Originally from Sweden, 42-year-old Christina Schroeder runs a chemical and structural biology research group in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. We found out how she got there.
How did you climb the career ladder?
A lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. I ended up doing my research project for my Master’s in chemistry in Australia because one of my undergraduate lecturers in Sweden was Australian and set up a student exchange. I was one of the guinea pigs.
I fell in love with the place and after a year back home received a full international scholarship to carry out a PhD at the University of Queensland. Since then I’ve met my husband, worked in the US, returned to a job at the University of New South Wales and had two kids. Now we’re back in Brisbane to be closer to family.
What does your current job involve?
My research focusses on using components found in the venom of cone snails, spiders and snakes to develop new therapeutics for chronic and inflammatory pain and cancer. On a day-to-day basis this can involve planning experiments, supervising PhD students, discussing research outcomes, drafting manuscripts to share our research with the scientific community and much, much more.
I also organise domestic and international scientific conferences in my field and am passionate about inspiring students, especially girls, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
How has your upbringing helped you professionally?
Both my parents were the first in their families to go to university and they were always working so it never entered my mind that a woman could be a stay-at-home mum. I just assumed that women worked. They’ve always trusted me – my dad signed off the high school subjects I’d chosen without looking – and never put pressure on me to do anything, but have accepted every career choice I’ve made.
Have you ever had a ‘eureka’ moment that changed your career?
When I realised that I was a mother first and a scientist second. It took me a while to understand I couldn’t carry out my work duties in the same way once I’d had children – if an experiment is taking longer than planned and it’s school pick-up time you just have to put down the pipette and head out of the door. But re-evaluating my priorities has made me a better scientist and massively improved my time management skills.
What do you value most about your working life now?
I work on scientific problems that I care about and will hopefully provide solutions for humankind in the form of new pain treatments. I also enjoy the travel and the social aspect of science – you meet all sorts of people at conferences and your skills are recognised all over the world so you can live and work anywhere.
If you could go back 20 years what advice would you give yourself?
Take risks and work on challenging projects, but pick something you care about. It’s so much more rewarding when you solve a problem you’re passionate about.
What are you most proud of in your career?
A PhD isn’t easy and I was really proud of myself for completing such a big body of work with my name on it. I’m also proud of completing my graduate certificate in research management while working and raising two young girls.
Have you had any career low points and how have you overcome them?
I’d worked really hard for a prestigious fellowship and a male scientist told me: “You only got it because you have boobs”. Working as a woman in a male dominated field can be challenging at the best of times, and that was a real low. But I was determined not to let him get me down and now work harder to promote women in STEM.
Who are your career role models and why?
Dr Katherine Nielsen (currently at Monash University, Melbourne) who I worked with during my PhD. She’s an amazing woman who’s successfully reinvented herself throughout her career and is a wonderful role model. She’s incredibly capable, embraces change and tackles problems head on but is still humble.
If money was no object what would you buy?
A never-ending plane ticket for me and my family – preferably business class. I want my girls to experience the natural wonders of the world while they can.
What’s your ultimate goal?
To become the best mother, wife, scientific researcher and mentor I can be. I want to prove you don’t have to choose between a scientific career and children.
What would your motto be?
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, courage is fear walking. As in, do things that challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone.
Also, in her speech at our wedding, my mother-in-law said: “Children are inconvenient, but they are never an inconvenience”. As a professional woman there is never a good time to have children – you just have to make it work.
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