This week we are speaking to Dr Kai Xun Chan, who has been named 2017 ACT Scientist of the Year. This annual award recognises the achievements of early-career researchers and seeks to celebrate and showcase scientific excellence in the ACT and inspire young people to pursue a career in science. Dr Chan is a postdoctoral fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology where he researches how different components of a plant cell communicate and coordinate with one another in order to respond to changing environmental conditions. In addition to this prestigious award, Dr Chan has won numerous awards during his career thus far and will commence the prestigious Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2018. Here’s what Dr Chan shared about studying at ANU and his advice for aspiring young scientists:
Have you always wanted to be a plant scientist?
Not really. Growing up I’ve always had a vague interest in science but I didn’t have a particular passion. Indeed, when I came to uni to do a degree in Biotechnology, my aim was solely to learn the knowledge and skills that could be used to help society through biotechnological applications. Things changed in the summer break after I completed the 2nd year of my undergraduate studies – I was accepted into the ANU Summer Research Scholarship programme and I did a short research project on plants in Professor Barry Pogson’s lab. That’s when I realized that plants have this incredible complexity and I fell in love with plants!
What is something that you have learnt during your career that you wish you were told as an undergraduate?
I have been involved in the award-winning Training and Inspiring Educators in Research mentoring programme at the ANU and one of the insights I have gained from that programme is that many talented young people lack the confidence to proceed with a scientific career. They often believe that they are not “good enough”, even though they were amongst the most talented students I have encountered in my decade at University. A similar thing would probably have happened to me if not for my fortuitous encounter with mentors who have encouraged me and given me the confidence to go on to the next step.
So I think it would be good if we spread the message amongst our undergraduates that they should believe in their abilities, seize opportunities that come their way and don’t let self-doubt prevent them from trying their best for that award / scholarship / job opportunity.
What actions do you think staff and students should take now to create an inclusive and diverse learning environment that could lead to equal opportunities for graduates in the future?
An important role that individual staff and students can play is to start conversations about inclusivity and diversity in their workplace and university. This doesn’t necessarily mean organizing a full-blown event or a march on the street; I think a relaxed discussion over a cup of tea with your colleague can often work wonders. I don’t think people are actively against diversity but lack of awareness can be an issue. For instance, we may not be aware of our own unconscious biases that are preventing our learning and working environment to be as inclusive as it can be. Being able to go on a journey of self-discovery to uncover and manage these biases can be empowering, and it can often start from a simple conversation with friends and colleagues.
Do you think that creating an inclusive and equal environment in STEM means that there will be fewer opportunities and more competition?
Not at all! I think there’s a misconception that creating an inclusive and equal environment in STEM must be a zero-sum game. What we’re simply asking for is that people who would otherwise miss out on opportunities due to their personal circumstances be given a level playing field to compete. I believe that the more talented people we can retain in STEM, and encourage their successes, then the more opportunities will arise for everyone.