Senior Member Insights: Cushla McGoverin

Cushla McGoverin

Cushla McGoverin

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Cushla McGoverin, a senior research fellow in the Department of Physics, University of Auckland, and an investigator in the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies. She uses spectroscopy to learn more about the world around her. This has included projects as diverse as developing a method for assessing diagenetic alteration of fossils, identifying pigments in bird feathers, and determining seed viability.

McGoverin completed a Ph.D. in chemistry under the supervision of Keith Gordon at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where she used Raman spectroscopy to quantify polymorphs in pharmaceutical mixtures and to study dairy products. Subsequently, McGoverin worked with Marena Manley in the Department of Food Science, Stellenbosch, South Africa, using near-infrared hyperspectral imaging to assess grain, and with Nancy Pleshko in the Department of Bioengineering, Temple University, PA, USA, where she used near-infrared spectroscopy to study both natural and engineered cartilage.

Upon returning to New Zealand, Cushla began working with Frederique Vanholsbeeck and Simon Swift at the University of Auckland on rapid bacteria enumeration using fluorescence and has joined research projects for commercial entities.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

I was incredibly fortunate to have good science teachers in high school. I had always been interested in the world around me, but in high school I had teachers who introduced me to the scientific method. The logical structure appealed to me, and I liked making observations and trying to puzzle out what they meant. One of the most impactful things I remember a science teacher saying to me is, “Sometimes you just need to sit down and think.”

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

The current aspect of my work that is most interesting is the challenge of working with biological systems, particularly bacteria. I can periodically be heard to lament working with bacteria as opposed to active pharmaceutical ingredients due to the potential contaminant restrictions and reduced repeatability. However, it is a challenge that I truly enjoy. Near-real-time testing for pathogens is a “needle in a haystack problem,” where there is the need to find something tiny in a large volume. To find ways of doing this requires integrating knowledge from multiple areas—microbiology, some chemistry, some optics and imaging, and some engineering, to name a few fields. 

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals? 

Actively participate in a society’s special interest groups or early-career programs. I didn’t do this until relatively late in being considered an early-career professional, and I wish I had done so earlier. The Optica early career professional programs are a great way to network; I am still involved with organizing an Optica meeting that began through my involvement in an Optica early career program.

The other tip I would give is not to neglect the great networking opportunity within your home department or institution. People might not be working on the same things as you, or even similar things, but if they know you, they can put your name forward when opportunities present themselves through their own networks.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?

Turning down an offer for a permanent position at a university. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know. The position wasn’t right for me, and turning it down gave me the confidence to walk my own path rather than the one I thought had to be followed—Ph.D., postdocs, then on to a permanent position. I can’t say I am thrilled at working contract-to-contract, but it doesn’t stress me out as it once did.

What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?

The ability to “read the room” and communicate accordingly. No matter how good the science is, it doesn’t matter if you can’t communicate its value to the relevant audiences. Whether they are agencies you are applying to for funding, the industry interested in the outcomes of your science, your peers who will review your science or the public that you want to know how awesome your science is.

I fully admit this is a skill I am still developing and assume I will be for a long time to come. I think science communication is going to become increasingly important as we become more aware of the risks associated with misinformation. A large part of this will be providing material that kids can consume, not just to learn about the topic but to develop the skills to logically think through the information they ingest and determine what is “fake” and what is not.

Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?

The major turning point in my career was probably when I left science for a year. This largely came down to my inability to “sell” my skillset to employees outside of academia. When I returned to science after that year, I began learning more about science careers beyond the university environment, as well as how to better communicate about the various skills I have developed. I have put this to good practice, as I am currently based at a university and work with several companies.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

Join societies such as Optica and actively participate. This will likely provide you the best opportunity to network and be involved in things that you might not otherwise get involved in (for example, conference organization, prize reviewing). I recommend that students who might not have the funds to join a society ask around as your department or some research consortium your supervisors are members of might actually cover the cost of society fees.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

From being a mentor, I have learned that we all generally have similar fears and confusions, so don’t be scared to ask questions of those around you. At some time, the people around you have probably asked the same thing.

I have also learned from being a mentor to make sure to ask those around me how they are going and actually listen to the answer. Even better, ask them how experiment A is going, or writing of paper B, if you can remember. These five-minute conversations where you show real interest in someone can give people the safe space to ask a question if they are struggling to find institutional information or a person to approach later on if they are struggling with a colleague. Just letting people know there are friendly faces around can do the world of good.

From mentors, I have learned to make everything as obvious as possible in your CV and your grant applications. Don’t assume the reader is going to look anything up. This might mean in your CV you go the extra mile and list the numbers of citations for each paper in your publication list, the impact factor of the journal, and the quartile of the journal in the relevant field. In your grant application, make it obvious what preliminary work you have done, don’t just cite it and assume the reader will look it up and recognize it as your work.

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

The thing I am most looking forward to next in my career is the next interesting application that I get to work on. I have never had a desire to run a lab or research group, which I acknowledge is a bit strange in a university setting. But I do like problem-solving when new applications come along, which often happens in universities. At the moment, I am interested in how microfluidics can be integrated with spectroscopic systems to constrain the location of bacteria and make sensing more targeted.

Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?

Over the last couple of years, I have taken up gardening, both a vegetable garden and gardens to promote visits from birds such as tūī (New Zealand’s most beautiful native songbird). I take great satisfaction in seeing tūī fly in to eat the nectar from flowering flax, and I love getting to eat vegetables from my own garden. At the moment, the plant I am most enjoying is a purple capsicum (for its amazing anthocyanin coloration).


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