Women of Bio21 - Julie Ralton

Tell us about your research:

I have worked on the biosynthesis of complex glycan and lipid virulence factors in medically important protozoan parasites for most of my career. My current work in the McConville laboratory is focussed on defining the biosynthetic pathway of a unique carbohydrate reserve material of Leishmania parasites that represents a novel target for new therapies to combat this disease.

What did you want to be growing up?

I had a love of learning and thought I may be a teacher when I enrolled in a BSc at the University of Melbourne. I had some inspirational science teachers and, growing up in country Victoria, I was unaware of any other career possibilities for university graduates. It was a revelation when I realized that one could actually make a career out of learning and discovery and I swiftly changed direction to embark on a PhD.

A key challenge you’ve faced?

Several instances come to mind – surviving the first year after giving birth to twin boys with our toddler daughter in tow would be up there.

It has been challenging at times to maintain a sense of value and achievement during my working life as I have worked part-time for most of my career and continued to work ‘at the bench’, which I enjoy. This is not the conventional pathway of academic career progression but it has given me the flexibility to engage in family and community life and I feel very fortunate to have had such an intellectually engaging and enjoyable career.   

What achievement are you most proud of?

Being a member of some very creative and productive research teams that have made significant contributions to our understanding of parasite metabolism, both here and during the 5 years I spent at the University of Dundee, UK.

Some might suggest working harmoniously with my spouse, Malcolm McConville, for 24 years is also a notable achievement!

What do you hope for women in STEM?

I keep hoping for attitudinal change in leaders across the academic community to provide generous and positive advocacy for women in STEM, as well as practical assistance to women navigating career progression through childbearing years – such a short period of time in the context of an entire career. I hope that the influence of women in STEM will grow and extend beyond academia into the public and political domain.  It is important for all of us to play a role in increasing scientific literacy in the community and encourage rational decision-making in our policy-makers.  

Who inspires you most?

Early inspiration for a career in science came from my parents – both keen horticulturalists and observers of the natural world. I grew up on a citrus orchard in northern Victoria and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ had a profound effect on my father’s farming practise. He became and early adopter of biological control and I was his shadow on daily tours of orchard inspection. I came to University to study botany and biochemistry. I learnt from growing up on the land that hard work does not always result in success, and that persistence and ingenuity are key to economic survival. These lessons apply equally to life in research.

Adrienne Clarke, my PhD supervisor, was an inspirational figure during my undergraduate and post-graduate years. She encouraged us to view science as not only an exciting and worthwhile endeavour, but also as an entrée to an international community.

What is your passion/hobby/interest outside of work?

Exploring the natural environment through hiking, skiing and camping. Wilson’s Promontory, the Victorian Alps and Tasmania are favourite destinations – it’s very restorative to be out in these spectacular landscapes and unique plant communities. Gardening is the next best alternative when confined to the city.