Thursday, July 10, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Head of Bioinformatics

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Alicia Oshlack, an astronomer turned Head of Bioinformatics for Murdoch Children's Research Institute at the Royal Children's Hospital. She is very satisfied with her job and the family friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.


What field do you currently work in?

Bioinformatics

What is the job title for your current position?

Head of Bioinformatics

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?

Murdoch Children's Research Institute at the Royal Children's Hospital

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

Ph.D. 

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?

Graduate student and a few months post-PhD spent in the same group as my PhD.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

I was looking outside astronomy for a job and I met a PhD student socially who was working in a field called bioinformatics which I had never heard of. They were advertising a post-doc position which they couldn't fill and I applied. So I first got a post-doc position in a statistical bioinformatics group at a medical research institute (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute). I stayed with that group for 7 years and then got a job to lead my own group at a different institute where I am now.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

I left astronomy because I didn't quite have the passion I saw in others. Also, I didn't want to leave Australia at that time and I didn't see a future in it.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

My career change happened when I was 28. 

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

I know "how" to do research. I know how to look at data and ask scientific question about data. I can visualise data to try and understand biases. I can read academic publication and I can write academic papers.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

I didn't do any formal training but I consider my first two years in my new field a bit like a second PhD. I could not be in the position that I am now without a PhD.

Describe a typical day at work.

I lead a research group. We currently have 3-4 post-docs, 1 PhD student, 1 masters student, 2 research assistants. Our work revolves around collaborating with lab based scientist on data analysis and also developing new statistical and computational methods for data analysis. I have a typical academic group head role although I also have some "service" responsibility for analysis of data within my institute.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

I learnt of my position through social networks.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

A PhD in Astronomy gives you many skills required for general research and often many skills for data analysis. These skill can be applied in many different settings. 

How many hours do you work in a week?

40-45 hours. 29 hours at the office. 12 hours at home.

What is your salary?

$110,000 p.a. 

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Very satisfied. I absolutely love my job and I'm happy with the place and remuneration.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

I am fascinated with my new field of genomics and I feel like I can make a significant contribution to science in this field. I even feel like I can help make discoveries that benefit people - something that I never felt in astronomy. I like the collaborative nature of my field and I like managing people and projects. 

The least enjoyable part of my job is that because my field is relatively new our role is a little misunderstood by many medical researchers so sometimes they want to treat me like a technician rather than a fellow researcher.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?


I like working in a research environment where I am my own boss. I get judged on what I produce and not how long I sit at my desk. I like interacting with the people I work with.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

As a research job I choose the projects I work on and as a group leader I choose the people who work for me.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?

Satisfied. I have two young children 5yo and 3yo. I have just started working full-time after 5 years of part-time work. Family and work are the only two things I fit into my life - both which I love.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family friendly. Flexible working hours. An understanding of the issues of having work and children. I negotiated an extra payment to help with childcare costs.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

There is never a good time to have children but careers are long and children are young for a short amount of time. Try not to stress about things and give yourself the space you need for both aspects. Recognize that if you really want to do something you can work out a way, but some of your priorities will change.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

Yes. While my job is not at all astronomy-related I still meet with my PhD supervisor as she is one of my main career mentors. She still gives me advice on how to progress my academic career which is invaluable.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?

I don't believe that you can really go back (unless you're out of it for a very short amount of time - astronomy is too competitive). I also don't believe that you have betrayed anyone.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

Beach and surfing (this kids also love it!), Camping, Going out with the "girls" (my female friends).

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Yes.
alicia.oshlack[at]mcri.edu.au