The oft Spotted Groper

Dear Creepy SciComm dude,

This is a letter addressed to you, as there are several things I would like to never see happen again in my life time, after making your acquaintance late last year.

The first would be to never again see you snake your arm over the shoulder of one of my friends, while she is focusing her phone for a celebrity scientist selfie, and clamp your hand over her breast. This blatant grope was at the conference dinner, early in the evening, before entree and before the drinking began in earnest. You did this, despite being at a conference that had a clear non-harassment policy. But hey, maybe you arrived late on the first day and didn’t hear the usual announcement of such a policy. That doesn’t explain why one of your male academic colleagues had felt compelled to warned me three days before, to watch out for you, as you are well known ‘sleaze’ in the discipline. This wasn’t the ‘whispering of women’, this was one of your male academic peers, who only interacts with you at discipline specific conferences, not SciComm events.

Clearly, you have a track record for this behaviour which is repeated over many years, revealed by a quick google search of your name and the term ‘sexual harassment’. Many, many blog posts about similar behaviour, that have been redacted or removed after threats of litigation. Which explains why I haven’t named you here, even though I would like to shame you in this article. (Although I do have someone looking out for a pro bono defamation lawyer based in your country, just in case.)

It irks me that your voice is one of the loudest shouting for the organisers of the Science March on DC, a group previously guilty of downplaying the needs of the most marginalised people in science. You have no right to downplay the lived experience of these people, considering you have caused of significant amount of marginalisation of women personally, as an individual. Although no court in the land has convicted you, due to presumably deep pockets to fund litigious behaviour. You should not be held up as a paragon of pro-science virtue, as you are part of the problem that causes limited diversity in science, not part of the solution.

Why didn’t I complain to the organisers of the conference at which I saw you grope my friend? I tried to support my friend at the time and to get her to make a complaint, as she was a victim of your poor behaviour. I tried to get her to give me the incriminating photo that she took of your hand on her breast, but she’s decided to hang onto it in case she needs it as evidence in the future. I didn’t make an independent complaint to the organisers, of my eyewitness account, as they are enthusiastic volunteers and I did not want to give them the trouble of dealing with such complaint of this nature, of your sexual misconduct.

Why have I decided to write this now, so many months later? It’s because of my anger at seeing your name ‘in lights’ as part of the pro-science movement in the US. It’s also due to the fact that I had to answer direct messages on Twitter from a female academic in your country, who had seen my necessarily oblique references to this groping incident on Twitter , asking me how her students could avoid being treated in the same way as you had treated my friend. 

Am I going to bother to write to your institution, to complain of the behaviour I witnessed from you? No, as they have a reportedly poor track record in dealing with your behaviour as they tend to look the other way because you add so much value with free advertising for the institution. Which is a pattern which is repeated by institutions hosting people like you, time and time again. A bit of unsolicited groping of women at conferences is okay as long as the celebrity SciComm person brings in media attention and/or grants, right? [insert sarcasm font]

The reports (and possible sound recordings) of you ridiculing our local custom of acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, when you visited another part of the country on that (funded) trip also disgust me. The lack of indigenous scientists in Australia is something we need to work so hard to try and address, so to have a ‘celebrity’ scientist heckle this most basic act of respect, is a disgrace.

I do not want to see you darken the door of my country ever again. If I had the power to instruct DFAT to refuse your next Visa application, I would. Sadly, I do not have that power. I do however, have a few friends and contacts amongst the TV and radio producers of science and current affair shows in this country. I have asked them to put out the ‘word on the street’ that you should never be asked to be a ‘talking head’ on any tax payer funded television shows or radio shows again. The last time I saw you* on my TV, publicaly commenting on women in science issues, it was to deny that there was an issue. It was refuted at the time by another panel member, a senior advocate for women in science in Australia, who set you straight on your denialism.

So this letter is to let you know that you’ve dodged a bullet. If I had more evidence of your misconduct, to protect me from inevitable litigation, I would name and shame you, as I find you an odious man, whose behaviour is abhorrent. Your continuing power and your mystifying popularity is a sad indictment to the state of science globally.

Yours in disgust,

That woman you will have forgotten, in a distant land. 

(Original version edited to remove references to sexual assault, due to lack of actual bodily harm…replaced with the non criminal act of groping)

*Update: I went back to TV recording for this point, only to find it to be a different old white US based SciComm dude from same discipline (with no alleged history of SH) ….Geez, these guys that deny or marginalise the lived experience of women in STEM all blur into one!


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Fears of flying monkeys limits accountability 

So, for those of you who like to keep track of my brave/stupid activities to advance the cause of Women in STEM, please listen to the ABC Radio National ‘Background Briefing’ Programme, by Walkley winning journalist, Hagar Cohen, about sexual harassment at CSIRO and University cover ups and gag orders, I was an unwilling party to, in my previous job.

