Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 6 – Dr Sally Shrapnel

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, Dr Sally Shrapnel discusses how she transitioned from 20 years as a medical practitioner to the world of academia, quantum physics and machine learning.

About this week's guest

Dr Sally ShrapnelDr Sally Shrapnel is a senior lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Physics at The University of Queensland. She is an interdisciplinary Scientist working at the interface of causality and machine learning. Dr Shrapnel has studied biomedical science, medicine, surgery, biomedical engineering, and has been a registered and practicing medical practitioner for over 20 years. She has also studied quantum physics and machine learning, completing a PhD in quantum causal learning. In addition to her work at UQ, Dr Shrapnel is a Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems. She is senior lecturer at SMP. She currently leads the AI arm of the big COVID-19 project that looks at global ICU patients data. She had a non-traditional path to academia, having been a GP for 15+ years before pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and joining SMP. She is also currently CI at EQUS. She is from a dual-career family with children.

Listen now

Episode transcript

[Dr Elena Danilova - 00:04] Welcome to the Scholarly Soup podcast brought to you by The University of Queensland Library. In this podcast series we're going to meet with amazing women who found their success in academic and professional roles at The University of Queensland. They are resilient, smart, proactive, and more importantly, they're now working together to implement systemic changes that could make your career progression that little bit easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best. In this episode, I'm talking with Dr Sally Shrapnel, a senior lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Physics at The University of Queensland. Sally is an interdisciplinary scientist working as the interface of causality and machine learning. She currently leads the artificial intelligence arm of the big COVID-19 project that looks at global ICU patient's data. She has studied biomedical science, medicine, surgery, medical engineering, and has been a registered and practicing medical practitioner for 20 years before she joined academia. What an amazing career turn. Dr Sally Shrapnel, good afternoon and welcome.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 01:28] Hi, Elena.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 01:29] Sally, you describe yourself as quantum research scientist, data scientist, philosopher, and medical practitioner, and I did find that you have been a registered and practicing medical practitioner for over 20 years. When have you decided to change career paths and why?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 01:49] That's a great question. There were lots of things that came into that decision. But I've kind of always been interested in metaphysics, I loved it at school. And I started off here at UQ actually, in maths and physics. I did it for a year and then I thought, 'Oh, I can't imagine myself sitting in some radio telescope somewhere'. I was interested in astronomy at the time. And I thought that would be quite an isolated job. And I liked people. And a couple of my friends were doing medicine, I thought, oh, maybe that's a better career for me. So you know, back when you're 17-18, you really don't have a clue about what you want to do. So I swapped over to medicine, and I finished my med degree. I worked for a year as a doctor. And I ran into someone who is doing a degree in engineering, bio engineering and medicine. So it was called physics and engineering and medicine at Imperial College. And it just sounded like a really exciting, interesting thing to do. So I went to London and did that degree. And then at the end of that I had to kind of decide do I go back to clinical medicine and do a specialty and train or do I go into academia and become a physicist and an academic researcher. And at that point in my life, I was, I guess I was just more inclined to finish the medical pathway. So I went back to Australia, and I trained as a rural GP. And I worked as a general practitioner for about 15 years, and I loved it. But I always kind of had this half an eye on what was going on in science. And then I had some children. And when my children were in primary school, I felt like I had a bit more space. You know, once the kids were at school, I'd been working part time as a GP, would move back to a city. And I was actually interested in the nature of scientific explanation. I was thinking, I sit here in my work every day, explaining things to patients, and sometimes the science or it's really difficult to trace that pathway through science. So I actually came back to you Q and I enrolled in a degree in philosophy, looking at the philosophy of scientific explanation. And through that, I kind of noticed that most of the theories in philosophy, you know, that say, this is the way scientific explanation works. And then there'd be this little caveat or a footnote somewhere saying, unless you think about quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics is really weird and mysterious, and all the rules go out the window. And I just became really fascinated with this fact. So I, I then I think I just realized that I was spending more time reading about quantum mechanics and trying to understand that, then I was thinking about the latest asthma protocols or what have you. So I then approached someone at UQ who was a lecturer here and said, like, I'm really