Happy 2013 TENANT readers! I hope you all had marvellous summer (or winter) breaks, making memories with your favourite people.
I myself had a great break, followed by not so good one. Two weeks ago and at the tail end of a lovely summer holiday spent roaming Melbourne suburbs 3182, 3000, 3161 and 3460, I was overcome by a fit of cleaning.
Mid-way through this dangerous decision I fell rather dramatically from a bench onto some unforgiving white tiles – snapping my ankle and ending up at the Alfred Hospital. I left four days later the proud owner of two new metal plates and 12 screws in my leg.
If you have ever had a broken bone (this is my first – well six-in-one actually) you will know they come with a generous side of pain and one which knocked me right off my 2013 schedule! So apologies readers that this profile has arrived later than expected but the unexpected got right in the way.
I hope you find that the wait was worth it and that you enjoy this profile (with extra photos) and my very first TENANT Abroad*.
It’s with great delight that I introduce to you Dr. Amy Nisselle – I’ve known Amy for many years and have watched her career bloom – tended by her smarts, her unwavering commitment to science communication, and a voracious appetite for travel and discovery.
Born and raised in St. Kilda, Melbourne, Amy has been living in Queens, New York for two years. By day she works at the famed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institute established in 1890 and one that employs over 1,000 staff today and by night (and on weekends) she explores one of the most filmed cities in the world. Part local, part tourist she is privy to the best of what the city has to offer and has the fresh eyes with which to see it.
Amy, thank you for agreeing to be profiled on TENANT, for sharing ‘your New York’, and of course ‘your Melbourne’ from abroad.
Firstly, let’s start with your current home – why New York? What took you there?
I moved here for my dream job – I’m a producer at the DNA Learning Center, which is the education outreach part of the Lab. We translate the latest genetics research into understandable and easy experiments and resources for students, teachers and the public – our stuff is used worldwide. I make multimedia resources and evaluate everything. It’s a cool place to work, as we have a museum and teaching labs downstairs, and the multimedia studio upstairs, so as I work I hear kids downstairs having ‘A-ha!’ moments all day. I love that!
Okay, a dream job is an acceptable reason to leave Melbourne in my books. And how is it going – two years in?
It’s going great and I plan to stay a couple more years – at least. It’s not straight cut though, as I miss home constantly but jobs in science communication in Oz are like hens’ teeth.
Why are they so rare?
I think it’s simply due to the US having a bigger population, plus a different attitude towards science for kids.
At home there are great organisations, like the Australian Science Communicators, of which I’m a member, who work to increase awareness in Australia and who produce some great resources, and lobby government. But overall we just don’t have the funding, or the same attitude towards science fairs, science summer camps, and the plethora of science museums you find in America.
Until now, I’d never heard of the job “Science Communicator”. How and when did you decide this was what you wanted to dedicate your career to?
I didn’t hear the phrase “science communication” until I was about 30 myself!
Growing up I knew I was a science geek, but when I was 21 my first experience of lab work made me realise I wasn’t very good at it, and I didn’t really enjoy it! I wanted a career in science with more people contact.
About a year after finishing my degree, I ended up working in an orthopaedic shoe shop in Elsternwick, and one day I thought, “This is what I went to Uni for?” And so like thousands of Aussies before me, I headed to the UK on a working holiday visa.
Two years turned into five, when I was sponsored by a multimedia medical education company and trained as an IT project manager, living in Edinburgh and London. When I moved home to Melbourne I got a job as a Project Manager at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. I ran a research project investigating genetic screening in the workplace, and the thing that intrigued me most was how best to explain complex genetics in a 20-minute workplace information session to people as diverse as Collins St accountants, Geelong steel smelter workers, and AFL footballers!
It gradually dawned on me that I would be just as happy explaining science to other people, as doing it. In fact, much happier!
To cut a long story short, I went back to Uni and got my PhD focusing on how Australian science teachers use multimedia resources to teach genetics. I purposefully collaborated with my now boss, interning at the DNA Learning Center in 2008. On the last day of the internship (before I headed off backpacking round South America) I asked him for a job. I had to wait for an opening, but he liked my work, and I finally moved here in 2010.
I love that story! It’s great that you’ve joined the dots in an ever-evolving dream and created opportunities for yourself along the way. And now working with Nobel Laureates, people at the top of their game (or ahead of the game!) would be so exciting and inspirational. Who do you work with and what other famous people have you spotted in New York?
I work with a mixture of scientists, teachers, graphic designers and programmers, and Jim Watson’s our chancellor (he won the Noble prize for discovering the structure of DNA). Other famous people? Funnily enough I had dinner with Michael J Fox, Phil Donahue and Dr. Watson last night! It was our annual black tie gala – we were honouring Michael J Fox for his Parkinson’s disease research, and Phil Donohue is a friend of the lab, MCing the event for many years. Other than that, I’ve seen a few stars in Broadway shows – Katie Holmes, Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen… there’s always someone on stage! I’m not that good at just spotting celebrities. I saw Julianna Margulies with her son and husband, and Coby Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother)… But I was in the background of the pilot of Newsroom, when they filmed Jeff Daniels and Dev Patel walking past the International Photography Center!
