The rocky path of an early career researcher

After spending the first 10 years of my career as a practising optometrist in Australia and the UK, I returned to Australia in 1999 and seized an opportunity at the Cornea and Contact Lens Unit (now BHVI) where I fell in love with research. I liked following protocols, discovering associations, formulating and presenting data.
I was fortunate to be trained by Professor Brien Holden, Professor Debbie Sweeney and many other leading lights. We travelled to international conferences and worked in multidisciplinary teams. I had two kids, a good wage, great childcare support but after nine years there was a ceiling, and you couldn’t break through without a PhD.
My PhD (2008-2012) was a fantastic experience. I had great supervisors led by Professor Fiona Stapleton, and including Professor Lisa Keay, the previous and current UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science head. I learnt about epidemiology, genetics and project management. I got numerous awards and thought I was doing pretty well. Then someone said to me, “people might think you have been spending too much time getting awards and not enough time researching”. I thought, what?
This is a conundrum of academic life. You constantly must promote your research and profile to secure opportunities and build your CV because your track record is key. You also need to publish (on average four to eight peer-reviewed publications per year) and be awarded grants to generate the data to publish. And this is the crux of the matter. There is not enough money to support research in Australia.
Immediately after my PhD, I was awarded an Australian Government NHMRC CJ Martin Early Career Researcher (ECR) grant. These are highly-prized and provided salary and living expenses for my family to move to the UK for two years and work at Moorfields Eye Hospital, and two years to return and work at USyd.
There was no research project funding provided with the grant, so I spent the entire first year applying for funds. Exactly 12 months after I arrived, I started my (too) ambitious study on Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK).
At this time, other senior researchers saw my potential and invited me to work on additional corneal research projects. I was thinking that next year I would be going back to Sydney, there is not much AK there (I was wrong), I should take up these offers. There was also an opportunity to engage with AK patients in research (outcome was ‘No water’ stickers). Then my genetics study that I went to conduct started to unravel.
There was an outbreak of AK, I had a lot more gDNA samples than I expected, and we needed to find out why this outbreak was happening so the emphasis on epidemiology became more important. I moved back to Sydney in January 2015, then in October, I was diagnosed with Stage 3c breast cancer (now five years clear, I’m happy to report).
In 2017 as my CJ Martin Fellowship was ending, I was fortunate to be offered a four-year Scientia Research Fellowship at UNSW. This has given me the space to build a research team and be more strategic about my research as I am not continually stressing about where my salary and project funding is coming from. I published the AK genetics paper this year. The life of an ECR is not easy.
In 2018, the NHMRC listened to advice on fellowship schemes and started awarding project grant money to accompany salaries. A lot of the funding, however, is going to the top end of town, and this is not supporting ECRs and building our national research future.
Medical funding is being channelled into the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), but the big winners are cardiovascular disease and cancer. I can relate, but these diseases have large community funding streams, and we need more than 1% of that pot accessible to sensory diseases, including vision research.
Vision 2020 Australia and other peak professional and advocacy groups collectively can move the agenda forward for preventing and preserving good vision for life, by increasing the funding pot but also by supporting ECRs.
Name: Nicole Carnt
Qualifications: BOptom, PhD, GradCertOcTher
Organisation: School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW
Position: Scientia Senior Lecturer
Location: UNSW, Sydney
Years in the profession: 32 years

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