Q&A with Mrs Jill Johnston

May, 2012

Jill Johnston

Mrs Jill Johnston is a Senior Lecturer School of Molecular Bioscience, where she currently works in a teaching-focused role as Co-ordinator of Senior Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and as Chair of the School Teaching and Learning Committee ELATE. Her undergraduate degree was at the University of Queensland. Her first career phase was in laboratory research in the areas of molecular biology and immunology. While she was in her second career phase as a mother to four children, she completed a Graduate Diploma of Education. She considers these two career phases were good preparation for her third career phase of academic education, with some twenty years within in the School of Molecular Bioscience. She was a recipient of a Faculty of Science Teaching Excellence Award in 2003 and part of the ELATE Committee's Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence for Systems that Achieve Collective Excellence in Teaching and Learning in 2010. She has some 60 publications and grants in the areas of laboratory research and education.

Do you remember when the idea first crystallized that you would become an academic?

I don’t think that I ever consciously set out to become an academic, but I guess it was a natural consequence of my love of science and my enthusiasm for sharing my passion. I have had three careers, firstly as a researcher, then as a mother, and now as a teaching academic. I consider myself very lucky to have thoroughly enjoyed all of them.

Who do you think has been your most influential mentor(s) during your scientific career?

My first job was at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. This was an exciting place to be. Not only were the senior scientists inspirational, but everyone there was totally committed and excited by their research – the enthusiasm was infectious. In particular, my immediate supervisor, Professor Gordon Ada, taught me the importance of technical rigour and experimental design – any experiment was only worthwhile if it was done properly at every step. In my teaching phase, I have worked closely for many years with two great teachers, Associate Professor Gareth Denyer and Dr Dale Hancock. To have two colleagues who share my passion for teaching has added enormously to the satisfaction I achieve from being an academic in SMB.

What do you think is the most pressing and exciting question in your field?

To me, the most exciting question is regulation of transcription and the exquisite range of processes which govern it. Much is known, but much remains to be known. Epigenetics and siRNA are fascinating areas, as is the molecular basis of ageing and the rise of RNA as a major player in cellular control.

What discovery, related to your research, would you most want to be awarded the Nobel Prize for?

I would like to think that one of the many students I have taught will win a Nobel Prize in transcriptional regulation.

What do you enjoy most about being in academia?

That is difficult to rank – there are so many aspects to being an academic. Top of the list would have to be the students – the diversity, the range of personalities, interests, aspirations and enthusiasm - and each year brings a fresh crop! I never tire of sharing their excitement when they see an experimental result (or helping them to problem-solve through what might have caused the unexpected outcome!) The constant change, not only in the research and curriculum areas, but in the systems and modes of operation – I am always learning something new. Also, my colleagues – what a diverse group: the research and teaching staff, the administrative and technical staff – SMB is a very friendly family, and the Sydney campus is a very pleasant area for my daily walk.

What would you do differently in your academic career if you had your time over?

Probably nothing much – I love my job and coming to work is never a burden. At various points, you have to make choices which lead you down a particular path. If I had chosen differently, who knows – I might not have been as satisfied.

What are you most passionate sbout outside the laboratory?

That’s an easy one. My family of course, and at present they are scattered across four continents, so travel is a passion. The other passion is the Australian bush, which I am doing my best to preserve as a volunteer bush regenerator. Most Sundays, I can be found battling the weeds in a tiny area of urban bushland, just off the Lane Cove National Park. I have recently completed a TAFE Advanced Certificate in Natural Area Restoration, an experience in itself for me being a student, doing assignments and sitting for exams! Bushwalking in the many wonderful natural areas we have around Sydney is another great pastime.

What achievement outside science are you most pleased about?

I am pleased and grateful that I have a close family, a very enjoyable job and that I can live in a beautiful city in a beautiful country.