Episode 38 – Interview with ARC Future Fellow Professor Natalie Hannan
This week we had the enormous pleasure of speaking with the one-and-only Professor Natalie Hannan. Natalie is an ARC Future Fellow, the Associate Dean, Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and leads the Therapeutics Discovery and Vascular Function in Pregnancy Group, in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Melbourne. She is passionate about developing new approaches to combat major complication of pregnancy, especially preeclampsia.
Natalie’s research has been recognised by the award of continuous funding support through eminent Fellowships and research grants, with over $9 Million awarded to date, to undertake important research to improve the health of women and infants. Natalie has a strong research profile with over 135 peer-reviewed publications in international journals. She is also the President of the Australian New Zealand Placental Research Association (ANZPRA), and an executive member on The International Federation of Placental Associations (IFPA) and Society of Obstetric Medicine Australia and New Zealand executive committees. She also serves as Associate Editor on the journal Reproduction, and serves on the Executive steering committee for the Graeme Clark Institute at the University of Melbourne.
She is well known for her engagement and passion to communicate on equity issues, as well as her medical research to the public. In recognition of her public engagement and communication skills she was awarded a Young Tall Poppy award and was selected as an Australian Fresh Scientist.
Natalie is a staunch ambassador for Women in STEM and is involved in initiatives to reduce the gender inequity in STEM. In 2016 she was awarded an inaugural VESKI Inspiring Women Fellowship. She is deeply committed to equity and advocacy for all people, their purpose, and for medicine and science. Natalie believes strongly in a diverse and discrimination free workplace, where gender, sexuality and sexual orientation, disability and an individual’s background should not be a barrier to reaching their full potential.
You can find out more about Natalie and 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 cohost is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
As always, I have my trusty sidekick and colleague and friend with me, Michael. Hello Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m super excited for today’s episode.
Have you been described as a sidekick before?
I know I come out with all the sorts of interesting descriptions for you, and sometimes they’re not things that you’re used to. How about sidekick?
I know, I’m just waiting every episode Jen to what I’m going to be described as next.
I think I was a partner in crime before and now I’m a sidekick.
I’m hoping that I’m always respectful. Please tell me if you ever feel, you know, disrespected.
No, always respectful, always respectful, yeah.
Well, I’m very excited to respectfully introduce you and our listeners to today’s guests because Professor Natalie Hannon would have to be one of the most passionate, dedicated, kind and also accomplished scientists that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And Michael, you are just going to love chatting with her.
So Natalie’s work focuses on basically understanding some of the complications that happen during human pregnancy. But she’s been awarded millions of dollars in funding. She leads the Therapeutics Discovery and Vascular Function Group, which is part of a broader group called the Translational Obstetrics Group at the Mercy Hospital for Women, and she’s an ARC future fellow at the University of Melbourne.
She’s also Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Dentistry, sorry the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Science at the University of Melbourne. So she’s a really vocal and active advocate for gender equality in STEM.
If that wasn’t enough, she’s also the president of the Australian and New Zealand Placental Research Association. She’s a Veski Inspiring Women Fellow. She’s received a crazy number of awards for her work both internationally and nationally.
Most recently I saw on Twitter just the other day, the Dame Kate Campbell Fellowship. Nat, I have no idea how you’ve managed to fit us into your day. But gosh, we’re grateful that you have. So welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm.
That is the best introduction I think I’ve ever had, Jen. Thank you so much. Very, very kind and yeah, this was my pleasure and I’m thrilled to be able to join you today to chat all things science and communication.
So Michael, I have to start by telling you how I know Nat ’cause we do actually go back quite a long way. So this is going to, this is going to give away how old we are Nat. But back in 2006, we met because we both applied and were accepted into Australia’s National Fresh Science Competition.
And Fresh Science is still going. It’s a little bit different to what it was when we did it. But anyone listening who’s interested in learning to be a better communicator I think Nat and I would both recommend it as a great program. So essentially it’s a, it’s a boot camp to train early career researchers how to not sound like scientists. So you know, we went to schools. We had to do press conferences. We had to talk in pubs. We did all this stuff.
