Sarah admits.

Sarah has inspired the whole family to love what they do, and work hard for it. Her husband is now studying a Masters degree, her daughter Molly is studying a law degree, her youngest son Ernie is working hard at high school with a keen interest in science, and her middle child Fred is doing the same in Year 10 while juggling year round cricket training and matches.

“We are all studying new endeavours this year, and I’m extremely proud of them all and their achievements,” Sarah says.

Sarah’s success makes studying and family look easy, but that’s not really the case.

“While you can have it all, you can’t have it all at the same time, and it takes lots of hard work.”
Sarah Steane and family in England

Living in England, 2008

Living in England, 2008

After high school, Sarah worked three jobs simultaneously at two major supermarket chains and a vegetable packing factory,
while studying a diploma of science and engineering.

“The maths was so hard, I really struggled, but I just pushed myself and achieved a distinction!” Sarah chuffed.

“Right from primary school, I was competitive. My friend and I would stash extra homework sheets into our bags just for the prestige of winning a Mars Bar if you topped the class.”

Sarah graduated from the University of the West of England in Bristol with a first class honours degree in applied biological sciences. She was one of six students to receive the accolade in
her class of 200 students.

“When my brother received a first class degree, I said to myself ‘I’m going to get one too’,” Sarah laughs.

“It took a lot of hard work for me, unlike some of my peers who just seemed to waltz into exams and get top marks.”

Sarah practised extreme self-discipline, studying six days a week with only one day off a week to see her husband. The effort was worth it. She was awarded the Alwyn Chadwick
Memorial Travel Prize for outstanding academic achievement and earned a placement at East Carolina University Medical School. There, Sarah researched the regulation of glucose
transporters and achieved her first author publication, which is a big accomplishment for an undergraduate.

As Sarah embarks on her latest research project, she wants other mature-aged women who may be thinking of doing a PhD to just go for it.

“My mum never had the opportunities I’ve had, so I feel very privileged,” Sarah says.

“Education is a life-long journey and it’s never too late to have a go.”

This story is featured in the Winter 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.