Frances Separovic AO excelled in school and was awarded a Commonwealth and a teacher’s scholarship but chose to walk away and work at the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as a technical assistant in a microbiology lab instead. It was there that Frances first encountered nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a technique that would be the focus of her research career.
From there she upskilled from a junior technician, obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Math & Physics from Macquarie University and eventually a PhD in Physics from the University of New South Wales, all while being a single mother. Currently, Frances is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Deputy Director of the Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne. She is a passionate advocate for women in science.
Have you always wanted to have a career in science?
I have always been a person who likes to work hard and has to figure out how things work. I think this is because of my background. My family moved from the former Yugoslavia to Australia when I was a child. As the first person in my family to learn English, and finish primary school, I wanted to work out how Australian society works. But I never really thought that one day I would have a career; I thought work was all about making a living.
It was not until after I had my son that I realised, the only way I was going to get ahead, was by getting an education. As a single mum, I went back to school while working full-time. I started off as a junior technician at CSIRO and, when people realised I was good at maths, they suggested I should work with the NMR machine. I changed to the physics department and finished working on my biology technician certificate.
To get a science degree I had to study three sciences. I loved physics and maths, but I hated chemistry. I do not like being told what to do, so I decided to only study maths and physics and nothing else. Therefore, the university would not give me a science degree and gave me an arts degree instead.
When I finished my studies, I was promoted to an experimental scientist and it felt fantastic. I thought I had lots of money and eventually was getting paid the average wage! I loved what I was doing and enjoyed studying. So, I decided to do a PhD in physics part-time, while working in the NMR laboratory. By the time I finished my PhD, my son had finished high school so I undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in the USA. I really enjoyed it.
When I came back to Australia, I saw a job advertisement for a senior lecturer in my field. I was so excited, except there was one problem, it was in chemistry. During the interview, they asked if I could teach chemistry. Of course, I said yes as I really wanted the job.
For someone who always avoided chemistry, it was a challenging year. I had to get up to speed on chemistry, while writing grants and doing research. I tell everyone that by surviving the first year I realised, I can do anything! It has given me the confidence to keep going. But to be honest, it is never easy. I never planned my career, it just happened.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
What is your greatest achievement?
I am very proud of bringing up my son. It was hard because his father gave me $15 a week for six weeks and then stopped. Despite several setbacks, I was a single mother who had a fantastic career in science.
How does imposter syndrome affect you?
Sometimes people get paralysed by the fear that they are not good enough, but for me it is the opposite. When I feel like I am not good enough, I use that to motivate me. I am someone who has always been competitive. When someone says you cannot do it, I want to prove them wrong. I have never thought of myself as ambitious, but I enjoy competition.
Why do you champion diversity?
It is important to champion diversity in science and great that we have started having these conversations, but they are long overdue. I think it is wonderful that we have more women in science. But when I see panels of all white women sounding the same as men, that is not diversity. We are just reproducing what already exists in academia, and so we will have similar problems in the future. We need to stop saying ‘change yourself’ to women and encourage them to promote what makes them an interesting scientist.