A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

342 Alison Wright – There and Back Again

Alison is plagued by indecision when choosing between two seemingly perfect job opportunities in Germany.

Dr Alison Wright is a Scientist at Griffith University working in the Office for Research. Her research specialised in Spinal Cord Injury stem cell treatments, and chemical tissue clearing microscopy techniques. As a prominent transgender scientist, she has been involved in outreach and advocacy to highlight LGBT individuals in STEM.


Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queer Stories this week. Dr Allison Wright is a scientist at Griffith University, working in the Office for Research. Her research specialised in spinal cord injury, stem cell treatments and chemical tissue clearing microscopic techniques. As a prominent transgender scientist, she’s been involved in outreach and advocacy to highlight LGBT individuals in STEM. She performed this story at World Science Festival. 

Alison: In 2019, I finished my PhD and I was finally, finally ready to take on the world. For the past few years, I had balanced both my agenda transition and my doctoral studies, but thankfully I had some really great supervisors. A lovely married couple I affectionately called my science parents. Now Science Mum was supportive in every way I needed her to be. She fought with the administration for me, she imbued a sense of self-confidence in me and at the end of all of this, she got me through the line on time. So when I finished my project, I got the floppy hat and I got the title. I went to Science Mum and I said what the hell do I do next? I’ve always had a love for space and, being the type of person that forgets to think about their passions, I decided to go into biology instead of engineering, but I was very excited to learn that there exists a field of astrobiology not in Australia, of course. We don’t get anything like that, but the fact that existed at all was very exciting to me. Unfortunately, the people at NASA never called me back, but I did get a response from the German Aerospace Center, a few emails backwards and forwards, and we had set up some interviews. Now these people were neurobiologists as well, which is my field. They were also working on nerve bridges, which I had experience with. Well, it sounded like a perfect blend between my passions and my experience. 

The complication then came when I got a job offer from another lab. I’m sure you’ve all been in the same situation before, where you’re applying for jobs. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You apply for everything you can find. I applied for every job advertisement. I emailed every professor. I begged anyone who so resembled a scientist for a paying position. Well, I received a message from this professor, from Twitter of all places. Turns out he really liked my work. He was interested in meeting me and after again a few messages, we had set up an interview or two. This lab was the real deal. High publishing in nature. They had an interesting technology at the core of the whole lab and they had seemingly endless funding. 

So when they came back with a job offer at the same time that the Space Center decided to offer me a fellowship, I was struck with indecision. I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I went to Science Mom and I asked her which do I choose? She said it sounds like you’ve got a choice between two of the greats. As helpful as that comment was. But I’m the type of person that likes to think they can think their way out of problems. And so I went to the space team and I said can I defer this for a year? Because, as it turned out, professor Twitter said he only wanted to put me on for a year and since I mainly wanted to learn the technology anyway, I could do that and then start at the space team afterwards. I could have my cake and eat it too. Everyone agreed, and so, before long, January came around and I boarded a plane for Munich, which is where Professor Twitter was spaced. 

I was there for maybe two or three days before I realised the plan of getting a visa domestically in Germany works really well for any city apart from Munich, where the visa experience can be more better described as the running with the bulls. I had to resign myself to waking up at 4am, waiting in the snow for four hours just to have a chance at seeing the visa workers that day, because the crowds were that long. But eventually I prevailed. Visa in hand, I was ready to take on the world… Well, a month later than I originally intended, but sure, I was ready. So now it was about March 2020, which, as you all remember, was a different sort of experience. So instead of starting this exciting new journey in a new lab, I instead spent it inside. I disregarded the calls from the Australian government to come home, because how bad could it be? And the only thing that really made this whole experience really feel like an emergency was the police cars driving around the street saying ‘stay in your homes’ in German, so it sounded aggressive. But not to be perturbed, once the lockdown started to lift and I could start to actually get in the lab, things started to look up. During this time, I also talked to the space team and I worked on the project ideas so that, when the next year came, I could actually start hitting the ground running. When the planes were starting to run as well, I made my way up to Cologne, which is where the Space Center is based, and I got to meet the people. I got to tour the facilities. I even got to see the Astronaut Training Center, which had this enormous centrifuge for testing hyper-gravity. The team also had this charm to them because, while the team in Munich had seemingly endless cash. All the money in Cologne was going to the rockets, and so the team that I was going to start with. They had to make ends meet by building everything themselves and stretching their budget any way they could. 

