James first joined WEHI as an honours student and was drawn to the projects and passion of our researchers.
“Microbiology was my favourite field during undergrad studies, and I was particularly fascinated by the incredibly complex signalling cascades which worked together to make these tiny organisms tick”
“I recall really enjoying a lecture on malaria parasites, with their intricate subcellular architecture. I looked up who was doing exciting research related to malaria with a cell signalling focus, and Chris Tonkin’s name came up. We had a meeting, and I was immediately drawn in by the way he spoke about the malaria model organism Toxoplasma.
“It ended up being a great honours year, which led into my PhD. It was rarely easy, and often frustrating, but the sparks of success and support of people around me make those years some of my fondest memories.
“There is nothing like seeing something you know you are the first person in the world to discover. It’s incredibly rare, and takes as much blind luck as skill, but it’s truly special,” says James.
After three years as a postdoctoral researcher in Vancouver, British Columbia, James got his first taste of working in policy through the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship, which brings scientists into government to drive evidence-based policy.
“Moving from research to public service was very rewarding, and I was thrilled by just how interesting and engaging the work was,” he says.
“But my move definitely had its challenges. It was really jarring at first coming from science, where you’re able to work very independently, to government where there are constant checks and oversight.”
Perhaps most challenging, says James, was learning what a valuable contribution researchers can make beyond the narrow focus of their lab work.
“You may feel as if your specialised knowledge and skills are being wasted outside of the lab. However, PhDs and postdocs are also experts at project management, and analysis and synthesis of evidence. They have learned to communicate complex issues in clear, effective language, and – perhaps most importantly – are highly adaptable.”
Despite leaving hands-on science behind as a career, James remains very passionate about medical research and is able to harness that passion in his work.
“My main project is the development of an ‘action plan’ to support and enhance Victorian clinical trials,” he says. “I get to immerse myself in policy and strategy across a range of areas in Victoria’s medical research sector.”
On any given day, James can find himself providing advice on a critical issue to the Minister for Medical Research, meeting with stakeholders across the sector to gauge their opinions, or reviewing a funding proposal.
Since moving back from Canada, James has had the opportunity to reconnect with fellow WEHI alumni and those with whom he completed his PhD and to learn what they’ve been up to.
He has also recently signed up as an inaugural mentor in the WEMentor alumni-to-PhD mentoring pilot.
“One thing I wish I’d had earlier was someone who could help me understand my career options,” says James. “I think having a person who you can bounce ideas off and who can give you impartial advice can be incredibly valuable in guiding your career decisions”.
In his spare time, James enjoys getting along to local gigs and catching up with friends, as well as getting outside as much as he can, whether that’s day walks, car camping or hiking. He’s also trying to re-learn the piano for the first time in nearly 20 years “…which is going about as well as you can imagine,” he quips.