Episode 27 – Interview with Associate Professor in genetics and genomics, Francine Marquez
This week we’re thrilled to speak with one of the busiest (and most wonderful) scientists we know: Associate Professor Francine Marques. Francine is a Viertel Charitable Foundation and National Heart Foundation Fellow, and head of the Hypertension Research Laboratory at Monash University. She has published >90 peer-reviewed papers in top journals such as Nature Reviews Cardiology, Nature Medicine and Circulation, and has secured $7 million in competitive funding.
Francine has won 25 awards including the 2019 American Heart Association Hypertension Council Goldblatt Award, 2020 High Blood Pressure Research Council of Australia and 2021 International Society of Hypertension Mid-Career Awards, and the 2021 Australian Academy of Science Gottschalk Medal. Her team investigates the molecular mechanisms behind the development of high blood pressure, with a focus on disease identification and prevention via the gut microbiota using both animal studies and clinical trials.
Francine is also the co-program manager for the High Blood Pressure Research Council of Australia, the chair of the International Society of Hypertension Mentoring and Training Committee, and an elected member of the steering committee for the Gordon Research Conference on Angiotensin. Francine is an amazing science communicator and is passionate about effective and compassionate leadership in science – you can read her lab manual which we discussed here: https://www.marqueslab.com/manual.
You call follow Francine and find out more about her work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody, and warmest welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
As usual, we are so excited to be here together. Hello Michael, we meet again.
Hey, Jen. Yes, fancy meeting you here.
I’m super excited for today’s episode, Jen, ’cause we have a very special guest, Associate Professor Francine Marques. Francine is the head of the Hypertension Lab at Monash University doing some really fascinating work, particularly in the area of the role of gut health in regulating blood pressure.
But Francine, it’s really great to have you on because I also know you’re a listener and supporter of the podcast. You’ve shared lots of our episodes before. So thank you so much and welcome to the podcast.
No, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here and to talk to you both.
Yeah, it’s great. And Francine, you’re also an extremely accomplished academic. I could have a really long introduction listing all of your accomplishments. We’d probably take up most of the time, though.
Hahaha. Let’s not, let’s not do that. Then we wouldn’t actually get to chat with you. That would be silly.
But just briefly, I know you’re fast approaching your 100th scientific publication. Many of those are in top journals. You’ve secured millions in competitive research funding and you’ve won many awards. One recent award is the prestigious Gottschalk Medal by the Australian Academy of Science. So congratulations for that.
Thank you. No, that’s very kind. Thank you.
And Francine, I first became familiar with you from my time at the Baker when I was there as a PhD student. And I know you were there as a, as a senior scientist group leader at the same time. And I’ve seen you present. And I specifically remember you winning the Sir Laurence Moore Medal there in 2017 for your work, which was great.
And more recently though… And speaking of your work, I was actually a participant as you know, in one of your studies. And got to wear one of your 24 hour blood pressure monitors. I actually have a funny story about that.
So as you know but just for the listeners, the 24-hour blood pressure monitor is worn for 24 hours. It’s an arm strap that wraps around your arm, and there’s a tube connected to kind of a device that you wear on your hip. And you have a belt to hold it on, all in. But it inflates every 15 minutes. And you’re given the instruction to, to stop and be still when it starts inflating. So you know, I took this very seriously.
I got an Uber back from the lab, back to my house afterwards. And just as I was getting out of the Uber, the cuff started to inflate. I was you know, I was walking up the hill, back to my door. The cuff started to inflate, so I froze. But at that very moment I also just looked up and locked eyes with one of the neighbours in the window. So I must have looked very strange. You know, me just stepping out of an Uber walking up to my door, locked eyes with the neighbour. And then I froze. But I couldn’t explain what was going on. I tried with my facial expressions to you know, explain. Yeah, I had to stand there for about a minute. So I thought that was very funny.
They think that you’ve spotted an alien or something, Michael.
Maybe they thought that it was time to be frightened of something.
Yeah, I don’t know.
I don’t know what they thought. Yeah, funnily enough, they actually moved out shortly after that. So I never, I never actually got a chance to rectify. Yeah, or explain.
But Jen, I know you’ve also had some interactions with Francine over the time as well.
Well, Francine, you and I have been… I feel like our our potential interactions have been thwarted by COVID because you and I have had a couple of plans to be involved in some in-person sessions together. But they’ve always ended up being online, which makes me so sad. ‘Cause, I just feel like you and I would hit it off in a millisecond. Not that we haven’t hit it off online, but I feel like if we got to sit down and have a cuppa and a chat we’d probably never stop speaking.
