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Keely Perry

Research assistant

Keely Perry - Research Assistant

Research assistant, Keely Perry, translates research for the National Indigenous Science Translation Centre

I work on a project for the National Indigenous Science Translation Centre (NISTC). It’s a new centre – not many people know about it yet. But I’m also a fifth-generation cattle farmer from Longreach. 

I don’t know how to build fences and I don’t have the biggest muscles but it’s given me lots of transferable skills. Cattle work is a fast-paced environment. You have to be really aware of what’s going on, because it’s not always safe. Sometimes I’m working with Mum, Dad and other family, and have to slot into a team and work well with them. It’s made me adaptable and flexible.

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I’ve also always been a talker! I was very sociable as a kid. It’s a skill to talk to anyone of any background across a multidisciplinary team. You need to meet them on level footing and be respectful. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally but being able to pick up the phone and talk to people is a real skill. 

Taking part in CSIRO’s Young Women’s Indigenous STEM Academy helped me to progress my talking skills. The Academy was a community for us young women to come back to when we felt isolated in our studies. It involved meetings and education but also opportunities to explore our own interests and also step out of our comfort zones.

The opportunities I had to facilitate and take part in events gave me confidence to navigate industry and university – and stand up for what I thought was best. The Academy has always been supportive of letting us go where we want and develop the skills we want. They allowed me to choose, but also get better in asking and making space for myself.

This has helped me in my job today. Science is seen as an analytical, straightforward, serious job. But when you’re looking at a problem – looking at anything, you have to look at every aspect of it. You need to talk to people who know more than you. If you’re not willing to explore ideas and have the ability to ask questions you’ll never learn new things. 

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Translating research into plain speak

Part of my job is to translate everything we do, research-wise, to all our industry and business partners. The NISTC works with Indigenous groups across Queensland and I hope to act as that middle person who’s making sure everyone’s on the same level and understanding what’s going on, independent of our backgrounds and our education.

We have partners all across Queensland. If they’re in the NISTC, for me it looks like a long day of boardroom meetings. But sometimes we are fortunate to go out to places like Camooweal near the NT border. 

Other days I’m in the lab. I’m working on a finger lime project where all I do is pop finger lime pearls, because…science! We are working out the mechanical properties of finger limes to give growers the best possible product.

My heart is in plant science – I get to do plant science in food research biodiscovery work. I’m focused on Australian native plants. I’m early career and don’t have a specialisation yet. I do horticulture, agronomy, biodiscovery, food mechanics, material properties. I get pulled into lots of different areas. I’m not very good at any of them, of course, because I’m still learning, but I’m keen to stick my finger in all the pies!

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Learning as you go

Sometimes it’s scary to be in a place where you don’t know anything. But foster your interest and keenness. I jumped from plant genetics to food and I knew nothing. Sometimes you have to learn from the foundations, but knowledge never does you wrong. That curiosity and willingness to learn and ask questions is always useful.

STEM can be such a buzz word that makes it sound very specific to only science, maths engineering or technology. But there are so many degrees under the STEM umbrella that allow you to find a way to do the things you enjoy. Foster all that interest and curiosity. 

STEM is more than a personality trait. It’s about asking questions, trying to answer them, and being ok if you can’t and changing direction. 

Keely’s pathway to becoming a research assistant

  • Work on family cattle farm
  • Completed Year 12
  • Bachelor of Biotechnology with Honors majoring in plant biotechnology
  • Research Assistant, University of Queensland

Keely Perry with Danika Davis

A version of this profile also appears in our upcoming issue of Careers with STEM: Indigenous. Sign up to our newsletter to receive updates on its launch date.

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