Thomas Taylor was born and raised in an Indigenous community with his family in the country town of Warrnambool, Australia. He moved to Melbourne to pursue a scientific career and obtained a Formulation Science degree with honours from Monash University. After 1.5 years into a PhD program at Monash University, he discontinued this degree to pursue his passion in education and retrained with a Master in Secondary School Science Teaching. In his current role as a science teacher, Thomas educates his students on science knowledge and skills as well as the history of Indigenous science. He is currently in the process of redesigning the school’s Indigenous curriculum to be more accessible to a diverse student population.
When did you realise your passion for science and how did you realise pursuing science in academia was not for you?
From high school to my undergraduate university degree, everything just took its natural flow. It was a difficult decision to continue and pursue a PhD, but it was an even more difficult decision to walk away.
Growing up, my family expected me to become a scientist. In my immediate family I was the first person to go to university, so there was this expectation and pressure to continue and keep going. To leave the prestigious path of a PhD to pursue a career, which sadly does not have the same respect, was very tough.
The main mistake I made for my PhD was that I did not choose the project I was working on. The project decision was based on the available funding and as a result, it was not an area that I had a lot of passion for. A negative spiral formed as I started feeling lost with the research project, I was disheartened and lost my motivation. After about four months into the PhD, I found myself in severe depression and I had to take a break. The absence though made it even harder to come back, and I got apprehensive about explaining my situation to work colleges again and again.
Mental health is definitely one of academia’s dirty secrets. It is rarely spoken about, and therefore many people suffer in silence. While there are resources available, it is definitely a very hands-off approach, which made me feel even more isolated. As a PhD student in academia, I felt like I was part of the machine, rather than being part of a team working together to solve problems. I was under the pump to perform experiments quickly often in areas that I was not an expert in yet. In the end, my mental health had gotten so bad, also because of the pressure I put on myself that the healthiest thing for me was to discontinue.
From my own experience, my depression was triggered by a combination of external factors and PhD related factors, but the academic environment definitely pushed it over the edge. The system is structured to be so hyper competitive. It took me about six months to make the decision to leave my PhD behind and get retrained.
My passion for teaching, which was the most enjoyable and satisfying part of my PhD, allowed me to restart my career. However, the retraining process itself also came with its own challenges. I had to give up getting paid, albeit not very much, to do something that did not pay me for several years. This was a really difficult choice financially, especially given that I was living away from home. Also, even though I left academia, I still consider myself a scientist. In fact, when I am teaching my students, I refer to them as scientists because being a scientist is more than a job in a certain sector, it is about a systematic way of thinking.
My career change has been a liberating process. Research can be a slow process and you could spend 15 years on the same research problem, whereas with teaching I get a new challenge every time I walk into the room. I also enjoy the opportunity to influence the next generation. In the end, it worked out for me. Although, it took a long time to make the leap and take the risk, it was worth it.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
Who is your role model?
The scientist David Unaipon was an icon to me. He was an Indigenous inventor from the 1930’s and one of the only well-known Indigenous scientists. In the back of my mind I hoped that maybe someday I would be the next one.
How do you engage high-school students in science?
At the moment, I teach a large spread of students from Years 7 to 11. There are different challenges in managing these students, because they all have very different needs. I focus on getting them excited about science and I make a point to always refer to them as scientists. As someone with hands-on experience obtained during my PhD, I can give the student more context in my job as a science teacher.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I tell my starry-eyes students to start their career in an area that is interesting to them. It is where their motivation will come from and they are more likely to be successful. They will find it easier to do the job and also be better at it, because they care