But it’s been, it’s been a pleasure to meet you online, and we’ve talked about all sorts of important things. Some of the topics which we’ve also covered on this podcast, things like how to maintain work life balance and dealing with impostor syndrome and how to do work that’s aligned with your values. And I think we all kind of sing from the same book, don’t we? When it comes to how to have a fulfilling and and safe I guess, career in academia. You, you have to look after yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. No, I think we are very much on the same page for many of those topics and I hope we still get to sit down that cup of coffee or tea and have a chat.
Francine, I’m curious to take you back a little bit and ask you where it all started. I know similar to me, you started your training to become a scientist overseas. Did your undergraduate in genetics over in Brazil. But how or when did you first become interested in science?
Yeah, so that would be in high school. I remember when we start learning about genetics and I just fell in love with it. And I remember going to my science teacher and saying what careers can I do in genetics? Where can I study more? And she pointed out into the university and the calls that I got in. And in Brazil, the structure of their degree’s very different from here. And we have the opportunity to be in a lab, for volunteering in a lab doing research since very early on. So I had been in a lab since my first semester.
I then was able to get a position in the Department of Genetics which was exactly where I wanted to be. And I had a really wonderful supervisor, that she knew that in the end of the day I wanted to do research in human genetics. So she said her lab was on evolution and she said, “My colleague next door. He does work in human genetics. How about you go and you work with him for few months? And if you like, it can move to his lab. Otherwise, you can stay with us.”
And we hit off and then ended up staying in that lab for probably about three years, counting my honours. I stayed there for my masters degree in genetics and molecular biology. And that’s when I decided to have a gap year and come to Australia and that was 16 years ago. So I was supposed to go back to do my PhD there. And after I was here for a few months, I fell in love with Australia and decided that I wanted to pursue a career in genetics here instead. So yeah.
Yeah, that’s great. Australia can have that effect on people. Sometimes they come for just a few months or just one year and end up staying a bit longer, so…
Right, my career.
I know, I know what you mean. I know what you mean. And Francine, I always think it’s really interesting chatting about where scientists got the the motivation or the inspiration to get into the specific field that they’re working in.
So curious to get your thoughts on that. You know, did you have any experiences or mentors that shaped your thinking early on? Or how did you get into the specific field that you’re in now?
Yeah. So what… I found my PhD supervisor at Sydney Uni via their website and we went to have a chat and we aligned with a lot of thoughts, about healthy ageing, about decreasing risk factors for disease in general.
And high blood pressure is one of the top ones. We know that it is still the number one cause of death globally because it increases the risk of having a heart disease and stroke.
So that was very much aligned with my personal values in terms of helping people live healthier lives. And I decided then to do the PhD with him. After that I moved onto my postdoc, still on high blood pressure and genetics. And into the, my second postdoc, when about that same time I was diagnosed with cancer. So it was a difficult time transitioning between my first and second postdoctoral training, but it really changed my view of the research that I was doing and how it needed to really align with what I wanted to achieve, not knowing how much time I had.
And I think that helped me to shape a lot. The person, the scientist and the supervisor I am today, because I think when we are 31 and we just assume that we have all the time in the world and there is no rush to do the things that we might want to achieve in the end of our careers that we can look back and be proud of.
But when you suddenly diagnosed with a disease that you don’t know whether you make it even a year, it changes a lot, the perspective that you have in terms of time and, and what is the most important thing for you. And as I said, that really just changed everything.
Yeah, so it, it was a, of course I’ll always wish I hadn’t had cancer, to have to learn the lessons I did. But it really changed the person I am, to the core of the research that I do. That I wanted it to have a more immediate impact on patients. And you’ve got to love genetics and I still do work with genetics. I knew that that was going to take much longer than some of the other work that I’m currently doing with the gut microbiota.
Francine, we’re so grateful to you for for sharing your story so openly. And, and I know you’ve done that in multiple places, but I just think it, it never fails to just feel so incredibly powerful to have you share with us this, this space in suddenly not knowing how long you’ve got and having to think really carefully and strategically about how you might best invest your time.
Because I haven’t had that experience. But at some level because you’ve talked about it so candidly, I can, I can imagine what that must be like and it really leads me to the next question I want to ask you. And that is, you know, we know you are such an accomplished research scientist for your age and stage of research. You really have had just the most stellar career already.
But yet, despite the fact that you’ve won awards left, right and centre and funding left, right and centre, you still absolutely find time and prioritise the public communication of your work. And I think winning the Victorian Young Tall Poppy Science award in 2020 is evidence of that, because that award is not just about excellence in research, it’s also about putting time and effort into communicating science, you know, beyond the Academy.