The subject of this piece, however, is to discuss the inner workings of such an investigative piece, which somewhat compounds the insults already suffered by the victims. 

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t go looking for opportunities to take the moral high ground in specific cases (apart from my own) or launch bridge burning attacks on former employers. I was referred to Hagar by one of her ABC colleagues, as a person who had been brave/stupid enough to stick my head above the parapet on Gender issues in science in the past, including my own experiences of sexual harassment as a student

I gave Hagar a flat ‘no way’ to her initial approach…..but after a sleepless night examining the structural integrity of my moral fibre, I came to the ephinany of ‘If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ Several of my colleagues from the  ‘Twitterati’ had been similarly approached, as I found out in DM’ed conversations, full of hand wringing angst due to the taboo induced silence, facilitated by the risky shame of being seen to ‘bite the hand that feeds’ careers in academic research science. A taboo which I no longer suffer under, since having ‘flown the coop’ of the Ivory Tower some months ago (although previous convoluted steps taken by ‘the powers that be’ to gag my efforts to advocate for women in STEM issues provide a great cocktail hour story).

It was at her collegue’s suggestion that Hagar delved deeper into the story of Dr Ilana Feain and I had been previously made aware of a paragraph (subsequently redacted due to fears of litigation) on her experiences of sexual harassment at CSIRO in an ANZ Women in STEM piece by one of her Astronomy colleagues. 

But as the Internet is forever, see redacted copy here:

What her peers didn’t know was that while Ilana had been having sort of career young astronomers dream about, in the latter years she’d also been dealing with almost constant sexual harassment.
“There was a lot of grooming and then a lot of harassment and a lot of inappropriate conduct that was not managed properly which left me feeling extremely isolated,” she says. “I lost my confidence. I lost my self-esteem. That was part of what propelled me to look somewhere else to find a new, fresh and inspiring challenge to work with.”

Hagar is a talented saleswoman of any given narrative and I begrudgingly admired her tenacity and laser tight sighting  of the Achilles heel of her quarry. She sold me on the idea of corporate and personal accountability that her combined exposé may bring. The story was to be of a CSIRO Astronomy harasser (and the system that protected him) and also based on my evidence of the existence of a HR gagging order I was forced to adhere to, subsequent to a exit ‘deal’ being struck with a local bully in my old department. She had me pegged from the outset as a sucker for natural justice, a ‘failing’ of mine since I was a small child. 

The level of detail sought of the exact harassment allegations was something I strongly believe only a victim has the right to speak of, so I could only provide evidence for the internal University processes I had been involved in. Although I did consult with the main victim, to check she had no objections to me ‘Whistle blowing’ and using artefacts from her case. She was happy to let me help shine a light on the broken parts of the system, as like many victims brave enough to launch formal proceedings, she felt non plussed by the experience and the outcome. Understandably, she declined the offer to revisit the narrative of her own experiences, as she’d moved on and was very happy in her new role, away from the bench. 

I conducted the interview, careful not to make claims I couldn’t back up with the ‘black and white’ evidence I had provided, in case of legal challenges and had my photo taken in grim faced ‘Wonder Woman’ pose to provide a visual to accompany the story. I then popped by the Victor Chang Public Lecture series to speak as a patient Advocate against dodgy Stem Cells treatments before getting on a plane to speak at the EU Gender Summit in Brussels and see my friend Hilary, win the UK WISE Campaign ‘Hero of the Year’ award in London (these activities pass as ‘holidays’ in my world).

Meanwhile, Hagar, her producer Tim Roxburgh and team, were beavering away on the harassment story. As the publication deadline drew close, my interactions with them also increased as the ABC lawyers were nervous of defamation suits, if the perpetrators could be identified. Hagar was pushing hard to actually name both perpetrators but in the absence of victims willing to provide eye witness accounts (and also be prepared to testify in court, in any potential defamation cases) the ABC lawyers were not prepared to take the risk. I stated I was willing to testify in court about my claims (as it was evidence based truth) and even sounded out the NTEU (of who I am still a member, due to my loose affiliation with various parts of the university system) to see if they would take on any prospective case where I was prosecuted as a whistle blower on this topic. 

Ultimately, the fear of the ‘Flying Monkeys’ of potential law suits, meant the most of the finer details of both cases, including the names of the perpetrators, where stripped out in post production. Sadly, the victims who had been initially warned that the perpetrators would be named and perhaps themselves had (more) sleepless nights bracing for the impact of such a move, were again let down by ‘the system’ which again protected the guilty and of this opportunity for natural justice to see their harassers finally bought to personal account.  

As for me? I more interested in the statements made by the institutions involved as the PR damage limitation 101 pronouncements offered in reply did not even come close to holding themselves to account for systemic failures that allowed (and still allows) for these perpetrators to continue to ruin the careers of people they interact with in science. 

