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By Soma Chakraborty 17 January 2022 3 min read

After studying a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Dr Jess Hyles[Link will open in a new window] began working in medical research. But then her path changed direction.

“I switched to agriculture when I met my husband. He was a farmer and so I decided to look for a career that fits with family life on a farm,” she says.

Jess joined us in 2002 as a laboratory technician, working in wheat breeding[Link will open in a new window] to adopt new technologies like robotics to make plant breeding more efficient.

While working in the lab, Jess completed a Master of Agriculture at the University of Sydney. Two years and two children later, Jess’s focus changed again.

“It quickly switched to my family. This was the most important thing. But it was great that I could work part-time at CSIRO. Those years were a good balance of being able to work, but also taking time to look after family,” she explains.

Ten years later, with children in primary school, there was another shift.

“I guess I started to think that I had the headspace to focus more on science, so I decided the time was right to start a PhD.”

At the same time, Jess became one of our Team Leaders.

Overcoming systemic obstacles

Noticing there weren’t many female leaders in science, Jess became a lead for Inclusion and Diversity[Link will open in a new window].

“I realised that there was bias against women in STEM. Being told ‘you can’t do that job, because it’s mine’ or ‘your turn will come in five years’ was not encouraging for me,” she says.

But Jess says that negative voices probably made her more determined.

“I set myself a challenge. To see if a mum of two, with a busy life as a partner in a farm business, could do a PhD and have a successful career at the same time.”

Jess says the four years working part-time while undertaking a full-time PhD at the University of Sydney was incredibly fun and rewarding. However, they were also the most difficult and challenging times of her career.

“Without some wonderful people around me, none of it would not have been possible. I’m so grateful for amazing support during this time. I also learnt probably the most important lesson in science, that you can’t do it alone!”

Her PhD focused on the complex gene networks that affect flowering behaviour in crops. Jess hopes her research will add new insights to the understanding of crop adaptation and lead to new tools for breeding based on plant genetics (the genome) and plant behaviour (the phenome).

“Ultimately, I hope my research will feed into the hands of growers who will have access to more profitable crops for their farms and a sustainable future,” Jess says.

“Every day I get to do the science I love”

Having recently completed her PhD, a typical workday can now involve analysing plant genomes, or measuring photosynthetic efficiency in wheat plants. She could be advising growers or agronomists about specific crop genetics for their farm or trials, or testing new augmented reality technology for data visualisation in plants.

Jess also has a new role as acting Group Leader for the Future Breeding Group of Agriculture & Food.

“Every day I get to do the science I love and work with the amazing team at CSIRO who are just as passionate about future crops for Australia,” she says.

“When I decided to stop being defined by what others thought my place in science should be, it was a real turning point for me.

“If you surround yourself with positive people who support you and your passion, they’ll help you find your own happy place. That is what I hope to pass on; encouragement and support for others to create their unique path in science.”

It’s never too late to find your place

Jess says working here has provided excellent opportunities, even if they have not always come easily.

“There are no rules to follow for your career path. It’s ok if you weren’t a five-star student, or if other people don’t see you as a scientist," she says.

"If you need to take time off to study, or raise a family that’s fine too. Because science isn’t going anywhere, and it’s never too late to find your place.”

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