Life of Science – Alyssa Barry

| October 5, 2012 | 0 Comments

A leading scientist who has worked in top laboratories in Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, and now heading up her own lab at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), Dr Alyssa Barry is also a wife and mum to two boys. She is also my big sister and someone I find incredibly inspiring. For as long as I can remember she has been very focused on her career but also equally determined to enjoy life along the way. Once while completing her PhD she told me she works so hard during the week so she could party hard on the weekends! A little older and wiser and now a successful researcher she still works incredibly hard but also allows time for the other things in life she enjoys.

Here, in our quick fire interview, she shares a little about what she does and how her life has led her in the direction it has.

1. Describe what you do:

I’m a molecular geneticist researching the genomic epidemiology of malaria. My lab is based in Melbourne but we work really closely with collaborators mostly in Papua New Guinea (PNG) so I go there quite often, and I also work in other places where malaria is a problem, including Africa, South East Asia and Solomon Islands. Our research uses genomic (DNA) fingerprinting techniques to map malaria parasite networks and migration, which is important for knowing where to focus malaria control efforts. We also look at how humans exposed to all of the different malaria strains eventually gain immunity to the disease.

2. How would you describe yourself in five words?

I had to have a long think about this one! I guess I’m expected to say positive things but others might say the negative alternative!
1. positive
2. determined
3. dependable
4. generous
5. patient and impatient in equal measure!

3. How did you get to where you are today?

I wanted to do Medicine but my marks weren’t good enough, so ended up doing a Bachelor of Science (at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, where I’m from). After my second year I was hooked on molecular biology and so kept going with that, and ended up doing Honour’s in the Molecular Biology Unit. During my Honour’s year I remember wanting to move to Queensland and be an aerobics instructor (it was the early 90’s!), however fate intervened when I saw a poster advertising PhD projects in Human Molecular Genetics at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne. I thought that looked really exciting so applied and ended up getting a scholarship to work on a project investigating part of the human genome that is essential for correct cell division (the centromere). It took about 3 1/2 years to do my PhD, and I had a great time. It was amazing working at the Royal Children’s Hospital. I saw some very unwell children in the hallways yet they always seemed to be smiling – this was very inspiring. Towards the end of my PhD I started thinking about what I wanted to work on next.

When I was 18 I’d also seen a World Vision documentary about children living in poverty in Africa and the challenges they were faced with. I ended up sponsoring a child so by the end of my PhD I was pretty aware of the major public health problems of developing nations. To cut a long story short, I settled on malaria, and found a job in a fantastic lab at Oxford University (UK). I ended up staying there for 5 years, and moved with the same lab to New York University, working there for two more years before returning to Australia in 2006 to “come home” and work at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne. I also had my first child around that time and so battled a bit over the next few years, trying to establish myself as an independently-funded lab head and balancing that with my family responsibilities, but my persistence and hard work paid off in the end. At the beginning of 2010 I was appointed as a laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute which is one of Australia’s premier medical research institutions. I also worked here briefly just after my PhD and it is just a fantastic place. There is a very strong focus on empowering early career investigators and gender equity so it has been a really great opportunity.

4. What/who/where do you draw inspiration from?

I’m really inspired by children and keeping them healthy. We’re so lucky here in Australia, our kids get looked after very well due to our strong economy and health systems, but in places like PNG, the biggest killers of children are completely preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea. It’s incredibly grounding to visit places like this. It makes all the little things I stress about in daily life in Melbourne seem so pathetic!

5. What person do you really rely on for support and encouragement in life?

Three persons actually: my mum, my husband Brett and my best friend Sarah.

6. What are you most grateful for?

I’m turning 40 next year so I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I feel quite happy heading towards that milestone. Professionally I’ve done well so far, but I still have a long way before I will consider myself accomplished as a medical researcher – I feel like things have only just started to kick off and what’s ahead is quite exciting – in that respect I would have to say I am most grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given by all my mentors past and present. Personally, I am so grateful for the fact that I’ve got a nice life and a wonderful family. After 11 years together my husband still makes me laugh and is incredibly supportive and I have two very handsome and healthy boys: Marley, 5 and Rafferty, 4 months. Raff took quite a while to become a reality so again, persistence has paid off and life seems more complete now.

Above: Alyssa and baby Raff.

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Category: Inspiring Women

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