And I don’t know about you Nat. But you know, I was pretty fresh faced back then. I didn’t even really know what science communication was. But ever since then, you and I’ve sort of stayed in touch. We’re both busy, but we’ve sort of cheered each other on from the sidelines. And the fact that not only you are hugely accomplished and brilliant scientist, but you’re also such an active science communicator. It just, it makes my heart swell with pride.
Oh, I know. It’s, I have fond memories. And yeah, I was definitely fresh. Those times were amazing and I think we had such a great time in that program. And yeah, now we’ve become lifelong friends and been able to watch each other’s careers flourish. And yeah I, I also am so proud of you when I see wonderful things. So I think it’s absolutely amazing that we were able to meet and connect all those years ago.
I mean that competition, you know. So I’d just finished my PhD when I did that. I was my first year out of my PhD, but it completely changed the trajectory of my whole career because Fresh Science firstly showed me how much I loved being a jack of all trades rather than a specialist and made me realise that I loved hearing about all sorts of different areas of science.
But probably more importantly, it showed me that you could take a group of people who are highly trained as formal kind of scientists who write in, you know, in this formal academic style and weren’t necessarily very good at engaging the public. And in the space of a week we received really good training and lots of feedback and opportunities for practise, and we all became better communicators.
So I sort of went back to my job and thought well Hang on, why aren’t we training all scientists in this? Why do you have to wait until you can take part, a small number of people take part in a competition like this? Why aren’t we training all scientists to do this? And you know that’s, that’s what I’ve turned my career into. That’s you know, that’s where the story begins of me moving into science communication. So it was truly life changing for me, learning what science communication was.
Yeah and I watched I think about the pivot even for myself, even just having seeing science academics allowing the space for that and actually encouraging their you know, their students, their early career researchers actually think this is just as important. It’s not just a side thing, nice to have. It actually should be in every single person’s wheelhouse. And not, it doesn’t come naturally to all so… I think we really should be encouraging and supporting our early career researchers to be able to explore how they actually communicate their work.
And in some ways it’s, it’s a role that we actually have. We should be playing, it’s responsibility that we have to the community, particularly when we are funded by government grants and things. If we can’t tell the story, then you know, science isn’t finished till it’s communicated. So it, it’s a really important thing that we all advocate and support for that next generation coming through to do as well.
Yeah, it sounds like such a pivotal moment in both of your careers.
Feel like I’ve missed out, I wish I was there.
Oh it was fun as well, Michael. There was lots of other forms of communication.
And I think I had to sing a song to the, the backing of the YMCA about the uterus. So it was important.
Are there any recordings of any of your communication work?
Thankfully this was as Jen says, 2006, so prior to Facebook and camera phone videos, other things.
So I think we’re, thank goodness we were safe.
I’ll just have to imagine it.
We had to write limericks and all sorts of things. It was, it was really fun. But Nat I do want to go back a bit. Obviously we’ve just touched on some really fundamental things about science communication and why the three of us are all so passionate about it. And obviously we’ll come back to that.
But I’d love to hear a bit more about you and how you got into science. You know, what, what were you interested in as a kid and do you have a memory of when you decided that science was going to be your thing?
Yeah I, I, it’s actually really interesting. I have a vivid moment where I was in my year 10 science class and one of the teachers actually was talking about jobs and careers. And so I should also mention I come, I came from a very lower socioeconomic area. Going off to university to become a scientist was not the career conversations we were having. So you know, I didn’t even know what a scientist did.
We touched on like forensic science and at the time I can’t remember what TV show it was, but it was you know, we could see the forensic scientists going into labs and studying the DNA and the fingerprints. And I just remember thinking how exciting this was. Because how could you go to work every day and you don’t know what the answer or the thing that you’ll discover.
