Madeline Mitchell

Plant scientist,
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)


Don’t get put off by stereotypes of science or scientists, get curious.

What do you do?

I want to understand how plants grow at the molecular and whole plant level and use this knowledge to make plants even better producers of food, fibre, fuel and medicine. My long-term aim is to develop new crops that will contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of agriculture.
As an early career scientist, my days are really varied. Some days, I work in the lab doing molecular biology, microscopy and other analyses. Other days, I work in the glasshouse, caring for and harvesting plants. Now I have a great technician helping me, I’m spending more time at my computer, analysing data and planning experiments, reading and writing papers or developing new ideas and funding proposals.
I also make time for engaging with students and teachers as well as other people who could benefit from my research. For my current project, I am engineering plant-based fibres to give them new and unique properties so that we can replace polluting, plastic-based artificial fibres. I mostly work with cotton, a naturally renewable and biodegradable crop, and I engage with growers, consumers, manufacturers and fashion brands to understand their needs.

Why did you choose this field?

For a long time, I wasn’t sure what career I wanted because I was interested in visual arts, literature and languages as well as science. I studied Arts/Science at university and ended up choosing plant sciences because I wanted to do something practical. Plants (and algae) are the basis of agriculture and most ecosystems so they are fundamentally interesting as well as important. The more I learnt about them, the more fascinated I became. I realised that, by mixing basic and applied research, I could discover more about how plants grow and interact with their environment while contributing to the longer-term sustainability of agriculture.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I think younger me would have been very surprised to know that I would one day enjoy public speaking and win an award for combined excellence in science and science outreach. I am naturally introverted and was very shy when I was younger, so I have spent years developing my confidence and ability to speak in public and in large groups. I made deliberate efforts to overcome my shyness because it’s important to me to connect with people and share stories of my science and career. I do this partly because I want to create a more inclusive culture so that everyone – including women and people from other underrepresented groups – can have a fulfilling career in STEM. I also do this because public engagement can help build trust in science and help scientists develop and deliver science that benefits people who need it.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM for the creativity and sense of community. I enjoy integrating new ideas and connecting with different people. It’s also important for me to do something I believe will make a positive contribution to the world.

Best advice for next generation?

A career in STEM can take you in so many exciting directions! I have had the opportunity to travel around the world, including to Antarctica with the Homeward Bound leadership program for women in STEM. I have also met some amazing, inspiring people and made lifelong friends. Remember that studying STEM doesn’t mean you have to be a researcher (and that being a researcher doesn’t mean you have to work in a lab). Many of my friends have moved from research to interesting jobs in business, intellectual property, government, science communication and other areas. Don’t get put off by stereotypes of science or scientists, get curious and find real-life science stories and role models.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

Fun fact - I love “The Guilty Feminist” podcast. It covers some serious issues but in a very funny, approachable and engaging way. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m part of a community, learning and hanging out with lots of diverse, interesting people. Importantly, this podcast also reminds me that we don’t have to be perfect to be create positive change.

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