So given how many scientists find it really hard to prioritise the time for this sort of work, tell us about your journey into really investing a lot of your time in public communication work.
I’m an introvert. Or at least I was an introvert. I think these days I might be an ambivert. But communicating science or communicating with other people was not something that came to me naturally. So for me it came with a realisation that the research that we’re doing is mostly funded by taxpayers, as well as receiving funding from foundations and charities such as the Heart Foundation. And these are donations from people that really believe in the cause.
And it is a part of my duty and I would say it’s unethical not to actually communicate my science to the people that support and allow me to do science. In the end of the day, I said my mission is to try to help people have healthier lives. And just doing the science alone is not going to lead to that.
So I know how powerful it can be that every time that we talk about the science, we can try to change people’s minds and just be a little bit more aware of their own risks and how they can prevent that. So a lot of the work that we do in my lab is related to diet. And dietary fibre in particular, in how powerful it can be to help us lower blood pressure, improve our heart health via the gut microbiota. And every time that I eventually give like a seminar to an academic audience, that I still talk about what foods who have high fibre, that most people are not eating enough fibre. And all of that, that usually the feedback is like “Oh, now I need to think what I’m going to have for lunch or for dinner”. Or if we are in a face-to-face event and there is usually lunch associated after my talk, people say I’ll have whatever she’s having.
Oh, that’s perfect. And given that you sort of, you self identified there that you at least used to be an introvert and yet you’ve really taken centre stage in a lot of ways. What have you learned along the way?
What advice do you have for people who find themselves driven by this sense of duty? I want to share my work, but gee, I find that personally really hard.
Yeah. Do courses, there’s lots of courses available through societies, through your institutions, talk to media communication teams. They might also be able to run some advice.
And practice, it’s a, it’s hard and it’s not something that I think comes naturally to most of us. But the more we do, the easier it gets. We learn words not to use. I think as scientists we tend to use a lot of jargon. So letting go of that jargon and being able to communicate clearly.
But it takes practice. That’s the main thing. It takes a lot of practice, but you get better with time and it gets easier with time as well.
Francine, we chatted about how you’re a listener to the podcast. And I know one of the episodes you enjoyed was our episode on editing. I know this because I’m friends with your recent PhD student and now postdoc Hamdi.
Ah yes, lovely. She’s fantastic. Yep.
And Hamdi said that you both loved the line “write drunk and edit sober”.
Yeah, it came in perfect timing because she was writing up her PhD thesis. And I kept telling her that because I think at the end she was getting tired of all the writing. I said just put it on the paper, I can help you edit. You just need to put something on the paper.
And I have used it a lot with my husband recently as well as he is doing an executive MBA and there’s a lot of writing involved in that too. And I keep telling him just write it drunk. Just write it drunk. Just put something on the paper.
Yeah, just write it drunk, but not too drunk, but just a little bit. It is a good line.
But I’m curious to ask Francine what your approach to writing is and editing, because I know you’ve written a lot of successful applications. What would your advice be to other scientists who are maybe just beginning to write their own applications?
I think think of your audience, always think of who is going to read and, and what they may or may know. It’s always better to assume ignorance and, and write things in a way that it’s easier for people to follow.
I usually tell my team that you need to make the reader feel smart. Because if they feel smart, they think you’re smart and they like what they’re reading. So making it very simple for people to follow, that they can feel smart when reading.
And remove abbreviations, leave some blank space, have figures that summarise important concepts that may be more complex, especially.
It’s such great advice, Francine. I just love the idea that I just think maybe we should go through all of our days and every person we come across you know, and interact with, if we could make them feel more confident and smarter and more empowered, the world would probably be a much better place, I think.
Yeah, I agree.
So Francine, you and I’ve talked quite a lot in the brief times we have interacted about how challenging it can be to be a scientist, to be a researcher, to be a PhD student or a postdoc these days. And, you know, obviously doing the research itself is unquestionably difficult. But then there’s all the kind of systemic challenges that are faced by scientists. You know, just how hard it is to get funding. Lots of issues around equity, inclusivity, diversity. You know, there’s there’s a lot of hard things, I think about the world we’ve all chosen to operate in.
And equally we’re massively privileged to be here. No, no question of that. But I know you’ve been really vocal about some of these issues. You know, you’re a lab head. You, you guide and mentor a lot of other scientists. I just love to hear your thoughts on when you’re mentoring younger scientists today. What messages are you sharing? How are you, how do you get the balance between being realistic about the challenges but also really empowering people to, to know that they can make a difference in the world?
