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After 20 years at the nation’s top nuclear research facility, Jill Trewhella isn’t sure where she’ll be the year after next. The former director of the bioscience division at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory left the lab this past May when she and her husband–who had been at Los Alamos for 30 years himself–headed for Salt Lake City and a year-long appointment at the University of Utah. At Utah, she’s been asked to do what she did during her time at Los Alamos: to bring together seemingly disparate disciplines, build large multi-institutional programs, and continue her research in structural biology.
What happens after that? She’s not sure. Maybe she’ll move back home to Australia.
I spoke to Trewhella about leaving Los Alamos, and possibly returning to Australia, during a phone interview. We also talked about other aspects of her career, coming to the United States, and how Australia’s educational system prepared her for a career in the sciences.
Coming to America Trewhella came to the United States in 1980, as a postdoc at Yale University in Connecticut. At the time, there were only “a handful” of postdoc opportunities in Australia, so she chose to apply to Yale. Obviously aware of her potential, three labs offered her a post. Yale thought so highly of her that–unlike most immigrants–her first view of this country was through a limousine window as she was chauffeured from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
That first view of America, when Trewhella saw extreme wealth beside equally extreme poverty, surprised her. She developed a sense that she needed to protect herself, even at Yale. Making sure the parking lot was free of potential assailants became a part of her routine for leaving the lab at night. Despite the culture shock, she remembers Yale fondly as “an intellectual center of gravity” for speakers, scholars, and resident and visiting scientists.
As a female scientist in an elite world, Trewhella more than held her own. She climbed the ranks at Los Alamos and in the process gained a reputation for building strong interdepartmental collaborations.
Walk First, then Fly
Trewhella’s record of success as a scientist in the United States made me wonder how her exclusively Australian education prepared her for a research career. As an adjunct associate professor at the University of New Mexico and having a son complete high school and college in the United States, she has seen enough of the American educational system to give a fair assessment. Trewhella provided a personal perspective about Australian higher education, although she makes it clear that she can’t speak for Australian education today.
Trewhella had no doubts about the quality of her education. “When I landed in the United States, what I felt I had was a huge advantage because I felt that I was very flexible. That was a unique gift of my Australian education.” With stronger requirements for the core disciplines and no multiple-choice questions used in testing, the coursework was “much heavier and deeper” than in the American educational system, which tends to be “more broad and shallow.”
Australian undergraduate science education focused on the basics: mathematics, chemistry, and physics. According to Trewhella, the essays and 3-hour exams “really delved deeply into your understanding and knowledge. [American] kids in high school would be doing things that I didn’t do until I was in college, but when I studied them, we studied them to a great depth.” With such an intensive undergraduate education, graduate-level training was only research–no coursework–and could be completed in 3 years. That comprehensive foundation provided her with the adaptability to work with complex, multidisciplinary problems.
Despite its educational shortcomings, Trewhella noted that America’s scientific infrastructure enables greater professional connectivity–necessary for top-flight science–through its travel resources and large-scale, centralized facilities. Such wealth is very different from Australia’s situation, with its relatively small population and limited resources. “It’s much harder in a small scientific infrastructure to put together all the elements that enable you to pursue your idea.” Smaller labs and less prestigious scientists are less competitive for funds and equipment.
Building Connections and Leaving Footprints
After having spent the past 24 years “building connections between the physical and biological sciences” in the United States, Trewhella is uniquely qualified to do the same for Australia and she’d like to help Australia develop its “pockets of excellence.” Hoping for an appointment at the University of Sydney, she was recently awarded an Australian Federation Fellowship, which will allow her to spend time in Australia and the United States. She and her husband want to have a “footprint” in both countries, perhaps enabling Australian students to experience science in the United States, and vice versa.
The internationalism of science’s culture is important to Trewhella. “I think that global connectivity is what pushes science forward and makes life exciting,” she continued, “There’s richness in the diversity of ideas that comes from engaging in international collaboration.”
Thinking broadly, Trewhella believes, is the key to bridging science’s seemingly arbitrary barriers and making breakthroughs. How does she advise others who are seeking that level of understanding? “Do the math, do the physics, do the chemistry as well. You’ll need it. There’s no substitute for being the hardest working person. To me, it’s always been about working very hard so that your credentials are the best, so, when you choose where you want to go, people will give you the opportunity.” Trewhella has made the most of her opportunities, yet she credits one opportunity for making the rest possible: her Australian education in the sciences.
Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at