I was thinking about becoming a science teacher. And I’d even enrolled to do a Dip-Ed so that I could use my Bachelor of Science and become a teacher. And I stumbled upon by accident because my friend dragged me along who was, I was carpooling and she took me to an open day.
And I heard this most incredible story about how some women are infertile and they can’t have children. It really dawned on me this, this bizarre balance that you know, we needed to do more research into. And so I did an honours research year and that was it. I knew there was nothing else for me but to follow this I guess discovery on how I could help meet some of these unmet gaps in, in the field of reproduction.
Hmm, that’s yeah, that’s great. It’s umm, as you say, there’s so many different paths for scientists in so many different areas. It can be a little bit overwhelming sometimes. And great that you immediately clicked with this area.
I’d love you to maybe just elaborate a little bit more on that. So you said you did your honours year in this area and that was it. What was it about that that really kind of lit a fire underneath you? And that’s kind of that, you’ve kept that theme going throughout your career.
Yeah, it’s a good question. And the thing I loved about research was I wanted to ask the question that I thought we needed to answer, based on what I’d known from other people’s work. So it’s this continuum of seeing what someone else has done. Then you ask a question and then you answer the next parts, like pieces of a puzzle.
And I felt that in order for me to do that, I had to do a PhD because I wanted to drive the research. So I think of all of us as scientists and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in and what area, I think we’re all pieces in a puzzle. And you know, it’s that discovery. It’s really exciting.
And look at what you’ve accomplished. I mean, you said that it wasn’t even on your radar to be a university student when you’re in high school. And look at you now, a full professor. What, late 30s, early 40s?
Yeah, early 40s.
I mean that’s, that’s, that’s extraordinary Nat. I, I really you know, give you full kudos. I know you’ve worked incredibly hard to get there.
And I just hope you’re really proud of what you’ve achieved.
Oh yeah, as I say, so proud. But also so grateful to the unsung heroes that you know, walk with me and and have helped me get here as well.
Yeah, it’s definitely a team endeavour isn’t it, science?
For sure, for sure.
But hey, I do want to just want to jump back to 2006 again for a second, ’cause it occurs to me I’ve never asked you this before. But there you were, a PhD student, convinced that you, you know, you had identified an area of study that you’re really passionate about. But what actually led you to apply to be a fresh scientist ’cause I’d never heard of science communication in 2006. I didn’t even know what it was. It just sounded kind of cool and fun to me. But was that something that was already on your radar? Sharing science with nonscientists or like, why did you apply?
I, I saw the advertisement for this program and I just thought, I love to talk. I love… as you can tell.
That’s why we get along so well Michael, ’cause we just like to talk so much.
Yeah, exactly. And so I also love to talk to different people. And I thought what a barrier it is if I can only talk to like-minded individuals. You know, the skills to collaborate with people in for example, Faculty of Engineering, but we’re looking at developing biotherapies, bioengineered therapies for pregnancy complications.
But if I can’t communicate my science to them, then that’s going to be another barrier. And at that time I don’t think I even entered into my realm of thinking that science communication would be also important for grant success. But you know, just conveying my message out.
And at Prince Henry’s, where I did my PhD. It’s now the Hudson, but at Prince Henry’s Institute, our director at the time and and their director after had a big emphasis on philanthropic donations and support. So I also wanted to be able to talk to community.
While I was doing My PhD in this space, which is like really intricate and detailed, there was several people really close to me at the time who were actually going through IVF and infertility. You know, this can be a very complex and and painful time. And there’s a lot of misinformation. We need to make sure that with that scientific misinformation, that we as scientists come out with easily accessible information for those people. Because if the people who are misinforming those individuals but they’re the only people they can understand, then the scientists can’t correct that misinformation. So it was really important for me to actually talk to my friends and say “You don’t want that blood test because that’s actually not true. The blood test is not testing things that are local and in that space. And it’s just costing you money and it’s…”
And part of the other issue is IVF and assisted reproduction has really, it’s really kind of gone from a science, a fundamental science into a clinic very fast, without very good, rigorous scrutiny. And so I think the other part of it is trying to explain the scientific hypothesis behind why we would do certain things in a reproductive lab experiment to it’s you know, trying to help the endocrinologist or the, the reproductive medicine specialists, the doctors actually doing what they’re doing to patients and and things.