And if fear of litigation is the only currency to be spent in these systems….perhaps the ‘customers’ of academia, the students, need to start some organised sabre rattling of their own, like these US Students fighting back against the unwitting exposure to such perpetrators. 

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Vida perdidos: The event that changed my life

****TRIGGER WARNING**** Contains graphic descriptions of miscarriage 
It’s the end of the school year in Portugal and my only full beach day post conference, seems to have coincided with all of the primary schools in Porto, sending their classes to the beach for the day. As I walked on the wooden board walk, across the dunes, following a gaggle of happy 6 year olds, I was over come with a wave of melancholia, which sometimes hits me, when I think of my last visit to this beautiful country and my heart begins to break all over again. I think of the child that I lost here in Sept 2010 and as I meander at the end of the crocodile line of chattering school children heading to the beach, I wonder what that child would look like if it had survived.

It was the end of summer on my post doc at Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine and I had just started a 20 week long animal experiment, which involved gavaging 80 Mongolian Gerbils with Helicobacter pylori and feeding them specially prepared diets, to control their iron intake. I had just had my contract extended on the EU framework 6 grant I was on, owing to the fact that I had declared my pregnancy as I had recently had the all clear 12 week scan. EU grants are more like contracts and do not cover employee maternity pay, so my employer Leeds University had to cover the extra costs and extend my contract to cover the generous paid maternity leave period accordingly. 

I had got over the first trimester hell of nausea and at 16 weeks gestation, was ready for a break in the sun, to top up my Vitamin D (not always easy to come by in Yorkshire) so booked a trip to the Algarve for myself, husband and 2.5 yo child. We chose a tiny beach isolated resort, off the beaten track, that had a kite surfing school. My husband is a pain to travel with, owing to his hyperactivity and must have a task to keep him occupied while I enjoy the ‘fly and flop’ aspects of a bucket and spade holiday.

We had a lovely 6 days, relaxing for me and my son and the right amount of exertion for my husband. I had a cold all week (as always happens when I relax!) and the last few days had a sore lower back, which I dismissed as a combination of viremia and the hideous mattresses in the villa we rented. We packed on the Thursday night, after a lovely dinner out as we were due to fly on the Friday afternoon, back to Leeds. I still had to clean the flat to ensure we got the hefty cleaning deposit back, but figured I before we left for Faro airport by taxi in the morning.

Just after midnight, I was awoken by contractions. I recognised what they were as I had given birth once before and got in the bath, while my husband started to ring for a doctor. We couldn’t raise a doctor and the nearest hospital was in Faro, 50 kilometres away. We started to ring for taxis…with no success, as I cursed my stupid decision to go to an isolated place carless. 

Of course, I knew that a full and progressing labour at 16 .5 weeks gestation, was only going to have one outcome. I got out of the bath and started to clean the villa, as my husband went to seek help at 1am from the bars in the tiny town. My son was sleeping while I finished cleaning and packing and by the time my husband had arrived back at the villa with a family from Lisbon, who could speak English (and had helped call an ambulance) I was sitting outside on a park bench under a street light with my suitcases and sleepy child, who was perplexed as to why mummy was so upset. 

The family from Lisbon waited until the ambulance arrived and their two tweenage daughters watched me as I sat doubled over, trying not to cry out in pain and grief (as I didn’t want that to be their first experience of childbirth). The ambulance finally arrived and as the paramedic took my vital signs and my details, I could feel the last contraction push the foetus out into my underwear (thank goodness I was wearing black pants and not a skirt).

I was put in the ambulance and my husband and child (and luggage) of course couldn’t travel with me. I vividly remember the horror and shock on my son’s face as they were closing the doors on a van with flashing lights that was taking his mummy away. I had no idea how my family was going to get to the hospital in Faro, but figured they could raise a taxi at some point. 

It was a standard hospital transport ambulance but after taking an ECG, my pre existing arrhythmia had sufficiently freaked out the paramedics and so we stopped en route, to transfer me to a MICA ambulance. Thankfully, the paramedic in this ambulance spoke English and I was lucky to have my EU healthcare card with me, so I didn’t incur any costs for my transport and treatment. The paramedic managed to get my pants off and then cut away my underwear. At that point, I told him the foetus had been delivered. He had a quick look and nodded with pity, to confirm what I already knew. 

We arrived at Faro hospital and I was taken to the obs/gyn ward. I was asked to get off the ambulance gurney into a wheel chair at that point. I refused, as I knew that I would feel the dead foetus dangling between my legs. None of the medics spoke much English but after a quick con-flab with the paramedic, they bought instruments to cut away the foetus. 

The last I saw of my baby was a small but perfectly formed translucently purple foetus, in a clear plastic container, being carried away. I was then overcome with a strong and visceral urge to call them back, to get them to tell me the sex of the child. This urge was then followed immediately by my pragmatic side stamping hard down on the neck of this desire, as if it had a sex, it had humanity….and perhaps it was best to keep it as a foetus in my mind.

