Talking Courage with a Postdoctoral Research Fellow

~5 minute read.

Jessica Borger

Dr Jessica Borger is a cellular immunologist with the Department of Immunology and Pathology, Central Clinical School, Monash University, who has contributed to understanding fundamental molecular mechanisms governing T cell function. Jessica’s research interests include understanding cellular mechanisms driving chronic lung disorders and developing novel strategies in cancer immunotherapy with the personal and professional goal to translate her research into the clinic to improve health outcomes for people with cancer. Jessica spent 10 years training overseas, completing her PhD in London, and postdoctoral training at the University of Edinburgh. Science education and communication is a passion for Jessica. She is a Teaching Associate and secretary of the Australian Society of Immunology Advanced Immunology School. Jessica was recently appointed Associate Editor at Immunology & Cell Biology journal, is a Topic Editor for Frontiers in Immunology and has written for The Conversation, Women in STEMM Australia and Women’s Agenda and attends girls and Women in STEM events and is an invited speaker at this year’s Soapbox Science in Sydney. Jessica’s contributions were recognised in 2018 by a veski Inspiring Women in STEM scholarship for mid-career emerging leaders.

Join us as Jessica vulnerably and courageously shares her stories of courage.

How would you describe workplace courage?

Courage is the foundation to every concept in the workplace, especially within the academic framework. Without courage you can’t be a leader as leadership requires stepping out of your comfort zone, questioning existing boundaries and making alternative choices, with the risk that at the time they may be unpopular.  Similarly, science innovation involves generating ground-breaking and nonconformist ideas, thinking out of the box, questioning common dogma and taking risks.

Leaders must role-model and champion courageous behaviour while at the same time nurture that characteristic in those they lead.

Courage takes strength and energy to push people and science out of comfort zones and overcome fears of the unknown.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

Foremostly, its being confident in your actions. A recent study in Nature found that most first-time female lab heads start at a lower payscale and on lower packages to establish their research. This instantly establishes the foundation for imposter syndrome, to which many women only build upon during their careers. There is significant competition in academia for everyone, including between women, so the choice is pull others down or be courageous and learn to pay if forward. Support others who may be competing against you for the same pot of money, the same award, but there is power in numbers which equates to building a positive and supportive network of peers. If someone is going to win, isn’t it more exciting and meaningful when its someone you backed.

To be a leader in STEM you need to challenge yourself, push your skill-set. In personal interactions, especially now I am moving from being a junior postdoc to a midcareer researcher which is the cusp of where the scissor graph sees many women leave STEM, I am learning to speak up more frequently, forcefully and truthfully and I have become the voice for those that aren’t ready to use theirs yet. I’m learning to do this in creative ways to avoid being labelled ‘direct’. That said, my noted ‘directness’ (I wonder if a male postdoc would be identified this way) has spurned me on to speak up more frequently, be less self-conscious of others judgement and become less apathetic. For me, it has been taking fear out of the equation; fear to have a voice, fear to ask questions, fear to challenge ‘what’s always been done’, fear of judgement, fear of not fitting in, fear of sticking out. Now through courage all those things excite and challenge me!

Jess Borger Immunology on the airwaves



Immunology on the airwaves.




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?  

I have wanted to share this story with people outside of my friendship and peer groups for a while. When I returned to Australia after 14 years overseas, having to not only deal with a feeling of being a foreigner in my own country and watch the decline of my father with a terminal illness, but I underwent extraordinary workplace bullying. Not in one job, but also the second position I fled to. Micromanaging, narcissism, racism, sexism, cruelty for cruelty’s sake. I am a strong person. I am a vocal person. I have morals. I have feelings.  I have self-worth. After 9 months in total, driven by a heavy feeling I needed to medicate for depression and anxiety which I thankfully realised was due to the situation not my physical condition, upon the burial of my father I handed in my notice. I had no job to go to. I had a husband and child to support.

I was scared. I had imposter syndrome. I took a bloody big risk. This was courage.

I refused to leave academia because of bad management, if I was going to go it would be on my terms. I then emailed every lab head in my area of scientific research and asked to go for a coffee. This was courage. I drank a lot of coffee for 2 months and talked a lot of science. This was uplifting. I met and networked with a lot of people. This was the realisation that I was a good scientist and a good scientific communicator. I had friends that told me I could do it. I had peers that invited me to events to ensure I wasn’t out of the loop. I had an exceptional support crew. I found a job and I didn’t leave academia because of the situation, I held on because I had the courage to ask, the courage to speak out, the courage to take a risk – a bloody big risk.

That experience put a fire in my belly. I now put my hand up for everything, it’s an automatic reflex. I look for opportunities and also create my own. I have crafted a formidable network of people in STEM, many who I can also call friends and continue to do so. I have also learnt to pay it forward as others have for me.

Risks are scary and there is no guarantee, but the results can be surprising and regardless of the outcome, you will be damn proud of yourself, as others will be, that you had the courage to give it a go.

From your point of view, to what extent are Australian leaders leading with courage?

Australian leaders in STEM lead with exceptional courage, especially those founding women who although repressed at the beginning of their careers have started to make their voices heard like Jenny Graves, the first woman awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science . Through this accolade Jenny told me it has empowered her to say exactly what she wants to, and she wants to champion women and girls in STEM. Similarly, Maggie Evans-Galea, who was initially terminated from her academic position when she told her boss she was pregnant went on to fight that mind-set and make formidable strides in academia but has also made significant ground-breaking achievements with establishing impressive networks for academics and industry through Women in STEMM Australia. The appointment of Prof Lisa Harvey-Smith as Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador signalled a courageous move on behalf of the government towards addressing and advocating for women in STEM, matched by the Women in STEM Decadal Plan. So at many levels, including a STEMMinist Book Club created over twitter through to female scientists in Melbourne (WISPP) championing neighbouring institutes to implement support and data analysis on the failings of academia to support Women in STEM, there are women in academia that through taking courage actions and owning courage, are establishing themselves as leaders.

You can connect further with Jessica and her work here:

I met Jessica at the veski Inspiring Women in STEM program.  I am delighted and honoured that Jessica has shared her story here.  She displays great vulnerability, authenticity and courage in doing so, role-modeling courage for others.  I hope you are as inspired to courage as I am by her words.


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