Early Career Researcher Network Co-chairs, Claudia and David talk about issues facing early career researchers in the faculty.
Early career researchers Claudia Marck and David Gonsalvez are keenly aware of their professional good fortune. Each has received a coveted four-year National Health and Medical Research Council fellowship. By coincidence, both are also researching multiple sclerosis. Marck is investigating how diet and lifestyle affect the health of people with the disease, while Gonsalvez is examining how to repair the myelin sheaths around nerves that become damaged in the brains and spinal cords of MS patients.
The pair co-chair the Faculty’s Early Career Research Network. Most of their peers do not have the luxury of knowing that their funding is assured for four years, they say, but are instead living year to year on 12-month contracts. Marck and Gonsalvez would like them to have a better deal.
Researchers on standard 12-month contracts struggle to develop their career, or plan a family, or buy a house, says Gonsalvez. He is on paternity leave for eight weeks to help look after his wife, who recently had a C-section, and their newborn son, Otis. “I don’t think someone on a 12-month contract could do this,” he says.
They would like to see researchers be given contracts for two or even three years to more closely match the length of the grants they are employed to work on.
Marck and Gonsalvez believe other early career researchers should have greater opportunities to develop their potential, perhaps by helping them expand their networks and research interests, for instance. “We can try to assist a person on a one-year contract be very agile, and to improve their skills,” Gonsalvez suggests. “And expose them to many people. That’s important.”
The pair have been encouraged by the emphasis the Faculty’s strategic plan places on providing a more supportive working environment for all staff.
There’s a real buzz in the precinct. It’s an exciting place to be. People are passionate about what they are doing.
Marck believes one way of achieving this is for supervisors, such as the scientists who run labs, or those who supervise junior researchers – and she includes herself in the latter category – to receive ethical leadership and management training. Initiatives such as that, including the existing mentoring program, should help talented people who may otherwise fall through the cracks. It is also important that poor managers are held to account, she says, as a sign that the University is taking the matter seriously.
Both Marck and Gonsalvez would like the University to support a greater diversity of researchers – and that any obstacles to achieving this goal be identified and removed. For instance, they applaud the measures that have been adopted at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to support women researchers and would like to see them taken up by the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.
Despite the problems, both are cautiously optimistic that a cultural shift might take hold at the Faculty. They say the consultations over the strategic plan are an important first step.
“There’s a buzz in the precinct. It’s an exciting place to be,” says Marck. Gonsalvez agrees. “People are passionate about what they are doing,” he adds.