Talking Courage with a Doctor

(3 minute read.)


Dr Jessica Holien is a 5 Point Foundation Christine Martin Fellow at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research (SVI) where she works in the field of drug discovery.

She uses computers to create cutting-edge maps of the machinery (called proteins) which form the production line, and make cancer cells grow.  By understanding how this production line is formed, and how it differs to the one in the normal cells, she can discover new, selective drug targets.  These drug targets are then confirmed using a variety of biological techniques. Furthermore, once confirmed as important, she uses the computational information to design new drugs which may be developed into cancer treatments of the future. These computational methods allow for a more efficient drug discovery process, and because of this she consults to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry.

Join us as Jess shares how courage has enabled her.

How would you describe workplace courage?

Workplace courage is having the ability to do what is right in a professional manner. This means knowing your core beliefs, standing up for them, and taking responsibility if you were wrong.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

Medical Researchers are often their own worst enemies, particularly in academic settings. We are often plagued by “imposter syndrome,” the thought that we are not good enough for the role we have. Furthermore, there is a culture that we need to find faults in other’s work, and we need to compete instead of collaborating. This is mostly due to limited research funding (less than 20% of medical research grants get funded each year by the major granting body, NHMRC), which means most academic medical researchers are not sure where their next pay check is coming from and we lose many amazing scientists to more stable careers. This is not conducive to productive outcomes for the patients we are trying to help, or our own mental states.

So, to me courage is being confident in your abilities. It is also about being truly collaborative in your research and helping others to reach their potential instead of trying to find fault.

Furthermore, it’s about thinking “outside the box” and finding ways to continue to do what you love and believe in despite the odds being stacked against you.

Please describe 1-2 examples in which you have been courageous?  What did you do? Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?

couragephoto1When my children were toddlers (2 and 3), I obtained a grant which had the stipulation that I work full-time. Since I spend most of my days tied to a computer, I could see no reason why I could not work from home for some of the week. At the time, this was something that was not done in academia, thus the initial reaction to my request was a hard “no.”  However, I persevered, setting out clear reasons why this was a better option for me as it would allow me to have a better work-life balance and be more productive. Thus, with the support of my workplace (SVI), I began to spend two days per week working from home. Eight years later, I still work from home most weeks and I am proud to say that this mentality has filtered down to numerous parents and carers at SVI.

Another instance is in early 2018, when I was set to be one of the huge number of women who leave academia. Although I loved the science I was doing, all the other stuff (competition, lack of work-life balance, imposter syndrome, constant rejection) was all a bit too hard. Furthermore, I was constantly seeing more junior male counterparts getting promoted. I was in a difficult work situation and my mental state was not good. I started to talk and to tell people what was happening. Once this occurred, I had a team of people rally around me. A large part of this team were the women in the VESKI STEMsidebyside Program. I began to realise I was good at what I do and that I deserved promotion. So, I worked extremely hard to make new opportunities happen. I put myself out of my comfort zone. I got what I deserved and have never been happier.


The changing face of science:  Jess’ daughter and niece doing some “crazy” science.
“For them, girls doing science is the norm.” 

From your point of view, to what extent are Australia’s leaders leading with courage?

Australia’s leaders in my area, medical research, are being extremely courageous. Groups such as the Australian Society of Medical Research (ASMR), Australian Association of Medical Research Institute (AAMRI), Research Australia and Australian Academy of Science, are continuously advocating to Government about the importance of medical research to the Australian economy, and the need to increase Medical Research funding.

Furthermore, there is a movement for gender equity in scientific leadership positions. This means we are addressing why women leave science and having the difficult conversations about work-life balance, scientific bullying and imposter syndrome. To me, this is courage!

To connect further with Jess, please visit:




Participating in a 35km walk in 2018 with a group of school mums. This group smashed the walk, ending up in the top 10%.



I had the opportunity to meet and work with Jess at the veski STEM sidebyside Program.  Since then, I have been repeatedly inspired and delighted by her journey, which I follow closely on Twitter.  I can’t wait to see where her journey will take her next.


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