I have just finished the first series of that show! I will review that scene in the pilot to find you. With all of these new and amazing experiences, have you been inspired to start a new project, or a dream project in recent times?
All the projects I’m working on at the moment come pretty close! Last year we developed a new teaching curriculum and competition for high school kids doing something called DNA barcoding. It’s an ace way of engaging kids from all walks of life in their own project that spans ecology, biodiversity, genetics and bioinformatics. It’s on the cusp of going national, and possibly global, so it’s great to be along for the ride. The winners of the NY competition were a team from a Bronx high school who had never done “real” science before – and they were so thrilled it blew my mind. They took their bumper cheque home on the subway! If you’re interested, you can find out about the project, and watch a great video of students talking about it, at www.urbanbarcodeproject.org.
I will take a look. So, New York is widely regarded as one hell of a city – one of “the” cultural cities of the world. It has a lot to write home about – star spotting, music, Wall street, Broadway, galleries, high fashion – street fashion, Central Park, multiculturalism, great food…do you really miss Melbourne? And if so, what do you miss most?
Yes I absolutely do! Aside from aching constantly for friends and family – it sounds clichéd but I miss Melbourne coffee. American coffee really is awful. The best I’ve found is at Smooch in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which is Australian owned so it meets my standards! (They also do Vegemite soldiers for brekkie.)
And I know it’s hard to believe but I miss Melbourne’s weather. In two years I’ve experienced New York’s hottest summer and coldest winter in history; the longest stretch of days over 35 degrees (the whole of August basically, along with 99% humidity), the worst blizzard, dumping 2 feet of snow in Central Park, a hurricane that left me stranded in Costa Rica because New York airports had to shut down and the backlog took a week to process (I wasn’t too fussed about being stuck in Costa Rica!), an earthquake, and then the worst hurricane in living history, Sandy, which caused the subway and Wall street to shut for two days (something that’s never happened before apparently). Literally millions of people were without power for up to two weeks, during which a freak snow storm hit! Unbelievable!
I remember standing at the subway station my first winter here in -15 amidst snow-drifts and finally understanding puffer jackets. Give me Melbourne weather any day!
Lordy – altogether that sounds like an end-of-the-world blockbuster film and makes me happy for Melbourne weather, despite the strange hot and cold summer we are having.
You were born in Melbourne, where did you grow up?
I’m fourth generation Elwood/St Kilda – 3182/3184. My great-grandmother bought a house in St Kilda in the late 1800s and Mum’s family all grew up in that house, until it was sold in 2000. My Dad’s family arrived in Elwood from Latvia in 1939 as Jewish immigrants. Until recently my family had lived in only three houses in Melbourne – all on or just off Dickens St. Then we spread to Wagga Wagga, New York and London. But we’re all gradually moving home to Melbourne – it draws you back!
I grew up with stories of St Kilda and Elwood in the early and mid-20th century. Poppa stealing sweets for Nanna from the covered market where Safeway is now; the Elwood canal regularly flooding up to Dad’s back door stoop; mum and my uncles cockle picking in the St Kilda breakwater before the marina was built.
Growing up my dad was the local Elwood GP, so people were always saying hi in Acland St. My brother and I thought it was embarrassing at the time, but now I think it’s a great reflection of community and the times. Just recently I was in Acland Cakes with Dad, and a sales assistant said, “Do you remember me? You delivered me and my younger sister!” No kidding.
I think that’s enchanting. As you know, TENANT is all about tales of Melbourne and it’s so romantic to hear of the city’s history through personal family stories. Do you have a favourite suburb or part of Melbourne? Let me guess?
It has to be 3182! I think St Kilda has the best mix of location, history, people, climate, amenities, bars and restaurants. Sure, the weekend crowds can be a bit full on, but I’m more of the philosophy, of yep, it’s a cool spot, so of course people come to check it out and we should share. 3165 (Fitzroy) comes very close, but I just can’t cope being that far away from a sea breeze and broad horizon.
How does living in NY rate to other places you have lived in your life? From St. Kilda beaches to your time in the UK?
I loved the history, location and currency of living in the UK – in three hours I could be in an exotic country with different food and language, and the Pound went a long way. America feels very young by comparison, but I do like that a three-hour flight can get you to Latin America – a group of countries that are completely different to anywhere else I’ve travelled. I’m enjoying exploring this neck of the woods.
I also find different things in both countries completely familiar, as I think Australia is halfway between being British and American, becoming more American every year. Typically British phrases, history and nursery rhymes were familiar, versus popular culture in America – my understanding of Thanksgiving came directly from the Brady Bunch! Also, I have a ridiculous awareness of the names of tiny American cities from 70s TV shows – like Milwaukee, Wisconsin from Happy Days and Crabapple Cove, Maine and Toledo, Ohio from M*A*S*H.