So I would go to conferences of clinicians and talk about the science and why what they were doing, was it potentially even a little detrimental and and could be actually reducing their success of what they were doing because of the way they were doing it.
And if that’s changing practise for a clinician, that’s one thing. If it’s helping a, a friend or a you know, a family member navigate through IVF or assisted reproduction technologies to have their own treatment for them, their own selves, they need to understand enough of that reproductive biology to actually feel you know, this is the right course for me or I feel safe in this space.
Yeah, and and I can imagine some of that communication is really hard as well you know. You, maybe you’re telling people things they don’t want to hear. You mentioned communicating to scientists saying, “Well, maybe this isn’t the optimal type of therapy”. And maybe it’s the same for communicating with friends. How did you deal with that? If you’re maybe yeah, communicating about things that people might be a little bit sensitive to.
Yeah particularly, I mean the, it’s very sensitive issue for people to talk about pregnancy loss, to talk about infertility. You know, whether it’s a male side of thing that there’s a problem, whether it’s the female side of the reproduction that’s the issue. And it can be really confronting. And again, it’s why I would try and use fact and not emotion. So it’s actually thinking back to the real fundamentals of what we’re talking about and using that fact to help them.
But you’re right, it’s a very sensitive area. And particularly you know, now I work more towards actual pregnancy complications so you’ve got these major complications of pregnancy that can be really traumatic for women. They often can lose the baby themselves or with preeclampsia, there’s a high risk of maternal death. So you know there’s, even that’s an issue.
And now what we’ve discovered and and it’s you know, not just myself, but there’s many great scientists working in this space. There’s now, once you’ve had preeclampsia, you’ve got increased risk of cardiovascular disease. And to try and talk that through with a, a mother or a, a pregnant person who has had a child, and that pregnancy was complicated by these complications such as preeclampsia or hypertension in pregnancy, you have to be very careful how you communicate that they need to advocate for themselves to go to the GP, to have checkups. Because even the GPs don’t necessarily understand this space yet. This is very new.
So yeah, it’s a fine line of sensitivities and and being really cautious. But I think it’s also helped me then in my diversity and inclusion role, because there’s a lot of sensitivities there. And so I think one of my tips is to really listen, listen to the person and what, what information they’re sharing with you. But like actively listen to what the information is.
And how you respond, think how that response or that communication, whatever you’re about to tell them, is that helpful? And if it’s not, you maybe hold that back. And is there a way to deliver that in a, in a, in a way so whether you’re talking to a pregnant patient or a pregnant you know, after the pregnancies over, what their health risks are now. There’s a way you can communicate that without being alarmist or scary.
And same in, in the area of diversity and inclusion. If someone’s sharing with you something very profound, they may have experienced racism or sexual misconduct. You, you need to be able to listen and find out what they need from that conversation, that communication. And then when you communicate back, you know, really trying to deliver that in a, in a way that’s going to help them, but, but also in a sensitive way that’s not, not going to harm them either.
Just listening to you Nat I just think wow, you’ve really thought a lot about what good communication is. You know, you’ve been talking about a lot of the things that Michael and I teach, to be clear on your purpose, to have a clear understanding of your audience, to think about the message that’s going to resonate, to listen actively, to think about the audience and how you can help them. I mean this is all absolutely gold standard communication. I’m wondering if there’s other things that you would identify that you’ve learned along the way about how to communicate science well.
Yeah, I guess the other part for me is when you, you talk to someone and you explain something to them, when you communicate something, their excitement or their engagement with that information can often be really inspiring. So you know, if I you know, I can think about an honours student that I was talking through how the placenta develops and and how it you know, invades and burrows and it has to anchor in and it has to really set its own blood supply up. So it’s, it’s really intricate, but it’s very controlled ’cause you can imagine if it goes too far, you can have real high risk of bleeding, bleed risks. But if it doesn’t go far enough, then the foetus, the baby that’s growing doesn’t receive enough nutrients or oxygen and and that’s why pregnancy complications arise.