I was then ushered into a side room, containing a bed with stirrups and a ultra sound machine. The obs/gyn doctor was an older man, whose hairstyle was reminiscent of an young Elvis Presley. There was a male and a female nurse as well, and the nurse was Polish and spoke English, unlike the others. I was propped up legs akimbo on the bed….expecting a procedure to remove the placenta, which had not been delivered with the foetus.

What followed can only be described as ‘veterinary’ and owing to the language barrier, I had no idea what was about to occur. The nurses stationed themselves at either side of my bed, near my head as Dr Elvis douched me with about a litre of cold saline. Then he nodded to the nurses whilst simultaneously plunging his arm through my dilated cervix, into my distended womb. The nurses grabbed me and held me down to the bed as I had cried out and jumped in shock at such an unexpected physical violation. 

I felt Dr Elvis pull the placenta away from one side then the next then bring it about in his fist. I asked to see it and said ‘Completeo?’ to which the reply was ‘Si, completeo’. I was then hooked up to a synthetic oxytocin drip, to shrink down my uterus, to stop any potential haemorrhaging. 

I was wheeled out to lie in a ward corridor, with several other patients at the overcrowded hospital. My husband appeared with my son for a brief visit, as men weren’t allowed onto the women’s ward at 3am. I asked them how they got to the hospital and the kind family from Lisbon had driven them with our luggage. They camped in the waiting room, as I remonstrated with the ward staff, to be discharged early, so we wouldn’t miss our flights home that afternoon. 

After 4 hours on syncotocin, the bleeding had slowed enough to be managed with sanitary pads. I had managed to sweet talk the skeptical medics, who wanted to keep me in under observation for the recommended 24 hour period, by promising that I would arrive home to Leeds within the business hours of my hospital antenatal clinic, to be checked by my own medical team. We caught a taxi to the airport and checked in on time for our Ryanair flight. I managed to get a pack of maxi pads in the airport chemist and we boarded the plane…..which then sat on the Tarmac for two hours, for an unfathomable reason. (Perhaps a snap strike by Portuguese baggage handlers?)

By the time we took off, my son was agitated and proceeded to throw up on take off and landing…a habit borne from anxiety he continued with until recently. We landed in Leeds and drove straight to Jimmy’s (my clinic was on the same site as LIMM where I worked). Due to the two hour flight delay, we had missed the antenatal clinic and was ushered up to the birthing suite, which is the only place you can find obs/gyn doctors out of hours. 

We sat, surrounded to the sounds of women in labour, giving birth to squalling infants, outraged to be pushed screaming into the world. In true NHS style, we were offered as much tea, sympathy and stale curling ham sandwiches as we could stomach, whilst we waited for a medic to get a window between births to examine me. Within a hour, a young Polish registrar came to ultra sound me, to check that Dr Elvis had removed the placenta properly. He gave me the all clear but told me to see my GP over the weekend if I was worried about infected and necrotic tissue. 

On the Saturday, I had a 2cm by 10 cm strip of placenta fall out and I then sought prophylactic antibiotics to ensure any left would not go septic. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could try to get into see my fabulous female obs/gyn doctor on the Monday, when clinic re-opened. Dutifully, I rang at 9.05am on Monday morning, to request an appointment. To be told rather abruptly by the triage midwife ‘we all have miscarriages, get over it’ and that I was no longer allowed to visit the clinic as I wasn’t pregnant, until I had been re-referred by my GP to see my specialist.

Up until that point I had not shed one tear, as my pragmatic side had been in control since Friday. The dam then broke and the visceral flood of pain and grief washed over me like a tsunami. I was devastated to be treated so cruelly by a member of the ‘caring profession’ who then must have realised her mistake and promised to see if she could get me an emergency appt. When she rang back later that day, I had already been to my GP for the requested referral and I rejected her hastily arranged appt, much to her chagrin. 

I had never felt so utterly, utterly alone. 

It took until December 2010 before I got a chance to see my specialist. We were ushered into the ‘crying room’ of the hospital, a place designed for people who have lost babies pre term or to still birth. It had pastel plastic coloured couches and limp affirmations along the lines of ‘life goes on’, on the wall. It may have even had carpet (a rarity in a hospital). My specialist was horrified by the cruelty of the triage midwife and apologised on behalf of the hospital for such shocking treatment. We discussed trying again and possible causes of the late miscarriage (which at 16.5 weeks gestation, is normally the fault of the maternal environmental). I agreed and had plenty of theories after I had consumed the (surprisingly small) literature on late (post 12 weeks) miscarriages. I even wrote to Faro hospital (on my own hospital letter head) to request any pathology they had done on the foetus. I received no reply.

