From the fruit stall to cosmology and medical research

Burnet Institute

05 July, 2016

Website provides job listings for those seeking careers in NGOs, charities, health and not for profit sectors. Their blog recently profiled the Burnet Institute’s Dr Ruth Pearson, who used the website to find her role as a senior analyst at the institute. Dr Pearson works in the Infectious Disease Modelling group using and developing the Optima tool across the areas of HIV, HCV and nutrition. Burnet Institute reproduces the story here, with thanks to

Hi Ruth, thanks for chatting to us and congratulations on your new role at the Burnet Institute! Can you tell us about your first ever paid job?

My first ever paid job was at a market stall in rural Shropshire, UK. I was about 12 years old. The stall sold fruit and vegetables and I think I got paid 50p an hour!

My job was to weigh the produce and put it into pre-priced bags, which I then sold to the customers. Sometimes I would have to stand out the front shouting about the day’s offer as an advertisement.

The next year I got a job at another market stall – this one sold bread and cakes. I liked it much better because it smelt nice and paid more! I knew all the prices by heart and was really good at mentally calculating the total price when a customer came and pointed at multiple things.

Can you tell us about your career before starting at the Burnet Institute?

I studied physics at university. It is a great passion and has had a significant impact on my career so far. I like to understand how things work.

After finishing my undergraduate degree at King’s College London, I started a PhD in cosmology at the University of Sussex, UK.

During my PhD, I spent two years in California doing research at Stanford. When I finished, I went travelling across the world and made my way overland from the UK to Australia.

When I arrived in Melbourne, I worked as a postdoc in the astrophysics group at the University of Melbourne before doing a few short-term consulting projects outside of academia. My skills in coding and data analysis lent themselves really well to landing some casual consulting gigs.

And what first inspired you to become involved in medical research?

I was looking for somewhere to apply my research skills to a new area. It’s very important to me to have a technical job – if I didn’t have science in my work, I wouldn’t be fulfilled.

I was looking at and came across the advertisement for my current position. It looked like an interesting way to apply my skills to address real-world problems. I’m working in mathematical modelling of infectious disease, so I get to do lots of maths and write lots of code, which I love!

So can you tell us a bit about what the Burnet Institute does? What first attracted you to it when you saw the ad on

The Burnet’s mission statement is to achieve better health for poor and vulnerable communities in Australia and internationally through research, education and public health. They are evidence-based and rights-focused, and do really meaningful work with stigmatised and vulnerable communities such as injecting drug users, prisoners and sex workers.

The Burnet is the only medical research institute in Australia with accreditation from Australia’s aid program; this allows them to have a strong research agenda whilst also having a strong and well-respected presence on the ground implementing public health programs internationally. I thought it sounded like a great place to work – and it is!

So what’s your experience been like so far as a woman working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)? What would you say to other women considering a career in the field?

I have certainly experienced sexism, from the blatant kind through to everyday micro-aggressions. I have witnessed women being ignored or disregarded in favour of their male counterpart saying the same thing. It is easy to notice the difference in self-assurance of work and ability that male scientists enjoy compared to female scientists.

I believe this starts with girls and women being traditionally (and noticeably still) discouraged from STEM at an early age and throughout their education, as well as a lack of female scientists in leadership roles.

There is much progress to be made towards gender equality in STEM. However, I strive to be a positive role model for women in STEM because I love science – and if you’re missing half of the workforce you’re missing half of the potential.

I would say to other women considering careers in STEM: please join us! Recently, for the first time in my career, I had a meeting that was all female. Five PhDs: three from physics, one from maths, one from economics. It was great!

Many people who work in the not-for-profit sector are aware they could earn more in the public or private sectors. What has motivated you to work in the not-for-profit sector?

After my PhD and before taking this job, I had some experience with the corporate world. Whilst the salaries are usually higher and the workplaces are shinier, the work is much less rewarding and usually less interesting.

Having come back to academia, I’m much happier doing work that is aligned with my values rather than designed to maximise profit. That said, it’s a huge privilege to have had the opportunities and education that allow me the option of working in an academic setting.

And finally, what advice would you give to the many ethical jobseekers who dream of a landing a job like yours?

I looked at many times before I found a job that really suited me. I think the key to landing a good job that you’re really happy with is finding the job that is really the right fit for you and for the employer.

Thanks for sharing your story, Ruth!


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