Postdoc Science Down Under

I can still vividly recall the comment: "I hope you have booked a return ticket!" Someone told me that when I had decided to do my postdoc in Australia. But I didn't listen and bought a one-way ticket. Have I regretted it? Not even once!

My personal interest in Australia goes back to high school, when I spent an exchange year in the Hunter Valley area of Australia. It was love at first sight, and I've wanted to return ever since.

Returning to Australia

After finishing high school in Germany, I completed a biology degree at Cologne University and went to do my thesis at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg from 1998 to 2002. I had already developed an interest in immunology during my undergrad years and therefore joined Bruno Kyewski and his group working on T cell tolerance (i.e., how the body protects itself physiologically against autoimmunity). After finishing my master's thesis, I stayed on for a Ph.D., as I had come to like the work and environment there a great deal, but I was already certain that I would be going to Australia to do a postdoc.

From a research point of view, it may have made more sense for me to do a postdoc at one of the U.S. laboratories that are performing state-of-the-art intravital microscopy for my work on T cell biology. And although I really love that kind of work, there was no way that I' would have given up my lifelong dream of doing research Down Under. So, during my last year as a Ph.D. student, I started looking for a position.

Picking a Postdoc Lab

I expected the search to be harder, especially because I only contacted those people whose work interested me after browsing their Web sites. Of course, not all of these cold applications were successful, but I got three offers, one from the University of Melbourne and two from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute ( WEHI), also located in Melbourne (to which I predominantly restricted my search for personal reasons). I wanted to get an impression of what the work environments were like, so I flew to Australia hoping it would facilitate a decision, but it only made it harder because I got two more offers.

In the end, I accepted a position at Phil Hodgkin's laboratory at WEHI because it applies quantitative approaches as well as computer-aided modelling to dissect the mechanisms of T- and B cell biology. And although I wasn't quite sure whether I'd be able to get the hang of all the maths behind the modelling, I was attracted to the challenge. I was pretty sure that I could offer them support with the T cell expertise I had acquired in my previous lab, especially because the lab is a little B cell biased. And although I had to give up working in vivo for in vitro, the enthusiasm and passion of my supervisor, Phil, for his work convinced me it would be the right choice. There were times when I felt a little uneasy about my decision but, thankfully, I can say I have not regretted it.

Melbourne is a fantastic place to work for an immunologist. Besides WEHI and Melbourne University's expertise in microbiology and immunology, there is the university's biochemistry department and other, mostly cancer-research-related, institutes.

Dispelling the Myths

What springs to most people's minds when they hear "Australia" is sunshine, beach life, and being laid-back, away from everything, and a bit "behind." As always, there is a certain truth to the clichés, but my experience, at least in the big cities, is that Australians work as hard--if not harder--than the people of any nation! As a matter of fact, only recently they were ranked sixth in the list of countries where people work the longest hours.

The fear of getting lost and becoming isolated on the other side of the world is an understandable concern, but one I can quash. Melbourne hosts an array of well-attended seminars and draws many international guest speakers. There is also a fine selection of Australian conferences, and usually postdocs manage to go overseas every year (although it is usually expected that they at least try to get their own travel funding).

Speaking of Funding

Funding isn't particularly easily obtained here. Although health science funding in Australia is generally good, many groups apply for the money and competition is tough. Personally, I started with WEHI money while I was waiting for the decision on an application I had submitted to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, a Next Wave sponsor). Unfortunately, it turned down my first try for the wrong reason (from my viewpoint), namely, that I was doing theoretical immunology and it was not supporting such projects. I hung in there, tried again, and finally was rewarded with an 18-month scholarship. I guess sometimes it's hard to convince people when you're not swimming with the mainstream!

Differences With Germany

Probably the biggest difference for me as a German working in Australia is in research funding. For example, unlike Germany, where many laboratory heads are employed and paid by their institutes or universities, in Australia, their counterparts have to come up with their own fellowships, i.e., salaries. On a more positive side, what I particularly like about science Down Under is the openness amongst most fellow scientists and especially the fact that here they have an 'academic middle class,' which is nearly nonexistent in Germany: People who like doing the labwork but are not necessarily that interested in establishing their own groups.

And, if your ambition is to have your own group, it appears to be much easier to succeed in doing so even as a junior scientist. At WEHI, I can see that although the selection procedure for group leaders is tough, those who do get a chance usually receive all the support needed to succeed. The institute is especially interested in rehiring their former students and postdocs. Outstanding scientists may be lucky enough to be recruited and awarded a 5-year support from the Miller-Nossal-Metcalfe Fund, which was set up by these three superb WEHI members to allow the awardees to set themselves up independently.

My personal experience at WEHI is that colleagues are usually happy to share their knowledge and cooperate on projects. Our research group is relatively small, currently consisting of two postdocs, two Ph.D. students, and one research assistant, and we work well together. There is much interinstitutional cooperation going on.

Australia to Stay?

I am often asked what I want to do when my postdoc is over: stay or return to Germany? I must say this is a very difficult question and, as of yet, I don't know the answer. When I left for Australia, I had just been offered a tempting position in Germany, which was hard to turn down. As far as I see it, I still have a foot in the door back home (given the right situation), but at present I really cannot say what I will decide. When you move to the other side of the world, you make a lot of compromises, especially regarding family and friends, and you should be aware of that. Going home for a visit is not a trivial thing to organise, and even the United States is a much easier (and less expensive) country to reach Europe from! As for me, my postdoc experience in Melbourne has been a positive and enriching one. And, yes, I am still glad I only bought that one-way ticket!

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