It’s will, not skill

Tips from an early career researcher

I used to think only certain people won major research awards. You know the type – genetically blessed geniuses who’ve topped every class they’ve ever set foot in. Well, I can confirm that’s not always the case. I know this because in 2020 I made the list of top 30 microbiologists under 30, as ranked by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

My name is Alexander Wailan, I’m a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Queensland (UQ) Centre for Clinical Research. I apply bioinformatics to study the evolution of bacterial pathogens within the clinical setting, to understand how they’ve become resistant to most antimicrobial treatment options.

A thwarted medical career

‘Why?’ and ‘how?’ were the most common questions I asked while growing up in Dalby, a quiet rural town in Queensland's Darling Downs region. But I was never satisfied with finding the answer, I wanted to use that knowledge to help people. I think that’s what fuelled my desire to become a medical doctor.

When I received an OP6 my medical dreams took a hit. I was forced to look at what I could do with the grade I had. I was good at biology, so I made that my Plan B: apply for UQ’s Bachelor of Science and attempt to transfer into medicine via the GAMSAT.  

The transition from Dalby to ‘big-city’ Brisbane was difficult and ultimately a low GAMSAT score ended my medical career before it even started. But my time at UQ opened the door to a career in science academia and attempting to understand the unknown.

I went on to achieve Class 1 Honours and PhD in microbiology, before accepting a postdoc position in the United Kingdom, via Malawi and the USA.

Struggling to perform as a Post-Doctoral Fellow

Science academia is full of struggles and pressure to perform. You learn to be efficient and optimise everything, from experiments to the best time to drink coffee!

At Cambridge the tension escalated. Some of the postdocs seemed to thrive in the high pressure environment, obtaining publications in prestigious journals and media attention. Meanwhile, I was struggling to learn and complete my analysis.

I felt inadequate, but it turns out I wasn’t alone. Many of us were struggling with experiments that weren’t going to plan. Frustration, disappointment and self-doubt were widespread.

Returning to Australia for the Christmas break gave me some much needed perspective. I was reminded that in the ‘country’ it’s common to wave and say ‘How ya going?’ to everyone passing by.

Back to Cambridge, I began doing my data analysis at the café outside my building. Habit kicked in and I’d wave to my colleagues as they arrived each day. Eventually, people stopped to say ‘hi’, which created a tradition of group chats and analysis sessions, and led to social events like wine and cheese nights.

Slowly the isolation lifted, and over time we all lifted as a group, both in spirits and performance. Building a community of people who understand the struggles you’re facing helps more than you can imagine.

The importance of mental health

Setbacks. Ask anyone in research and they can tell you about setbacks.

From constantly failing experiments, to missing the bus to work or getting a bad coffee (maybe that’s just me!). Generally, I’ve found it helpful to interpret setbacks as feedback: data from the past to analyse and learn from.

I had the biggest setback of my life during my position in the US.

After six months, I was diagnosed with an episode of severe clinical depression. I was having daily panic attacks, feeling isolated and I’d lost all critical thinking. None of the strategies I’d learnt previously were working anymore. My mind was now affecting my physical health.

The world was caving in on me and I didn’t understand why. I fought the urge to endure when things clearly weren’t working. I resigned from my job feeling like I’d failed, packed up my belongings and returned to Dalby.

Back home, I threw myself into understanding how to recover from depression and counter high anxiety. I discussed this with a psychologist for 6-8 months, incorporated yoga into my regular exercise routine, researched human behaviour and mental health. I now understood how environment and work culture can significantly impact your performance.

Returning to science

Ultimately I made the big decision to return to science at UQ, back to where it all started. This time however, it’s no longer as a student, but as someone who is able to provide support and advice to others.

I hope sharing my experiences will benefit those just beginning their research journey. You are not alone in feeling the frustrations, inadequacy and disappointments that come from attempting something new.

Life is full of struggles and setbacks. I was never at genius at the top of my class, I’ve just been persistent and adapted.

Not bad for a country kid who asked ‘how?’.