The experience of that miscarriage was the final straw for my time in the UK. I wanted to be back in Australia to be near friends and family, to be supported again. So I started to look for jobs back home. I checked the Deakin website, to see if the Geelong based medical school had any positions going, as it was my dream place to work. They had a 3 year fixed term entry level Lectureship going (aka my dream job). I knew my track record was slender and that I probably didn’t have a chance, but decided to toss my hat into the ring, just to get my CV read by the Head of Research, for future reference.

To my surprise, I was offered an interview and then offered the job, which I accepted, to start after working my 3 month notice period. Three days later, I discovered I was pregnant again. I arrived as a solo parent of a 3 year old, to take up the job in mid-May2011, 4 months pregnant. I managed to set up my lab (including an animal experiment) in the first three months, as we waited for my husband’s visa to come through. He arrived in the August and my daughter arrived in early October 2011. I was entitled to 3 weeks paid maternity leave from my employer of choice for women. 

This event changed the trajectory of my career and my life. It was the first (of several) object lessons that have taught me that while strategy and career planning is great, it’s actual life events beyond your control that can steer the ship, not you. During a subsequent ‘shit happens’ event, my MS diagnosis, I was given a full viral serology work up. I asked them to include CMV. It turns out, that I had titres for CMV consistent with a long past infection. Which makes me wonder if the head cold I had on that holiday was an infection that could have caused my spontaneous abortion.

Although, at the time, I was convinced it was Listeriosis from all of the Portuguese custard tarts I had consumed that week….although my specialist was more inclined to blame an incompetent cervix, and was tempted to stitch me shut, two days before I flew to start my new job and life in Australia.

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If you blog, will you lose your job?

Soooooooo much *THIS*

The Thesis Whisperer

I am publishing this post outside of my usual Wednesday schedule because I want to comment on a very live issue in Australia.

A deliberately unprovocative picture of the package of cheese snacks I ate while I wrote this post. Nothing political to see here. Moving on!A deliberately unprovocative picture of the package of cheese snacks I ate from a Starbucks in Canada while I wrote this post.

The Thesis Whisperer is truly a labour of love. It does not fit in my work week, which is filled to the brim with meetings, teaching and other commitments. I edit contributions and write my own posts during the weekend. It takes me about eight hours a month. I usually do this work on quiet Sunday afternoons when my boys are amusing themselves with video games, bike riding or some other activity they like to do together. I curl up with a cup of tea and my laptop on the couch, read guest contributions, edit, write correspondence and new posts.

I don’t want to be…

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Can we fix academia by disentangling the two core businesses of research and teaching?

Ah, I *do* love an Agent Provocateur, Adam.

But my only issue with this piece, is that as a course director, about to see the fruition of 3 years of Brainwashing undergrads to be Biomedical researcher ‘Engineers’ versus the (stable/ lucrative) Clinician ‘Mechanics’ , you need your top Research active people (preferably with skillz in ‘infotainment’), who can sell the ‘dream’, to overcome avarice.

Or at least sell future clinicians, the need to embed research for future job prospects (thus embracing their avarice) , as in the UK system. Hence the laggardly move to the MD model here. But the embedded research components, are barely Honours projects?

Lots of in silico data crunching for Clinical Epi is great for ‘sign posting’ in my research, but to find treatments for disease, we need rational drug design, which involves huge efforts to understand the basic underpinning mechanisms.

(after the 6-18 months to get your Ethics for Human/Animal/Biosafety through!!!)

Mel XX

Fear and Loathing in Academia

It’s been a while between posts. I’ll begin with two caveats. 1. I enjoy writing in stream of consciousness; think fast, write fast, let the warts be topics for discussion. Over-refined arguments are conversation killers. 2. I was an agnostic forced through the catholic school system. I took joy in arguing contrary points to extreme lengths just to see how far I could get defending them. A loss was often a win.

If you don’t like challenging your thinking, don’t read this article. If imperfect arguments drive you nuts, don’t read this article.

Cue 2015. Twitter is full of discussions of #ponzidemia and the unsustainability of academia. The ‘anointed’ professors get money, often for stuff they’re not best qualified for; track record is king. Junior academics are on the breadline, they spend all their lives submitting proposals, only to have all or almost all of them rated highly and rejected. Sometimes…

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No longer NULL and VOID VESKI application. Subtitle: Why I love twitter!

Edited update of the article from last week originally entitled: NULL and VOID VESKI application…I’m probably too innovative for an innovation award anyway….!

At the 11th hour of my VESKI award application last Wednesday night, I took to twitter to whinge about the ‘small print’ requiring my referees to be be external from my institution (even though they would be the best able to comment on my application)

As a result, two of my twitter followers, who I converted into ‘real life’ professional networking contacts, offered to help me out. These were the wonderful Prof Kathy Belov ( @kathybelov ) who hosted me at USyd recently to speak on crowd funding, and the fabulous Dr Darren Saunders, ( @whereisdaz) who I helped with his (failed) pitch to get the Garvan to let their researchers do crowd funding.

