Alex Summerell


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I work as a Forensic Biologist [which] has been my dream job since I was about 15, and thankfully it is every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. I love it as it combines science with my love of problem solving and mysteries. I also have taught forensic biology on and off at my university for the last 6 years, which is another passion of mine. I am very lucky that I have known what I wanted to do since a young age, but that isn’t the case for everyone. There are so many directions science can take, and I think exploring different options is very important as well.

I grew up on the outskirts of Sydney – we lived on 5 acres of bushland. Both [of] my parents are very into nature which definitely inspired me! Much of my childhood was spent outside at home or going on bushwalks or camping. On our bushwalks my parents would be constantly teaching us about various species of plants, mushrooms, and animals – every day was a science lesson! It really made me appreciate the Australian flora and fauna we have and how important our environment is. One of my favourite times was going camping at Barren Grounds Nature Reserve in NSW and getting to go spotlighting, where you go on a bushwalk a night and get to see all the nocturnal animals. As well as nature, I was extremely into reading, puzzles, and from a young age loved mysteries and solving problems!

My dad is currently the Chief Scientist and Director of Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. He’s worked there since before I was born and did a lot of research in mycology and plant pathology. One of my favourite games to play with my dad (still to this day!) is to go on a bushwalk and ask him to name random plants that I see. He gets it right most of the time! Additionally, my mum was a scientist as well and worked in an animal science lab when I was younger, so I have strong science genes in me! They both constantly encouraged me to learn and ‘ask why’, and I think that had a big impact on me being interested in science.

I studied a Bachelor of Forensic Biology in Biomedical Science [then] followed this with an honours year and then a PhD. My PhD was in wildlife forensic genetics, investigating the illegal wildlife trade and specifically researching echidnas! I took two years off before starting University though which for me was a great decision, as I came back to studying more refreshed. The pathway is different for everyone – I did not plan to do a PhD when I started undergrad, but I am very glad for the opportunities it gave me and the path that I took! I would encourage others to explore options and take opportunities that come to them, even if you think it might not be on your direct path to your dream job.

“It is very inspiring to see the new generation of girls with such passion and interest in STEM, and I know that amazing things will come from them. They are the ones that inspire me and make me want to be a better scientist.”

I have been lucky to have had some great role models and mentors throughout my career. It’s special to be able to know you can go to someone and they will be there to help and support you without judgement. It’s then just such privilege to be able to be that person for someone else too, which is why I really love coaching or getting to teach students or train new colleagues at work.

Curious Minds has such a special place in my heart, and I am so grateful to be involved! I applied when I was doing my PhD and my supervisor had been a part of the program the year before. She said it was a great time and that I may be interested in it, and she was right! I’ve been a part of it for 5 years now and it’s such an enjoyable experience that I think both the student and coach get a lot out of. It’s something that I wish I could have had when I was in high school, and it is amazing to watch the girls grow and see what they produce. Being able to support young women (our future scientists!) is extremely heart- warming. I am still in contact with some of the students I coached, and they have done amazing things! Curious Minds is a special program run by amazing people and I’m extremely grateful to have been able to be involved in it.

This interview was developed in partnership with 3M