Nicki Packer is Professor of Glycoproteomics and Director of the MQ Biomolecular Discovery & Design Research Centre at Macquarie University.
During her extensive career in biochemical research she has helped establish the Australian Proteome Analysis Facility (APAF) and co-founded Proteome Systems Limited.
She is internationally renowned for her research and publications on glycomics, and continues to work closely with industry.
“My research is in glycoproteomics, looking at new biomarkers, the mechanisms to do with disease and bacterial infection. This includes anything involving interaction between molecules, such as proteins, and sugars, which are everywhere—every one of our cells is coated with a sugar layer—but this research area has often been overlooked.
I was good at science and maths at school, so I studied those at university. I specialised along the way in biochemistry then chemistry and microbiology, but with no real end point in view. I was tutoring in the biochemistry department at Sydney University and somewhere along the way I looked at my all-male cohort who were doing honors and PhDs and thought, ‘I can do that. I’m as good as they are’.
For the next ten years I was in casual work—mostly three days a week in research assistant roles while I produced and started raising three children. I went from one ARC grant to another, all by word of mouth. I was passed around between chemistry and biological sciences, depending on who had money. I remember thinking ‘I am going to be the oldest research assistant in history’ and really thinking that I was not going to get a career as such, as I hadn’t specialised in one discipline. Now I think that has actually borne fruit because I understand more than just my specialised area. I might not have depth across everything, but I certainly dabbled in lots of different things.
I managed to get a fellowship with a group that had a great leader. When we didn’t get the money for a facility at the university, he realised that the only way he could keep his group going was to form a company. So, before Christmas in 1989, six of us jumped ship and gave in our resignation. We set up a company in the new field of proteomics, and over nine years we grew to more than 100 people. It was a huge learning experience: the group leader was the “mad scientist” with a vision, who could talk people into giving us money. We became very diverse. Our mistake in hindsight was that we were too broad and were killed by the big commercial guys who were able to undercut us.
About that time, after the company listed unsuccessfully, someone I knew at Macquarie asked if I was ready to come back yet? And I thought, ‘yes, it’s probably the time’. I left the university as a post-doc research fellow and came back as a professor. They wanted people in the university who had commercial experience as there were too many academics who had never left the university environment. I had patents, I had industry experience. So, I came back in 2007 and built a new research group.
Getting a job, keeping a job, having continual employment. That is still now the problem for many people: soft money, no security. I was fortunate enough to keep my hand in all the time, so I was up with the technology, maintaining my confidence and producing a couple of publications a year while I was in babyland and part time work.
I’ve seen the various graphs—the jaws of gender, the scissor graph, whatever you want to call it—but if you look at my career track it went up, flattened out, then took off again. If you look at the men, they go past us, but later in life is when they flatten off, because they got there (wherever that is!), and they’re bored. Instead of quotas for women we should tell the men, ‘you can afford to take your time’ (and do childcare, start a business, travel, whatever...), because then everybody could flatten off for a period of time in mid-career.
If you can get the guys to do that, then it’s a level playing field again. If they invest in themselves in this way they too will get back rewards in the long term. If they look after their children, for instance, they will get heaps out of it like most women do. Even if they want to try business and work part-time, or they don't have children and they just want to dabble for two days a week doing something else. Why not everyone flatten out for a while somewhere in a career trajectory?
Impact and Legacy
Most of my proudest work moments have come in the last decade. I was so busy with children, houses, husband, parents that I was just holding on. You look back and think, ‘Where the hell did that last 30 years go? And what have I actually done?’ I have three reasonably well-balanced children- but in terms of professional impact though, I’m involved in a number of initiatives nationally and internationally.
For example, I work with the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics on informatics and with an international group devising standards for the field. I also co-edited the textbook used globally for the teaching of this science. The large number of my students who are successfully progressing their careers all over the world is also a source of pride to me.
I’ve been thinking seriously about my research legacy over the last couple of years. I now have a joint appointment with Griffith University at the Institute for Glycomics. We've set up a group of six people there under an ex post-doctoral fellow of mine, and I have another post-doctoral fellow here at Macquarie building up a his own team. It’s entirely collaborative between the two groups.
Some years ago, a high-end scientist and thought-leader in Germany retired, closing his lab down. That influenced me at the time. All that knowledge gone; what a tragedy! It all has to be done again. So, my legacy now is setting up these two groups with mid-career researchers leading them and taking my science forward.
Advice to Younger Women
It’s the advice I give my children: you should follow what interests you, but as well have in the back of your mind that you have to get a job! You not only have to love the idea, whatever the interest, you also have to at least like the job it takes you into.
For young women, the good ones can certainly still make a career in science. People say it's much harder now, but I'm not sure it is. It's always been hard to get money for science. It's always been hard to get fellowships and good jobs. There are very limited academic career paths, and always have been – so stay flexible and don’t let opportunities pass you by.”