Working out the mechanisms of how babies grow and adapt to stress: Meet Vicki Clifton

Vicki CLifton 2015Vicki Clifton has a professorial position at the Mater Research Institute in Brisbane and completed her PhD exactly 20 years ago. Vicki is interested in the role of the placenta in the growth of the baby and in particular why male and female babies grow differently in a stressful environment.


SS: Vicki, how did you get to your current position?

VC: I took the usual path with a few delays with having children and working during my undergrad studies and PhD. After my PhD, I did a series of postdoctoral fellowships in Canada and Australia until obtaining a Fellowship to study fetal growth and development. In my current career stage, I look for places I want to work and then I ask them if they have a job for me. I have a National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship which allows me to take my wage with me to different institutions and so it means I can move quite easily between jobs.   It sounds simple but it often takes me a while to decide where best to work, whether I fit within the strategic plan of the institution and my decision often comes down to who I can network with at the new place and what resources are on offer. I was invited by the Mater to consider working with them and decided it was a great opportunity for collaborations with people in my field at the Mater, The University of Queensland and at the Translational Research Institute.  This current position will expand my research in new directions and increase my expertise as a senior level scientist.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

VC: I had no idea where I was going career wise when I was at University and went from a Maths degree to Arts to Science.  I thought I wanted to major in Geology but was dissuaded because at the time there were not many jobs in the field. So I focussed on Biology with an interest in biochemistry and physiology. I was still unsure about where I was going at the end of my Science degree but started working as a research assistant in a mucosal immunology lab with Prof Alan Husband. I gained a lot of experience in this position about experimental design, data analysis and publishing.  It was actually seeing my name on my first paper derived from this job and feeling like I had actually made a real contribution to science that made me take the next step and go on to further study.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

VC: Well it’s all about how you grow a whole human being in just 40 weeks. Isn’t that the most amazing thing ever? And what’s more, male and female babies do it differently especially if the environment is stressful. I think about how that happens nearly all the time and can’t believe 20 years of my life has been devoted to it.  That time has gone by in a flash. Working out the mechanisms of how a baby grows and adapts to stress has been a big journey that just never ends and it is likely I will only answer one small part of the whole thing before my career is over but every minute of the journey has been worthwhile.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

VC: Talking about my work to the public is fun and I don’t get to do it very often so I thought this would be a great opportunity to share my work with everyone


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

VC: Fun


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

VC: We don’t often share our findings with the public because we are all so incredibly busy working on our projects, writing grants and papers and supervising students to be future scientists. I think we need to be more accountable to the public and share what we find and discover more often. I think social media does this very well and it is definitely a rapid medium for getting information out there.  However it is important to be able to tell a story that is relevant to the public and often we do not promote our work as the public message is either over simplified or misinterpreted.  There are also regulations about when data should be shared by your institution, funding body and publisher that need to be considered.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

A scientific career will challenge you; your identity, your views of the world, your intellectual capacity and your resilience. SO…..find a field of study that you find fascinating and make the commitment whole heartedly. You must be prepared to work hard, publish, speak and be competitive while juggling friends, family and life.  It is your passion for “the answer” that keeps you going forward and when extraneous demands make your  career path a burden, then remember why you are there and focus on what you love about science while taking a minimalist approach to the external demands and pressures.


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