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Career Profile | Benjamin Schwessinger

Job Title: Senior Lecturer

How did you choose your job? Or did it choose you?

I thought research was always something for me since my teens. The partner of my mum was working at a university in Germany at the time and I liked what he seemed to do. Though initially I wanted to get into food chemistry. But just before my final school exams I got sick and had to visit a doctor. She really questioned if food chemistry would be the right choice for me. She suggested for me to look up biochemistry because that’s what she would have done if she had known better. She was right and I ended up studying biochemistry. I loved it but didn’t like the whole biomedical aspects of it, hence I switched to plants and plant pathogens. At the end I was lucky and privileged finding an exciting position at the Australian National University. I can remember at least a handful of occasions that could have turned out differently and I might have ended up as a baker like all my brothers did (at least for some time).

What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up early around 5:30 or so and try to hit the pool (or the gym) 3-4 days a week… at least when work is not swallowing me up. Afterwards I drop of my son at school every other week. At university I do a string of tasks which are highly variable from research, teaching, service, supervision, planning, grant writing, mapping out new initiatives, keeping people afloat, getting grants, working with industry and government partners. I finish off anywhere between 2.30 and 7.30pm depending on all kinds of factors. Overall, I appreciate the flexibility also when the workload gets a bit too much at times.

How long have you worked in this area and what roles have you had previously? 

I have worked at higher education institution most of my adult life. Though I remember early stints in call centers and producing semiconductors at the assembly line handling hazardous chemicals. These early experiences make me appreciate my current job more.

What training/education have you received?

I started my biochemistry degree in Germany before moving to Scotland (Glasgow) halfway through to finish in Plant Science. Glasgow was lovely. Great place to be. I then had to move due to personal reasons and ended up in England, because all my top option in the US didn’t work out. I did my PhD at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. This actually turned out very well as I was in a young group with a very keen supervisor that needed to proof his worth. I think we did this as a group. These were exciting times as a new field in molecular plant pathology was just exploding and we were right in the center of it. I guess this shows that plan E can work out very well as well at times. I then moved to sunny North California for some years to work at the University of California. This was again amazing in a very different way. Let’s just say I learned a lot and had an amazing swim club. At the end of my time in the US, I was very fortunate because I had my own funding and one year of salary to go basically anywhere in the world. Somehow, I ended up in Australia despite having never visited or never expected to live here. It took some time to adjust from Bay Area San Francisco hustle to Canberra grove. But now I really love it. Australia is still a great place to do science. What I especially appreciate is the friendly and close community plus the short path to impact and interaction with government researchers.

What is your greatest career achievement?

I would have to list three here:

  1. I really enjoyed my PhD work that untangled some protein biochemical signaling pathways in molecular plant pathology. I am proud of it and it led to multiple follow up studies.
  2. During my postdoc, my work contributed to fixing a scientific publishing error and the retraction of a Science paper. The best about this was that the real biology turned out to be way more interesting than the error.
  3. Most recently, our work with ACT Health tracing SARS-CoV2 was absolutely a highlight. It was great to have significant impact on everyone in our community, work with an outstanding team across institutions, and make a bunch of new friends.

Of course, I hope this list will keep growing over the years.

How do you see your role changing/improving in the next 2-4 years?

I hope I will have a bit less paperwork to do and more time for reading…. Really, it would be great to get our Australian Research Council Plant Biosecurity training center off the ground. I am super keen to extend our work with the sector and to contribute to future proofing plant biosecurity in Australia for years to come. One can always hope, cross fingers, and put in work to make it happen.

What advice would you give anyone starting or changing their career?

That is a tough question really. I think so much is luck, privilege, serendipity, and finding the right supporters. The latter two one can kind of influence and I suggest to focus on these. Find people that support you and carry you along when you need it and allow you to do the same for them. Else breed opportunity whenever you can. This might be by supporting your colleagues, lending a helping hand when you don’t have to and work on things that don’t have an immediate return. You never know where it all can take you. Not everything can be pre-planned and the best stories are told retrospectively.