Professor Amanda Leach knew she wanted to be a scientist ever since she used to spend Sundays at a Melbourne chemist shop owned by her friend’s dad. “I thought, this is so cool, all these medicines! I decided then at 12 years old that I wanted to be a scientist,” she says.
By the time she finished high school, Amanda still loved science, but wasn’t so keen on becoming a pharmacist anymore – instead she signed up for a degree in agricultural science, as she liked the fact she’d be able to do her own research projects.
When Amanda followed that up with a Masters degree, her interests were already leaning towards microbiology. She would go on to become renowned for her involvement in groundbreaking microbiology research into ear diseases – but she still had a long and winding path ahead of her, with plenty of challenges.
“When I thought about going back into the workforce, I was worried that my brain was pretty much dead”
Amanda’s husband was also a scientist, and she moved around a lot with him (and eventually their two children) over a period of six years – including time in Papua New Guinea, Alice Springs, Darwin and London. While Amanda did take on some teaching and lab assistant jobs during that period – her research career was on hold. “I worked weekends at K-Mart in Alice Springs so we didn’t have to leave my children in expensive childcare during the week,” she recalls.
“I got to the point where, when I thought about going back into the workforce, I was worried that my brain was pretty much dead, that I wouldn’t be able to contribute anything meaningful anymore.”
Thankfully, Amanda didn’t let that niggling imposter syndrome stop her from applying for a role in a lab at the hospital in Alice Springs, even though she was worried she’d never worked in human microbiology before. Amanda got the job and fell in love with the research.
However, Amanda and her family still had a couple more moves – to Darwin and then a year in London – before they returned to Darwin when Amanda’s research career really kicked off. “I said to my husband, I think we’d better stay put for a while!” she says.
Groundbreaking research into Aboriginal ear health
Amanda worked as a research assistant at the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, under supervisor Professor John Mathews.
At the time, doctors working for the Fred Hollows Foundation had been travelling Australia looking at the eye and ear health of Aboriginal people in remote and urban areas. The doctors wondered whether the same treatable bacterial infection known to be causing blindness – Chlamydia trachomatis – was also causing the high rate of ear diseases they were witnessing.
Amanda’s job was to set up a lab to “test every bug, every virus and bacteria that might possibly cause ear disease,” she explains.
As it turned out, the bacteria causing trachoma was not causing the high rates of ear disease, but a whole range of bacterial species and strains – plus a set of other complicated factors, yet to be fully understood – were responsible.
The research became Amanda’s obsession and she turned it into her PhD – which she finished in 1994, something she says she couldn’t have done if her mother hadn’t moved from Melbourne to Darwin to help her look after her two primary school-aged kids. “They say it takes a community to raise children, it also takes a community to finish a PhD,” she says.
Amanda says she didn’t immediately realise just how groundbreaking her research was until she started to attend international conferences and receive feedback from other scientists. She was also invited to meetings with the World Health Organisation and companies who were developing vaccines to treat some of the more common bacteria behind the ear diseases.
“It was exciting to feel that you’d had that impact on working out the potential benefit of that vaccine and subsequent vaccines globally,” she says.
2019 Northern Territory Telstra Business Woman of the Year
Today, Amanda draws on her successful career in science in her current role as a Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. She is responsible for determining knowledge gaps and priority areas of research, pulling together multidisciplinary research teams, securing funding and seeing research projects through to publication.
Amanda is also Joint Chair of a new Hearing for Learning Initiative, jointly funded by The Balnaves Foundation, the Northern Territory government and the Australian Government. The Initiative aims to improve the availability of local health services in Aboriginal communities for children with ear and hearing problems.
This year, Amanda was also named the 2019 NT Telstra Business Woman of the Year – an honour which she says forced her to look at how the work she does as a senior scientist aligns with traditional business skills, in everything from running a research program to employing people and being financially accountable.
Amanda’s advice to other aspiring scientists is that passion is vital to keep going – but so is pragmatism. She recommends seeking out career mentors to help see where opportunities are available and how your passions and goals can be applied to current areas of need and opportunity.
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.