How did you get into teaching and the role you’re now in?
I have always been passionate about research. When I was young, my father wanted me to be an accountant. However, I wished to pursue a career that made an impact or some small contribution to humanity. Scientific research excited me. My journey as a Scientist made me a global citizen; it took me around the world to different countries and I worked in various research laboratories. I spent over a decade in USA prior to commencing a position as Professor at Macquarie University. It was only at this point that I was actually employed in a teaching position. I had given many presentations and scientific talks during my initial career as a scientist, including plenary guest lectures at a couple of events. However, my employment at MQ university was the beginning of my teaching career in conjunction with research.
When I initially started teaching, my thoughts revolved around these questions, “Will I like teaching?”, “How will my first lecture be?”. But now, I can say that I certainly enjoy teaching.
I try to design my lectures in an interesting manner to captivate the attention of the audience and I use this excuse to tell random anecdotes from my life experiences or my research. In my lectures, I like to add some historical evidences, or perhaps some peculiar facts on famous scientists and similar interesting bits. I sometimes use my collection of stuffed toys, giant microbes, as props. I try to engage in lectures that are fun for the students. I am glad that I like teaching as much as I enjoy research.
What do you learn from your students?
A good number of students have asked some really intriguing questions which I have not known the answer to. I read on these interesting topics that arise, find out answers and report back.
Teaching young minds enables self-teaching as well, as you learn new things.
I am a microbiologist; I know a lot about microbial genetics. However, I teach a course on molecular biology which involves not just bacteria but all living things. Facilitating this unit in molecular biology has actually paved a way for me to learn a lot more on genetics of humans, plants and other things that I hadn’t ever really needed to know or learn at any point in my career. Teaching turned out to be really useful because, historically all my research had been in bacteria, but in the recent past I have collaborated and widened my horizons with research in yeast and yeast synthetic biology. The genetics and molecular biology classes have actually been really beneficial to escalate my involvement in yeast synthetic biology.
What advice would you give to younger people starting out in an academic career?
I’m a big believer in not having all your eggs in one basket. If your project is to do one thing and one thing alone, that is a very dangerous place to be in, because in science, things don’t always work out as you might think they should. So I would emphasise having a diverse range of skills and a varied range of interest areas.
The second one is to grab opportunities when they come your way.Over the course of my career, I’ve changed the focus of my research several times according to the opportunities or collaborations that came my way. Things don’t always go as you think they will. When you start your career, you may plan to work on a certain scope for 30 years but it usually doesn’t work out like that.
Very often the more interesting opportunities that come along will actually be more compelling than what you are doing at the present time and you should grab them when they are offered to you.
I always thought I was going to be a chemist/chemical engineer. However, I landed in microbiology essentially by chance one year and really enjoyed it, and that is where I’ve ended up spending most of my career. Now I know very little in chemistry, those brain cells are not active currently.
What have you learned about resilience throughout your career?
I don’t know about resilience, but determination and drive are important criteria for success in science.
What drives you?
A combination of ambition and passion. I guess I’ve always wanted to succeed. I’m a big gaming nerd. I play role-playing games, board games and computer games, so I’m highly competitive. That helped in my science career, as the gamer in me always sought to optimise strategies to overcome whatever obstacle you are facing at the time. This was helpful in designing projects for success – thinking about strategies and planning on how to execute ideas. In science, there will be periods of time when nothing will work. There were at least a couple time points in my career when I pondered on quitting science. Most of my friends were computer programmers, had software jobs, worked less hours and got paid thrice my salary.
I pondered, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I hitting my head against this stone wall where things aren’t working?!”. So you need to have enough self-confidence and ample drive to push through those troubled times.
What’s the next big thing you’re working on?
Currently, the big thing for me is synthetic biology. We’ve spent the last two-three years as part of a big global consortium to build the world’s first synthetic yeast. That is now very close to completion. I’m excited about the possibilities of what we can do with the synthetic yeast, the tools we’ve developed and how can we use it to develop strains that will be industrially useful and answer evolutionary or ecological questions.
What inspires you?
I think this is the job that I have always wanted and dreamed of. I get paid to do something that is fun. There is something new in science every day. For the last 18 years, I’ve researched tremendously in genomics. I’ve had the opportunity and excitement of being the first person in the world to try and see the genome or the organism of the genome of a community. In some ways it is like trying to solve a puzzle, to work out how these things are doing what they’re doing or even work out why they’re doing it or how they’re surviving in the environment they are in. That appeals to the gamer in me, trying to solve the puzzle. The second thing that really inspires me is that,
I’ve got a great team of young enthusiastic researchers, both students and staff, who are overflowing with ideas. That just makes it a really cool stimulating environment to work in.
Professor Paulsen is a ARC Australian Laureate Fellow and Distinguished Professor.