As well as having lived in some great cities, you are one of the most well travelled people I have met, having visited, what, 48 different countries so far? What is a place that reminds you of Melbourne that is not?
Two cities spring to mind. Toronto, because of it’s trams, the CBD is a mixture of very old and very new architecture, and the Royal Ontario Museum is a duplicate of the Ian Potter Centre, right down to the anti-skateboarding guard rails on the concrete benches out the front! And Williamsburg, New York is pretty much Fitzroy, with Bedford Ave being Brunswick St. It even has my favourite falafel place in New York – Oasis – but the difference is a falafel here is only $3. Have I mentioned that the food really is cheap here?!
What would you like to bring back to Melbourne from NY?
Freshly popped popcorn for $1.50 in every train station.
That is a sweet and humble import! And in what ways has NY lived up to your expectations – and it what ways has it let you down?
My job is even better than I imagined, but then the lack of eco-friendliness is disappointing. In my experience there’s no bag recycling or water conservation here, just for starters. Whenever I say, “I don’t need a bag, thanks” to a shop assistant, they look at me blankly. I usually have to repeat myself a few times, partly because they don’t understand my accent, but also because they don’t get the concept of carrying a few items doesn’t require one, or that I actually have my own bag. The worst is when they then shrug and throw the new bag in the bin! I initially thought it was throughout America, but I’m assured the west coast is more ecofriendly.
Maybe that’s something that you could introduce to NY…somehow…? In the reverse, what do you think Australia could learn from NY (or US) way of life?
Hmmm, I’m not sure. When I moved to the UK in my early 20s everything there was new, exciting, and better than Oz in some way. Now I’m older and find I’m quite critical of the US, constantly comparing it with home, and finding it lacking. But perhaps we could be a bit more patriotic. Not to the extent of an ‘in-your-face, flag-waving Republican’, but I think our Australian way of understating our achievements, being anti-tall poppy, means we aren’t openly proud of our country often enough. Though I love that we have an award for high-achieving Aussie scientists called the Tall Poppy Award!
What a perfect name for an Australian achievement award! What is it about Australia that are you most proud of, living in the US?
Our ability to punch above our weight; the more I live overseas the more I realise people generally think Australians just hang at the beach, surfing all day. They don’t realise our contributions to arts, sciences, technology, global politics, etc.
When I start listing famous Aussies the response is usually, “They’re Australian?? I thought they were English?” I couldn’t even convince someone that AC/DC are an Aussie band last weekend!
I find Google usually helps in those situations! In addition to American’s knowing more about our population’s achievements, what change would you most like to see in Melbourne – inspired from your time abroad?
Better public transport – I think a few TENANT interviewees have already mentioned that. In other big cities you don’t have to run for the train, as you know the next one will be in 2–5 minutes – it’s a bit of a shock when you go home and have to wait, and wait, and wait…But I get that it’s a population density thing – Melbourne has to reach critical mass at some point, when supply will finally have to catch up with demand.
And who, Nobel Laureates aside, inspires you?
My Dad, because he’s never rested on his laurels and has such a well-rounded approach to life, being a doctor, musician, businessman, lecturer, author, philanthropist, mentor and traveller, as well as Dad. I learnt from him the value of studying non-science subjects, working hard, volunteering, and the joy of travel and music. It’s why I’m where I am today, for so many reasons.
What’s on for your NY week ahead?
One fun task will be revamping our museum exhibit. We’re repositioning our skeletons in a new backdrop and diorama to install a replica of Ötzi, the Iceman. On the weekend I’m going to the Imagine Science Film Festival – it’s a great session on sleep and dreaming at the New York Academy of Sciences, which has the added bonus of being on the 40th floor next to the new World Trade Center site – so views across twinkly Manhattan. Sunday is usually filled with Skype sessions to various time zones, and I’ll probably head to Brooklyn for brunch, which starts at 1pm in the States, not 11am (another adjustment!).
You sound busy, as a ways! Thanks for making time to talk to TENANT this week and lastly I would love you to recommend a Melburnian to be interviewed by TENANT in 2013.
I’d like to suggest two: Rony Duncan, a psychologist, ethicist and researcher at the Royal Children’s Hospital, who’s also a musician and radio personality; and Alison Rae Jones, an opera singer who runs La Prima Opera company in Melbourne. I used to work with Rony, and know Ali from when we lived in London at the same time. They’re both really interesting women, inspiring and doing great things in Melbourne.
Thanks Amy, as are you – but from abroad. I have no doubt that one-day you’ll return to Australia and share all of your wonderful experience with local science communicators and educators. Take care and stay in touch!
*TENANT Abroad will in the future also feature men, not just “broads”.* Possibly a very bad joke. I blame the pain medication.