No, thank you Jen. That, that’s so important. And I think that’s why it’s so essential that we all have clarity about our values that drive us. And the values that drive us at work are the same values that are going to drive us on our personal lives. As well as clarity of our professional mission.
Because I can tell you that at end of my career, the things that I will be most proud of are not how many grants or how many papers I published or what awards I won. It will be how I managed to help people, where that people manage to get you in their careers. And that they are happy, not just happy being let’s say, like having an academic life, but being happy in whatever they decide to do.
That might be completely different as well. But empowering these people, this will be my greatest reward when I finish my career. So I try to talk to them about them have finding that mission and having clarity of their values because it makes it so much easier to make every single decision.
So for me, my primary values are fairness and accountability. So I know that every single decision I make and every time I say yes to something, it needs to align with those values, because otherwise I don’t have enough time. And, and when I do things, I want to do things that are purposefully aligning with what my professional mission is, and that I’m holding myself fair and accountable to every single decision.
Yeah, it’s so great.
Hallelujah is all I can say.
Jen and I and the rest of the SciComm team have done some of our own values work on retreat. So I absolutely agree it’s something that can really help guide your decisions and give you kind of motivation.
Because at the end of the day, it’s your, it’s your actions that are important. And if those actions are aligned to your values, then you can take a lot of comfort in that, even though you might be thinking or worrying and questioning yourself. It’s a really good anchor, I think.
Yeah. And I think also what we don’t realise is that it is important that, that things are aligned with our values are not just my personal values. But something that has been quite useful has been doing that activity with my team and allowing them as a team to decide what values should drive us as a lab and what behaviours underline those values. And demonstrate that we are acting through those values. As well as what behaviours as a result we don’t tolerate as a team.
Fran, I think one of the things that really strikes me though, is that everything that you’ve just said really speaks to me. And I imagine a lot of our listeners are thinking wow, what an incredible scientist, what an amazing leader. Isn’t this wonderful? But the point is for you, you don’t just say this stuff. You’ve actually written this stuff down.
So Michael and I’ve been looking on your website and we will link to this with the podcast. We really encourage everyone to go to your lab website and up on the right hand side is a little link that says lab manual. And that, in fact, is this incredible document, manifesto about, about how you work, the values you have. It’s full of amazing quotes in you know, reminding your team that failure is, is essential.
It identifies particular values that your team together has decided are important, like collaboration and integrity and driving for knowledge and, and talking about wellbeing and equity.
Can you talk to us about the evolution of that document? ‘Cause it strikes me that… I mean, Michael and I immediately said, “Oh my gosh, we need to do this”. You know, we talk all this stuff. We know all this stuff. But we’ve never made the time to write it down. And I think you writing it down and making it public is just so powerful.
Yeah. So I, when I became a lab head at end of 2018, it was very clear to me that after seeing how all the labs were managed that the primary issue that happens is that people don’t discuss expectations early on.
I try to basically cover all the aspects that I thought that were really essential, talking about what my expectations were and how I saw us working as a team and making sure that we cover some of the key aspects that I have seen in the past that ended up causing communication breakdowns and then issues in teams.
So that was the reason. And after I have many times put on Twitter about lab manual, I get a lot of emails from people asking me to share the lab manual, which I always do. And that’s why I decided then to put it on the website, because it’s there.
And even I had recently a student that approached me and said I want to join your team because I have read your lab manual and I really like and I really believe in what you have there. So that’s the reason that I want to join the team. So I, I think that it’s, it’s really important to have that clarity. And I can see the benefit that has had in my team as a result.
Well, I just say well done to you because absolutely being clear on expectations and everything else that’s in that document. As Brené Brown always says, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind”. We can’t expect certain behaviours and actions from people if we haven’t established that’s that’s what we expect and that’s what we’re looking for.
So I really encourage every listener to go and read this document and think about how we can all collaborate and work with one another in more effective and, and kinder ways.
Yeah, and Francine, I suspect the management of your lab has a lot to do with the success of your lab as well, because I know your lab is highly accomplished and you’ve shared many of your staff and students’ successes, which is really great to see.
And I wanted to ask about advice that you might have for other scientists who are maybe establishing their own lab or maybe just other scientists beginning to mentor students.
The other side of that question would be advice to students who are maybe seeking out a lab or seeking out a supervisor. Because I know you’ve, you’ve been involved in a lot of those dynamics. So what are your thoughts about, advice around that?