Pretty soon, my contract in Munich came to its end. I was looking down the end of this year in Germany and I had achieved nothing. It was pretty much a waste of a year between the lockdowns, failed experiments, setting up a new lab and equipment. I didn’t have a publication to say anything for the time I’d spent there. But that’s fine, because next year, next year I’m going to start again from scratch. Great!

Well, my boss came to me and he offered me a three-year contract, and the idea of moving from one side of the country to the other at that point sounded exhausting. I was so tired at this point I didn’t know if I wanted to pick up everything, to move, to start again. But I’ve been leading this team on for an entire year. They’re waiting for me. Well, I’m the type of person that thinks they can think the way out of problems. So I, you know, had a great idea. My team in Munich is really big on collaboration, so maybe I can set up a project that will use both. I can have my cake and eat it too. They both seemed really excited about the idea, I mean, I took it to them and they both seemed keen. But, try as I might, I thought for days on end and I could not for the life of me think of a project that would connect the two. In the end, there wasn’t two cakes to have. I couldn’t have both of these things. I had to make a decision and in the end I gave away the dream lab that I didn’t know in exchange for the security of the lab that I did know. I just hope that I didn’t sell myself short and tarnish my reputation in that, because I would love to go back into space science. 

Anyway, as time went on, the lockdown started to lift and I could finally start to enjoy Germany. Everything was opening up again, but for some reason I felt more trapped than ever. Something wasn’t sitting right, and so I went to Professor Twitter. I said to him I don’t think I’m happy here. I think I want to quit. He implored me not to. He said you know, let’s talk about this. He took me out to dinner that night the nicest sushi restaurant in the city, followed by cocktails, all at his expense. He always was the type to spoil me. He told me about his younger, carefree days when he was in his first post-doc experience, just like me. It was in San Francisco, full of self-discovery and sex and a transgender girlfriend at the time. That’s a weird thing to talk to your boss about. And he would go on to say that he actually found trans women more attractive than cis women. Yeah, that’s how I felt too. Again, it’s a strange thing to talk to your employee about your transgender employee. At this point it was like a light switch had turned on and illuminated every passing comment, every fun, playful remark. Sure, I’ll go to the lakes with you. Sounds like fun. Cocktails at your expense? You’re so nice to me. Sure, you can check out my Tinder profile. Have any tips? 

A week later, I went back to Professor Twitter and I said to him I’m still not feeling it, let me go on, leave. I’ll take some time back home in Australia. And then he said to me that’s fine, by all means. If you’re still feeling like this at the end of everything, then you can just stay. And so he did. I stayed, picked up life exactly where I left off and about a month later I sent him a fuck you, I quit. Here’s a detailed list of all of the potential sexual harassment. And he said I accept unconditionally. Can you please remove that paragraph and then send that letter to HR? 

In decision took me around the world and back again, and it also helped me realise that I never wanted to be a postdoc. I love science, but I like science as a lens to view the world, and it’s a lens that I still use every day in my current job, which I realise now that it’s actually outdated. I work in the research grants office now, so I don’t have to do science myself. I get to look after everyone else’s science, which is much more my speed. If I could leave you with something, it’s this. I was struck with indecision because I couldn’t let go of these opportunities and I got burnt for it. Sometimes it’s not only good to let go, but it’s necessary to let go, and only when you let something go are you capable of seeing the next amazing opportunity. Thank you.

Maeve: Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast, share your favourite tales on the socials and follow Queerstories on Facebook for updates. If you enjoy Queerstories, consider supporting the project on Patreon. Check out the link in the episode description. Finally, for late night ramblings, gay shit and photos of me trying to garden with a baby on my back. Follow Maeve Marsden on Twitter and Instagram. 

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Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.