Professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, Mary carries out research on bioactive metabolites from marine sponges and molluscs.
Vetoed under occupational health and safety requirements
Mary’s interest in the chemical sciences started at high school when teachers had fewer restrictions about the sorts of chemistry demonstrations they could do. Mary recalls her inspiration for chemistry coming from her school teachers, especially Mr Jones. “On one occasion, he mixed the contents of two balloons filled with hydrogen and oxygen; the resulting bang cracked one of the windows in the laboratory.”
“We prepared evil-smelling methyl isocyanide by treatment of methylamine with chloroform under basic conditions. Little did I know then that, forty years later, bioactive isocyanides from marine sponges and molluscs would become one of the central themes of my research programme.”
With an engineer and botanist as parents, Mary grew up seeing science as an obvious career and went on to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge. “At Cambridge in the 70’s, women were in the minority in all classes; in my final year, I was one of 5 women in a class of 90 students.” Often going home to her single sex college as a place of blissful refuge, Mary used this distance between her fellow male students to redirect her academic focus.
“My father did not want me to become a chemistry researcher and his objection to me doing a PhD made me even more determined to succeed.” After obtaining her PhD from the University of Cambridge, Mary migrated to Australia in 1983, as a Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow. Mary is currently professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland and carries out research into the chemistry and chemical ecology of bioactive metabolites from marine sponges and molluscs.
Inspiring the next generation
“One aspect of my job is about training the next generation of scientists, both in training to undertake research and also to contribute to the intellectual development of their surroundings. It is also about teaching them how to communicate modern science to the layperson since they may end up as teachers, technical sales representatives, health care professionals, or even patent attorneys.”
Mary is a strong supporter of women in the sciences, “Nobel Laureates; Marie Curie and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin are my “heroes”, and are a source of inspiration even now.” In 2011, Mary organised a global breakfast function titled: "Women sharing a Chemical Moment in Time", as a pre-launch event for the "International Year of Chemistry" connecting over 40 countries and 5000 women. “We created a global chemical handshake that circled the world; afterwards I was invited to the UNESCO launch of the International Year of Chemistry in Paris to present video highlights of the breakfast event.”
Role models are important
Mary recognises the change in attitudes towards women in science since Marie Curie’s time, when even after winning two Nobel prizes, she was never elected to the French Academy of Science.
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”
“These words bring out her burning passion for science; that to me is the most important prerequisite to being successful in science.” With three women receiving Nobel prizes in science in 2009, Mary believes “the landscape is so different, but it is not yet 50:50 in the work place and so there is still much to do.” “If our universities and scientific workplaces better valued family-friendly policies, productivity would increase for both men and women.”
From her own experiences, she sees no reason why high achieving women can’t bring up a family at the same time; through commitment, hard work and an ability to focus. She further agrees that having a supportive family and line managers make huge differences in succeeding in science for both male and female chemists.
"Women chemists also have to be prepared to be more visible and accept invitations"
Mary works extensively in mentoring both men and women and believes the Athena Swan awards are making significant impacts in British universities. “Our Nobel Laureate in physics, Brian Schmidt, has led the call for a similar scheme here in Australia.”
As an active member of IUPAC since 2006 and current division president, Mary often reminds conference committees of the importance of female speakers and speakers from developing countries. “Women often comment that child commitments prevent them travelling overseas to major conferences – this calls for creative solutions; in Australia there are travel bursary schemes that include a component towards the cost of temporary child care while the parent is overseas.”
“When I was sitting in third year lectures in Lensfield Road, Cambridge, I would never have guessed that this would eventually lead me to completing over 400 scuba dives and to having a marine flatworm (Maritigrella marygarsonae) named after me. So my advice to others would be that the opportunities are always there – but you have to be willing to spot them. So do not wonder “What if”; instead, be prepared to give a new role a go. However, always have a plan B if things go pear-shaped.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Mary Garson
Published November 2014