So I think the exciting thing for me or the thing I’ve learned is you can see often, if you’re really looking actively, you know listening and looking at that person when they get it and that light bulb moment. And I think then without that conversation or that communication interaction they would never have taken away that piece of information. And then I think what they might go on to do after. For me, I think that’s like our legacy piece.
I don’t take credit for what they’ll do with that next. But I think that interaction, that, that important communication that went on was maybe pivotal to their moment where they turned in and went towards a different direction.
Yeah, I’ve only really begun supervising students. But I can only imagine what it’s like you know, being more experienced in that area and seeing your students go on and and kick goals.
And and I’m just curious about that you know, what do you advise your students in terms of getting them set up for a fulfilling career in science? You know, considering all of the, the challenges associated with a fulfilling career. You mentioned you know, equity issues and just there’s demands on time and everything. Yeah, what is, what is your advice to your students?
Yeah, I think all my students and early career researchers would tell you that I’m someone who says passion has to be the very you know, the very forefront of why you’re doing what you’re doing. So passion and purpose. And there’s going to be days where they feel like they’ve gotten out of bed and they’ve done nothing, ’cause an experiment didn’t work or something, their hypothesis was disproven. You have to have that culture that it’s OK to fail, because that’s innovation, that’s curiosity. And that’s the only thing that’s going to get us that one step closer to, to finding the, the reason.
And I think the other part of it you know, we’ve got to have fun as well. And so there will be days where it’s really hard. There’s a you know, there’s either a deadline on a grant or a paper, or we’ve got a lot on, on the plate. But you’ve got to have that fun as well. So you’ve got to have time to rest and recover. It’s vital to the survival of scientists, I think. And normalising that I think’s really important. So we, we talk often about this. I think it’s only a failure if you don’t try, and if you’re afraid to try because you’re afraid to fail. I think my advice is be brave and then be bold and have fun with it.
And embrace failure. That’s I think an important message to everyone. But Nat I just want to briefly ask you, you’ve just talked a little bit about lab culture. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on finding time for communication. Because you know, we all know how busy everybody is. I don’t have time to talk to the media or go on a podcast or whatever it is. What sort of culture is there in your lab?
I mean, obviously all the people around you see you making time for this stuff. Do you talk about that openly as being a responsibility or are you modelling what you think is good behaviour or…? Yeah, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Yeah, I would say both. I, I think I try and model it but also we definitely talk about it. And when I, when I talk to my team, I actually tried to explain to them they’re communicating science every day, even if they don’t see it.
So when they’re submitting an ethics application, they’re communicating their science and to that audience, this might be to an ethics committee. When they write a paper, they’re communicating to their scientific peers. When they you know, they might be submitting a abstract to a conference or a grant, they’re communicating to a panel of peer reviewers. And when they might be speaking to the midwives that collect our samples to so that they can communicate to a patient to help them feel comfortable donating their samples to us. So there’s communication in everything and I think normalising how important that is and actually it’s your role to communicate what you need from that other person or what you need from that committee or that panel.
But also, if any of my team have a talk, even if it’s a department seminar or it’s a big plenary, then international conference, we always calendar, put in the calendar, diarize a practise. And why that’s important is if you don’t make time for it as you say in your busy day, you’ll get, you can get to the point where you just think I’ll do it later, I’ll do it later. And then you turn up to this moment where people are giving their time to come and listen to you as well. And that’s a privilege. We need to make sure we’re respectful to that privilege and those people that we give the best of ourselves. And so, we also get each other. So all the peers, if, if my honours student or my PhD student’s talking the whole lab come. And we all give constructive feedback, actionable constructive feedback to that person. And as you know, I’ve got some PhD and honours and and so forth that they, they go on to win big prizes for their communication of their work. And it’s because we value it so highly, I think.