Both were able to to provide timely referees reports on my ‘innovative achievement’ of setting up a new lab, with the help of the new model of crowd funding research projects. And to take time out of their busy schedules, at short notice, to do this for me, renders me eternally grateful to both Kathy and Daz.

The foot note to this story, is that I received a call from the VESKI office, as they were perplexed as to where my ‘professional achievements’ list was. It was on page 4, as requested…but was a list of invited Academic and community talks, Hansard references by federal politicians and the link to the Lancet article, which mentioned me and my crowd funding ‘mentees’ Martin Rees and David Hawkes.

This was considered ‘non traditional’ as not a list of peer reviewed publications. I did point out that the innovation award guidelines stated that page 4 should be a list of professional achievements providing evidence and hence pertaining to the innovation for which I had put forward as my ‘life sciences innovation’. They accepted this to be the case, hence my application met the guidelines. Although, I was told ‘good luck with that’ in a tone that may suggest I have little chance of competing with those who demonstrate a more ‘traditional’ type of innovation.

Time will tell, if the ‘traditionalists’ see my application as ‘capricious’ or if some of the panel will recognise that there is many elements of innovation in my recent achievements.

Below is the first 3 pages (non polished) of my application:

Title: Blazing a novel funding trail: Innovative use of Crowd Funding for Biomedical Research

  • Lay Statement:

Dr Melanie Thomson is the national pioneer who has leveraged the use of science communication via social media, to successfully fund three novel ‘crowd funding’ projects, based on her research in medical bacteriology as an Early Career Researcher at the Deakin Medical School in Geelong. The impact of these campaigns and her associated activities, have had far reaching impacts beyond her discipline in academia, to diverse spheres such as government policy and the wider biotech industry, evidenced by her sustained willingness to engage outside of the ‘ivory tower’, to inform the wider community of the model and mentor those who follow in her fire-lit footsteps.

Her three consecutive and successful campaigns of ‘Mighty Maggots’ (2013), ‘Hips 4 Hipsters’ (2014) and ‘No more Poo Taboo’ (2015) have enabled her to engage with diverse audiences, highlights of which involved a mention in Hansard in the Australian Federal Parliament as well as several national seminar invitations as well as Key note speeches at conferences designed to inspire those about to embark on academic and/or industrial careers.

She was one of the original ‘beta testers’ of her University’s industrial partnership with the Australian micro financing platform, ‘Pozible’, as part of the Deakin’s ‘Research my World’ concept. Since those baby steps in April 2013, the concept has grown outwards from Deakin and Pozible, to attract interest and engagement from other academic and medical research Institutes within Australia, many who have invited Dr Thomson to report the ‘warts and all’ aspects of her experiences. She is also able to comment on the institutional and administrative challenges involved in preparing this traditionally conservative research sector, for such ‘disruptive’ funding models. She has also created a ‘track record’ of three successful campaigns on unloved topics such as medical maggots, flesh eating diseases and poo, in this time period.

As a result of her actions, we are now witnessing a paradigm shift in the way certain parts of the  sector of the medical research ‘industry’ seeks funding for the expensive activities related to this research.

The current impacts of her brave example have been felt at the national and international level, evidenced by ‘main stream’ reports of her activities in the national media and in the high impact biomedical journal, the Lancet.

Dr Thomson’s example represents a viable alternative funding model to those disenfranchised by the restrictions of the current research funding climate in Australia – which favours established researchers (often older males) at the expense of those trying to get a ‘foot on the ladder’ at the Early and Mid Career Researcher (EMCR) level or those returning from career breaks, often EMCR female researchers.

Her example transcends the boundaries of her own discipline of biomedical research. The ripples of the impact of her recent activity, using this concept, is evidenced by the adoption of this funding model by diverse academic disciplines as well as those who in the public sector (who inform the policy of the Dept Industry and Science) as well as members of the biotechnology sector in Victoria. The ongoing impact of her ground breaking work is still being assessed, but there is now mainstream acceptance of the necessity to embrace alternative funding models, which is embedded in reality for those in the pilot stages of a project, in the medical research and biotechnology sectors.

She is also always willing to engage in the mentoring and education of others on this concept. She has spent considerable time and effort to travel to Melbourne and interstate, when invited to speak on this concept by her academic peers. She is also committed to communicating her science and her crowd funding experiences with her local community groups.

  • Evidence of significance of this innovation.

Campaign 1 (2013): ‘Mighty Maggots’ seen at : .

