Her pioneering research is saving the populations of our most loved native animals but at school, Professor Kathy Belov AO (1991) originally dreamt of being a band manager.
In our first spotlight of 2021, Kathy shares how through talent, hard-work and timing, she has a built a career leading the world in science.
I began at PLC in 1985 in Year 6 and graduated from Year 12 in 1991. I had no career plans while at school. During my final years at school, I loved music and going to see bands play, so I thought I would like to be a band manager. I knew I was not talented enough to be a musician, but I was organised and thought being a band manager would work. My parents said no, you have to go to university. So I thought about being a teacher, an optometrist or a lawyer. I ended up choosing science. I wanted to do something broad, and science came relatively easily to me at school, so I just fell into it.
I completed my science degree, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. That’s when luck comes into it.
I was walking around a shopping centre and bumped into one of my past lecturers. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I wasn’t doing anything, so he gave me a job being a lab manager in his lab. Band Manager, lab manager - similar!
He was working in the management of marsupial populations for the conservation of endangered species and control of species that had become overabundant. I enjoyed working there and used it as a chance to save some money, and travel but I still wasn’t sure that that was what I wanted to do.
It was just a serendipitous conversation where one of my supervisor’s colleagues commented that marsupials have primitive immune systems. I thought: “that is crazy as they have been around for millions of years; how can they be primitive?” That is what started it for me. I got interested in that idea and enrolled in a PhD.
I found my niche where there weren’t many people working in that space, so I started studying how our native animals mounted immune responses to diseases. Of course, some of our most iconic marsupials are threatened by important diseases.
I was in the right place at the right time to build a strong research profile. That meant that I could build a strong team (which is something I love doing), and so I have had an amazing number of PhD students and Honours students working with me.
I was able to use my research trajectory to progress quite quickly through the ranks at the university. Five years ago, I became the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Sydney University in the area of global engagement. Research is about partnerships: it’s finding people to work with and then building trust and alliances to further a research project. This is what my work in global engagement is all about. I have spent the last couple of years building partnerships for The University of Sydney with top universities like Harvard, University College London, and Edinburgh. It’s been a fun trajectory.
There is no such thing as a typical day in my role, which makes it fun. I would go crazy doing the same thing day in and day out. Early in my career, I would be in the lab most days, whereas now I am running big research programmes. I will meet with my team and discuss their results, but I am doing less of the lab work but many more meetings! My role involved a lot of travel in the past, but of course, now it’s all on Zoom. In 2019 I was away about 150 days of the year, whereas, in 2020, I was home all year - it has been a bit different.
I attend and speak at many conferences around the world, and I sit on scientific advisory boards. Currently, I am on the scientific advisory board for Taronga Zoo, which is interesting.
I advise the NSW Environment Minister at the moment about koalas - such a topical issue. I still do some teaching and a lot of media and visits to schools.
As a scientist, I think it is useful if you do make mistakes.
You have got to take risks to make breakthroughs, so I believe it is good to make mistakes -- but not twice! I encourage all of my students to have a go, and if it is a mistake, it doesn’t matter; just don’t do it again.
Having said that, I think that the most significant learning I had was when I was finishing university I got glandular fever and I pushed through because I am stubborn and I kept working when I shouldn’t have. I got really sick.
That taught me a real-life lesson that you have to look after yourself; your health comes first. Manage it well, and prioritise that over work.
I clearly remember my PhD supervisor saying to me: “Kathy, you need to know when to sit back and when to sit up and thump the table.”
I think of that in my day to day work. You need to know when to use your voice and how to use your voice. Understand your values. Know when you need to speak up and when you need to let something go.
Last year I was very fortunate to be made an Officer of the Order of Australia. That was a huge thrill and not something I would ever have expected. I was very proud as this came through my team and my students’ work - the work we do saving Tasmanian Devils and koalas. It was also for the work I had done for Women in STEM. It is a passion of mine to support female students and help them establish a successful scientific career.
I was thinking about this yesterday. When I was in Year 12, Mrs Humphreys gave us all little notes and on mine she had said something like “don’t hide your light under a bushel”, and at the time I thought that was a bit weird. Now on looking back, I think that was amazing advice.
I would go back and say: trust in yourself, don’t hold back, don’t be shy, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it.
I love to read! I do a lot of heavy reading for work so I like to escape when I relax, so I enjoy reading trashy murder mysteries, adventure stories; I love the Harry Potter books. I am pleased now my nieces all share my obsession.
The other thing is I have a house which is always full of animals - there are two dogs and two cats in here at the moment - I think spending time with animals calms you down.
I have seven nieces and spend a lot of time with them, and again that just takes you away from the busyness of life and gives you a chance to relax and enjoy.
I am just starting to reflect on that now, probably because my nieces have recently started at the school.
As Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I meet with many students who are first in their family to university. They talk to me about imposter syndrome and the challenges they face in this new environment without anyone guiding them. I had taken this for granted as PLC Sydney and my family gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve whatever I wished to achieve.
I did the sciences at school, and I never thought that was unusual. There were plenty of girls in my class doing science, so it never occurred to me that I would be making lots of first steps later in my career as a woman in science. I think that the confidence that PLC Sydney instilled in me is really important.
I played the saxophone when I was at school (coming back to my love of music), so I was in the stage band and the jazz band. I have very happy memories of performing at the Opera House every year for Speech Day.
I met my best friend in Year 6, and we have stayed best friends all these years.
Find Kathy on Twitter at @kathybelov and hear more about her time at school here.