Yeah, and and having a culture as you say where you are also identify fun as being important.
I really resonate with that. Fun is one of my core values. So you know, I really, really appreciate that.
And the time has come for us to have a little bit of fun.
In the spirit of fun, here’s what we prepared earlier.
Perfect, love it.
So I’m glad you’re all for the fun…
I love fun.
… Because some fun questions now.
Rapid fire questions. Don’t think about it too much and just light hearted.
So first question Nat. If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
Ooh it would be absolutely having my own cake shop.
So one of my other huge passions is cakes and baking and creating, you know.
So I love cakes and love eating them, but I also love making them for others.
Well, I’m going to let you know when my birthday is Nat. Don’t mind me.
OK, next question. Please tell us what is your proudest professional moment.
It may be a several moments. But it’s when the people that I lead you know go on to do something great. And I just look at them and I’m just, I’m proud of what they have been able to do and become.
And I think at least it’s partly to do with my leadership and my vision and support of them. So that has to be the truth. It’s when I see the others are really important to me succeed.
It’s a really kind of tangible way of seeing the impact of, of what you’ve done, so that’s fantastic.
Alrighty, Twitter or Instagram and why?
Twitter, ’cause I feel like I’m a bit better with my words than I am in my photos. And also I, this is a real practical thing. I, my phone was too full of apps so I had to get rid of Insta. So I’m, I’m Twitter all the way now.
That’s the best reason ever for getting off of a social media platform. I didn’t have room on my phone.
It’s ridiculous, but true.
OK Nat, what is your favourite science related movie or book or joke?
Ooh I do love Gattaca. I don’t know if you’ve seen Gattaca.
Yeah, yeah. So good.
I’m wondering if the young listeners would have ever seen it.
And if not, I highly recommend to go and finding it, whether on VHS or DVD.
But I’m sure…
No, you can get it. You can get it ’cause my son, my 14 year old was recommended to watch it as part of a unit at school on kind of dystopian futures. And so we definitely found it online. It’s yeah, everyone should watch it. It’s pretty full on but great.
Yeah yeah, and the other one I guess would be… It’s not really science but I do love Back to the Future. With Doc Emmett Brown. He is amazing in that movie. And you know, just the the cool science about thinking about time travel so… And the music, the, the music definitely.
It’s, it’s… you said it’s not really science, but maybe it’s not really science yet because I think a lot of science fiction sometimes does turn into science fact. So fingers crossed for time travel. I don’t know. Or maybe we shouldn’t cross our fingers for time travel. It would be very complicated.
Yeah, not sure what we want actually.
Alrighty Nat, last question. You’ve given us some great advice on communication so far.
But I’d love to know what your top tip for effective communication is.
Keep it simple and remember the purpose. What do you want out of that communication?
And you don’t have to sound fancy or have big words to be important or have important work.
Hear hear, I couldn’t put it better myself, thinking about the kind of whole elitism that comes up sometimes in the way scientists communicate. Keeping it simple and not using fancy words. I love it, Nat.
It’s much more accessible for more people as well.
So if you want more people to benefit from that piece that you’re going to share, then keep it simple.
Yeah, 100%. Well Nat, we have been so so thrilled to speak with you today. Thank you again very much for making time for us. Congratulations on all of the work that you and your team do. And I’m just thrilled to be able to follow on.
So obviously we will share all the links to all of the great places that you are online and the things that you do so everyone can follow up. But please just keep doing the amazing work you do and keep communicating about it. And thank you for your time.
Thank you both Jen and Michael. This has been amazing. And thank you both for this fantastic podcast. I, I listen to it and my, one of my PhD students. We often talk about what was talked about on the podcast, that you know, the past one that dropped.
So I just think you’re doing an amazing thing which is so helpful to so many that they might not have people in their worlds that can help them with this. So this is a brilliant initiative. So you know, congratulations to you.
Thank you so much and it’s been a pleasure chatting with you Nat.
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
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