Direct Funding: Numbers of Donors: 129 people, Total Donations: $9,9750

Indirect Funding: Geelong Community Foundation Grant $34,000, Queenscliffe and Point Lonsdale Community Enterprise: $3,000, Private donations from individuals (x3) : $4,250

Campaign 2 (2014): ‘Hips 4 Hipsters’ seen at:

Direct Funding: Number of Donors: 180 people, Total donations: $12,413

Campaign 3 (2015): ‘No more Poo Taboo’ seen at

Direct Funding: Number of Donors: 161 people, Total donations: $10,988

Evidence of Local and National Impact: Media Coverage (selection of total media artefacts)

04/08/ 2014 SYDNEY MORNING HERALD Young scientists use crowd sourcing to fund their research

16/06/2014 ABC Newcastle Interview with Dr Melanie Thomson, Deakin Medical School, about antibiotic resistance. Interview
25/05/2014 3RRR Interview with Melanie Thomson, Lecturer in molecular medicine, Deakin University, about host pathogen interaction.
1/03/2014 Australasian Science Science funding attracts crowds Interview
25/01/2014 Geelong Advertiser Infections hip and shouldered Interview
25/01/2014 Geelong Advertiser Geelong hip in world research Interview
19/12/2013 Geelong Advertiser Geelong at the heart of life-changing research Research  mention
20/06/2013 BAY FM Geelong researchers from Deakin Medical School want to hold a study into the Bairnsdale ulcer. Interview
01/06/2013 Geelong Advertiser The tiny jaws of life Research  mention
15/05/2013 Geelong News Science battles bacteria Interview
08/05/2013 Australian Research turns to crowd power Research  mention
01/05/2013 Geelong Advertiser Call in the maggots Interview
01/05/2013 Geelong Advertiser online Old therapy may heal wounds Interview

Evidence of International Impact:

Dr Thomson was interviewed with two ‘mentees’ Dr Martin Rees (UNSW) and Dr David Hawkes (The Florey) for ‘Crowdfunding for medical research picks up pace’ article, for the ‘World Report’ column of ‘The Lancet’ (a premier biomedical research journal) Volume 384, No. 9948, p1085–1086, 20 September 2014. Link:

  • Novelty of this innovation

The most novel aspect of the crowd funding activities recently undertaken by Dr Thomson, is that she has managed to successfully adapt the ‘Crowd Funding’ platform of social enterprise and micro-financing – more common to the arts and media disciplines, to help fund medical research projects. This was particularly helpful to her as new group leader, as she sets up her new research program during the early stages of her career transition from a post-doctoral fellow (in the UK) to an independent Principle Investigator, at regional Australian university.

These trail blazing activities has enabled her to raise her individual profile locally in Geelong with the mainstream media, as well as businesses, politicians and philanthropist organisations. It has facilitated her higher profile at a national level, evidenced by the numerous invitations to speak at interstate universities, some considered to be ‘Sandstone’ institutions.

Dr Thomson is now seen as a national torch bearer for the concept of crowd funding academic research and has been invited to deliver Key Note addresses at two conferences aimed to inspire current Higher Degree by Research students, as they consider their future career options and the transferrable skills they made need to sustain a portfolio career in medical research. (QUT 2014 and BioMedVic 2015)

She has also mentored several individuals from other academic institutions, using other new acdemic micro financing platforms, one of which was developed after early consultation with Dr Thomson (Dr Ben McNeil, Thinkable Platform via UNSW).

As a measure of the wider impact of her work, Dr Thomson has been interviewed by members of the federal Dept of Industry and Science, about her crowd funding activities and has mentored a Victorian Biotech SME during their recent (unsuccessful) campaign (Kirsten Puls, tinnAway campaign, 2014). She has presented at a recent Bionic Technology Workshop, as an invited speaker for BionicVision, Melbourne. She has also been asked to present the Key note address at the Smart Geelong Awards (Nov 2013) as well as present at local Rotary, Probus and Geelong Sustainability groups, who are interested in the model of crowd funding their own projects, such as solar panel purchase.

One of the most innovative aspects of her crowd funding activities, is her determination to raise the profile of diseases traditionally neglected by the world of corporate philanthropy.

Her first campaign aimed to have the much maligned maggot, transformed in to a mini medical super hero, to fight a rare neglected tropical disease. Her second campaign saw her collaborate with artists, graphic designers and animators, to implore the world to ‘think of the Hipsters’ who may be the victims of increasing antibiotic resistance of superbugs, in the coming decades. In her most recent ‘No more Poo Taboo’ campaign, she is employing a two-step strategy to firstly fund an awareness animation, to educate health care workers and medical clinic visitors, as to the dangers of the diarrhoeal superbug, Clostridium difficile. The secondary and ultimate aim of this campaign is to ‘convert’ this smaller funding source, into a larger donation from several US based philanthropic organisations, when she is hosted by the C. difficile Foundation, as an invited speaker at their National Awareness Conference in Boston, USA in November 2015.