So advice for students and team members is discussing expectations earlier on, meeting with people regularly. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that I see people do is not meeting with their teams enough. I meet with every single team member once a week and that gives them the space to talk about anything.
So I hear not just about what is happening in the lab and problems that may have in the lab or with techniques. But I also hear about that the hot water broke at home or that they broke up with their partners. And I hear everything.
But that also gives me an understanding of what is going on, that sometimes underlines behaviour like different behaviour. So having that open conversation because I have a time that we meet every single week allows them to actually share their life experiences as well.
I would say for people looking for supervisors, don’t think just about the project or how prestigious lab may be. Think about the time that you’re going to be able to spend with your supervisor, the type of supervising, the type of feedback you’re going to receive and what the team looks like. Because they’re going to spend a lot of the time with the team and they’re going to teach you a lot of the things, not necessarily the supervisor. But making sure that the supervisor has time to meet with you, have time to give you proper feedback, and they have your back overall. That’s essential. I would choose a good supervisor over fancy lab or a fancy project.
Hmm. Yeah, that’s really great advice Francine.
We’ve now gotten to the stage of the podcast Francine, where where we’d like to ask some lighthearted rapid fire questions to finish off.
Let’s do it.
I’m guessing because Francine’s a listener, Michael, she’ll, she’ll know what our questions are. We should have come up with new ones for Fran.
We should have.
But Francine, if you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Oh gosh, I have been passionate about genetic counselling. That was my alternative career path when I thought of leaving science some years ago.
But there’s something that I do in my spare time just for my own dogs is dog grooming. Perhaps that could be another career path?
Should we picture a poodle with you know, really fancy, fancy styling?
OK, Fran, what’s your proudest professional moment?
Seeing one of my students win an award that she wasn’t expecting and how happy and proud she was.
Ah, that’s fantastic. Twitter or Instagram and why?
All Twitter. I have an Instagram and I just look at what other people do.
I think I’m better with words than perhaps I might be creative with photos.
And I think there’s just not enough for like… I, I don’t think people want to see that many photos of me.
So definitely Twitter.
We would love to hear next what your favourite science related joke or movie or book is?
And you’re welcome to go for all three if you like.
Michael has snuck joke in there because he’s a big fan of science jokes.
Don’t ask him for one though, OK? Let’s not go there.
I’m not going to try the joke that that… that’s clear.
I don’t think I have a favourite movie.
At the moment I’m reading a book called Discovery of Witches which is very different from, from all the things that I usually read. That’s after COVID. I felt quite ill for a few weeks and it was just very hard to read anything more scientific or… I usually read like what about like leadership and communication and so on.
So that that has been quite different. But it’s very interesting that they’re talking about genetics of vampires and witches and stuff like that. And it’s just quite funny to see like them trying to bring the science, particularly genetics into this type of book.
Yeah, I’ve read some of those books as well Francine.
I know the author is actually a proper science historian and an academic, so…
I see. Makes sense.
You know, they’re published in that area and written books and then they decided to go down the kind of vampire and witches route with that novel.
There you go. Maybe that’s a career I should consider.
Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely.
So last question, Francine. I know you’ve given some great advice around science communication already. But if you had to pick your very number one top tip for effective science communication, what would it be?
Oh, practice. There are very few people that are just natural at this, I would meet. That was not for me.
And I think for most of us, we do need to practice. So yeah, give it a go. You won’t get it right the first time or all the time, but you get better.
And Fran I think the point is that people that we might perceive as being naturals at communication, actually they probably just have a lot of practice behind them. You know, when you see someone get up and give this brilliant talk and it’s completely ad lib and you think, Wow, I could never do that. And you don’t realise that they’ve given that or a similar talk potentially dozens of times before. They’ve just, they’ve practiced and practiced.
Yeah, and they thought of Michael being in the talk that I did 5, 6 years ago, that I think I have changed so much this style that I give my talks and everything else is absolutely terrifying.
So there you go. Yeah, yeah. We keep, we keep improving at the more we practice and the more opportunities we get and also through feedback. So always also be open to feedback.
Well Francine, our feedback to you is that we just could not be more grateful to you for fitting us into your day. We really do understand what an incredibly busy life you lead and all of the things that you take on board in addition to kind of your basic day job.
So we’re incredibly grateful for your support. We just love hearing about your work. We are massive fans. And we look forward to staying in touch and inviting you back so you can tell us more about your incredible work.
No, thank you Jen. I’m, I’m very grateful as well for the opportunity and for all that you do to improve science communication and give scientists a little help.
Fantastic. Thank you so much Francine.
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