Women of Bio21 - Liselle Atkin

Tell us about your research:

I’m working towards the synthesis of anticancer fungal metabolites Penicillactones A-C and marine natural products Rogioloxepane A and Rogiolenyne D.

What did you want to be growing up?

From a young age I wanted to become a vet because I love animals, especially dogs.

However, I realised I would be responsible for the lives of people’s pets and seeing that I’m too afraid to clip my dog’s toenails, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t study vet science. My best subject in school ended up being chemistry. So, I thought I’d do a BSc degree at Melbourne Uni and see how things would pan out. I eventually majored in chemistry as I enjoyed it so much. In my third year I did an undergraduate research opportunity project (UROP) at WEHI in an organic synthesis lab. I thought “I could do this sort of thing for the next couple of years” and joined the Rizzacasa group at Bio21 to do my MSc and now PhD research in natural product synthesis.

A key challenge you’ve faced?

I face all the typical challenges students experience like 90% of my reactions not working and struggling to get out of bed in the morning. However, a key challenge I have faced is dealing with misogyny. I have been an academically strong student and have received some awards for my achievements. Unfortunately, there have been many times I have doubted my abilities (and sadly, I have heard many women express the same feeling) due to the male-dominated field we study in. A few years ago I was told by a peer the only reason I received those awards was due to female tokenism. I believe this behaviour is the reason why so many women doubt themselves. This damaging rhetoric needs to stop since women are equally capable scientists as men.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I was the top MSc student of 2016. I was expecting to be one of the top chemistry students, but becoming the top MSc student was a pleasant surprise.  I worked really hard and wouldn’t have achieved that result without the amazing support from my supervisor Professor Mark Rizzacasa.

What do you hope for women in STEM?

I hope around 50 % of the lab heads, research staff and students in STEM will be women in the future and that will be normal and unquestioned. Hopefully in the future we will not have to talk about women in STEM anymore because it won’t be an issue.

Who inspires you most?

I am inspired by people who have a healthy work-life balance. Laura Muir, a Scottish middle distance runner, inspires me. She was (and still is) one of the best 1500 metre runners in the world whilst studying vet science full time. Pat Sharp, a former post-doc at WEHI, also inspired me. He would go through natural product synthesis papers with me in his own time. This is probably what inspired me to join the Rizzacasa group. Pat also knew all the named reactions and mechanisms in Clayden’s Organic Chemistry textbook off by heart, which is amazing.

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

My hobby is distance running and I can’t imagine my life without it. I run for a club and train quite seriously. Most weekdays I run both before and after uni. Running helps break up the monotony of lab work and relieves stress. I also enjoy eating a lot and I like playing video games.