Such a strategic use of her knowledge of the limitations of the achievable funding amounts, by crowd funding, is testament to the iterative and reflective learning process Dr Thomson has employed to study this innovative concept, throughout the past 20 months. Experiences which she is always willing to share with wider academic and biotech communities, both in person and online via her blog and ‘SlideShare’ account.

She now has three PhD students working on the three projects she has crowd funded, which constitutes ¾ of her nascent research program at the Deakin Medical School, in Geelong.



Filed under Crowd Funding Research

Mel’s crowd funding wheezes have jumped the shark…

This is my first (and perhaps last) post related to my third crowd funding campaign, that I have attempted in as many years.

In that time, I have been nationally and internationally feted, as a guru on the topic of crowd funding research, as an academic. Which was nice….validating as it were, in this day and age, when the catch cry of ‘excellence with impact’ in academia – is paramount.

But with some trepidation (given my current health status and the on going mental health impacts of such, documented in several posts here since the start of 2015) I decided to attempt to crowd fund a project I had been working on since 2012, that was the most promising from a ‘bench to bedside’ patient outcome and traditional peer reviewed perspective.

However, the disease in question, which could kill people with a toxic bacterial diarrhoea…had a distinct image problem, as it was decidedly non glamorous, from a marketing angle (and I say this from the perspective of a scientist that had ‘sold’ the value of medical maggots to the masses!)

I had previously discarded this disease as ‘impossible to sell’ via crowd funding, due to the general narrative of philanthropy for killer diseases and the hierarchy of ‘significance’ that exists with in this space. (If I had $10 for every time I wished I had stayed working in cancer research, I wouldn’t need to crowd fund!)

Perhaps it was the brain lesion talking, but I honestly thought that all that a disease that kills people with toxic mega colons (but mostly just gives people the shits) needed was the ‘Mel treatment’ of awareness raising and crowd funding.

And this with with the over arching aim of having an interesting and compelling narrative to tell, as an invited speaker to the Cdiff Foundation Awareness conference, in Boston in Nov 2015. I thought that I could detail the process of attempting to crowd fund and then hopefully present them with a new resource, with up to date info (such as, it’s not just a nasty hospital super bug….it can be acquired in the community and perhaps from pets and contaminated meat).

To create this resource, I would need to engage a professional animator, the fabulous James Hutson, from Bridge 8, who I had worked with before on my previous Hips for Hipsters campaign – who I knew to be exactly the person to create a witty resource that could hold mass appeal, on such a taboo topic. But I want to pay him properly for his intellectual property and his time on this occasion, which means I need to raise over $10k via my current campaign.

It was a risk, asking for funds for an awareness resource, instead of directly for my research…as my existing successful CF paradigm was to exploit the ‘Woe is me, the EMCR with no proper grants’ ….as feeling often shared by my peers and people of certain political persuasions on Social Media.

But, as I had been communicating to all and sundry, the concept of ‘engagement’ and ‘awareness’ as the best ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’ of academic CF campaigns, I thought I would just cut to the chase…and fund the actual awareness raising resource. But if the levels of bemused interactions with peers and some unsolicited advice (from those who have no track record of doing anything like this)…is anything to go by…I’ve made a huge mistake.

And my moment, when I strapped on the water skis and jumped the shark, Fonzi style? The moment when I uploaded a #undiesforcdiff selfie yesterday, in a vain attempt to garner any interest in a gimmick related to this project. It got me a couple of nice donations, but has left me pondering the last shreds of my professional reputation.

Certain events, beyond my control, involving mistakes made by the ‘powers that be’, with some of my most staunch previous supporters, leading up to the launch of the No more Poo Taboo campaign, left me wondering if I should pull the plug, less that a week out. I had 45 days, but needed 2-3 weeks of clear air time, to allow the generated toxic aerosols to settle (a habit picked up when working on liquid cultures of PC3 level clinical strains, during my PhD)

This strategy has left my woefully short on dedicated communication time, to clarify the goals of my project this time. I now often wished I had the bravery to press the ’emergency stop’ button, a few weeks back.

The only consolation I have is that when looking at the overall stats for success versus failure, on crowd funding campaigns, I’m currently ‘on trend’ heading for a 2/3 success to failure rate. And as a scientist, I need an internal negative control…(she tells herself forlornly!)

But, perhaps I can get an ‘ice bucket challenge’ viral campaign going, if I could get a celeb to represent this issue, like Carrie Bickmore did for a recent awareness campaign for brain cancer, in Australia. But I’m thinking we come back to my original issue…Poo is too Taboo for anyone to be associated with.

I would like to thank @greenepidemic (Dane) for the #undiesforcdiff hashtag idea and @ivalaine (Miranda) for the ‘nominate friends to do undies selfies, a la ice bucket challenge’ idea. And to all of the early adopters of my campaign, fingers crossed I won’t be giving your money back!




Filed under Crowd Funding Research