Collaborating for Change

Profiling Professor Renae Ryan, Academic Director of SAGE, Co-Chair of SAGE Self-Assessment Team, Chair of the Gender Medical Gender Equity Committee, School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney

As Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology, in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney, Renae Ryan has extensive experience as a woman working in STEMM.As a student and a postdoc Professor Ryan didn’t really think about gender inequity that much while studying and working.

Professor Renae Ryan











“There were lots of women in biomedical science; there have been for a long time and there still are.

“But looking back at my career I can see there were some times when I was treated differently because I was a woman, and as you progress through your career I think it becomes more apparent,” she said.

Steep drop-off

What Professor Ryan did realise when she was younger was that although there were many women as undergraduate and postgraduate students, and even in the junior academic levels, there was still a steep drop-off with very few women at professor level.

“Unfortunately, this has not changed very much in the 20 years since I was a student.

“Waiting for ‘women to rise up through the ranks’ does not work. There have been similar levels of women completing PhDs in Australia in the STEMM field since the early 1980s, but there is still a steep drop-off at senior academic levels,” Professor Ryan said.

One of the biggest surprises for her was to realise that STEMM, like many other professions, was not an even playing field.

“I used to think that everyone would be treated equally and the people that worked the hardest or were the brightest would succeed, but that is not necessarily the case.

“One’s gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, etc. affect how successful people appear and the potential they are seen to have,” she said.

We need to feel uncomfortable

She admits that tackling issues of equity, diversity and inclusion are difficult.

“They challenge our understanding of the system and our place in it – and that makes us feel uncomfortable and, at times, threatened.

“But we seriously need to feel uncomfortable and to honestly reflect on these issues if we are to achieve real and lasting change,” she said.

Professor Ryan’s research work investigates molecular pumps that are on the surface of our cells. These pumps move things like chemical messengers, nutrients and waste in and out of our cells and are known to be affected in many diseases including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, pain and cancer.

Her research team use a variety of biophysical and structural techniques to uncover the molecular mechanisms of these pumps and try to understand how they break down in disease.
They then use this information to design new drugs that target these pumps to treat diseases including chronic pain and cancer.

Biggest challenge

“Although I’ve had challenges in my studies and my academic career, funnily enough one of the biggest challenges I have faced is promoting women in STEMM at work.

“This has often been due to resistance of colleagues to the notion of focusing on gender equity. There are some that just don’t see there is an equity problem or who believe women simply are not as good as men – even now,” she said.

In her own experience, although she loved science Professor Ryan didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself to pursue a career in it.

“I was actually told that I would not be successful and should really think about doing something else.

“But at the end of my undergraduate degree – a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney – I completed a laboratory project with Professor Rob Vandenberg.

“It was the first time I had done ‘real’ science and that I actually enjoyed my degree studies. Rob believed in me and asked me to do honours with him and I received first class honours and then stayed on to do a PhD,” she said.

Leaping into the unknown

Another pivotal moment in her career was moving to the USA after her PhD, where she accepted a job as a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University.

“I was there for a year and it was amazing and challenging – both personally and professionally.

“I can see now the opportunities that this leap opened up for me – during my time in the USA, including a second postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, I was exposed to new techniques and science on a different scale and speed to what I had known in Sydney.

“I met so many great people from all around the world, who I am still in contact with today, which is one of the best parts of science,” she said.

Professor Ryan got involved with SAGE as she thinks it has real potential to change the current system.

Ingrained bias

“Bias against women is ingrained in our society, in our workplaces, our schools and our higher education institutions.

“We need disruptive systemic change so that women and girls feel safe, feel included and feel that they can contribute fully to whatever it is they desire to do,” she said.

SAGE is important to her and the University of Sydney.

“We are not setting ourselves up for success if there is a lack of diversity, and that comes in many forms, not just gender.

“There is a lot of evidence that diverse teams are more innovative and more successful – when you have a group where everyone looks the same, the group will start to act the same and become lazy.

“Visible diversity triggers better and more respectful communication – and we need more of it.”

Focusing on collaboration

A positive aspect of the SAGE program that Professor Ryan loves is the major focus on collaboration.

“I am really proud that we are participating in the SAGE Pilot at the University of Sydney and how well we are working with different groups across the University, as well as the career development opportunities that are arising from this.

“The current system in academia is flawed. The way we evaluate merit and success, and the values we promote, can be problematic.

“We need to reward excellence in research and teaching but also in collaboration, team leadership, mentoring, collegiality and positive impact.

“These issues are sector-wide and not simple to fix, but I believe national programs like SAGE and the work being done to address the culture within the University of Sydney will lead to change that will benefit everyone,” Professor Ryan said.