interested in doing a Master's degree to actually understand a bit more about quantum theory and the philosophy of what's real and what's not. That, you know, quantum theory tells us. Quantum mechanics is, you know, about our most fundamental physical theory. They said, why don't you do a PhD? I was like, I'm 42. Like, how old can you start this? And he was like, 'Well, how old will you be in three and a half years if you do it and how old will you be in three and a half years if you don't do it, which is very good advice, because I thought, well, yeah. I could be in three and a half years time, I could say, yeah, I've done a PhD in quantum physics. So I enrolled in the PhD program. And I was doing it part time and doing part time medicine. But it just became obvious through the course of the PhD it was what I loved. It was so fascinating and engaging and interesting. And you know, I've done GP for like, 20 years, so I did less and less GP and more and more academia. And then when I got a postdoc position I basically went, Okay, I'm going to ramp, you know, I'm going to keep my medical registration, the minimum clinical work I need to do and just go full time into research.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:36] Amazing, what an amazing story. Medical practitioner take now into academic world, and quantum physicists, as a quantum physicist. Sally, you are now interdisciplinary scientist working at the interface of causality and machine learning. So for me, actually, artificial intelligence is equally as exciting as it is actually scary. So we already witness robots performing operations on the patients, and in 2018 I know there was a cafe opened in Tokyo, which was staffed by robot waiters controlled remotely by paralysed people. So here in the library, we actually planning to deploy a robot to answer questions. So it will be just roaming around and you know, giving directional answers and so on. So are machines going to take over the world? What's the application of your research? That's what I'm wondering.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 06:32] Are robots going to take over the world? I hope not. I think that, you know, it's a really important question. And the engagement of community generally in the development of this technology is going to be crucial. And we're lucky, there's an initiative that UQ's involved in the Queensland AI hub, which has been put together through Queensland Government, and one of their key initiatives is actually to try and bring other members of the community, not just people who know the technical side of machine learning and AI. So that can be an open discussion so that we can develop this technology to make sure that does the, you know, the most good for society in the most broad sense. So I don't think machines are going to take over the world because I think human beings are aware of the fact that we need to try and align this technological development with our broader aims. In terms of the research that I do. So I kind of have two main areas to my research. One is I'm very interested in the very fundamental aspects of learning and machine learning. So what can we learn given the laws of the universe? So that's kind of asking things like, if we believe that quantum mechanics and general relativity are the most fundamental theories, are there some limits on what we can learn about the world? Might it be actually impossible for us to be able to know exactly how the planets going to change in terms of global warming? Or might it be possible if we use, you know, special resources, like quantum computers and things like that. So one part of my research is very fundamental, it's very theoretical, mostly, what I do is theory, it's a little bit of applied in that space. And hopefully, in the next five or 10 years, it'll be a lot more applied. But the other side of my research is medical and health related machine learning and artificial intelligence. So I have some projects where I work with Queensland Health, and also a big group out of the UK, out of Oxford working on COVID data. So looking at trying to extract information from data that's collected just in routine clinical use. So as you know, now, when you go to the hospital, all your data is digitised. So there's a lot of information about public health now in electronic medical records, and part of my research is looking at how we can extract that information, and learn from it in a meaningful way that we can then put back into clinical workflows so that we can help patients at the bedside. So two very different kinds of approaches. It's amazing.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:58] It sounds very, very interesting.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 08:59] Oh, it's great.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 09:01] Sally you mentioned that you actually started your PhD as a mature student? Was it a rocky road or was it a smooth road for you? And if it were, if there were difficulties, like how did you overcome them?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 09:11] That's funny, I don't think I've ever come across any PhD student who would say it was completely smooth. PhD's are tough, you know, a PhD is a big commitment. A lot of the time you really got to push it through yourself, you know, there's there is that sense that you're really driving your own PhD. And there certainly were times, for me, it was a pretty challenging topic. I was doing quantum theory, you know, without having done a physics degree. So there was a very, very steep learning curve. And I, for me, I'm lucky I really love learning new things. So that was good. But I'd say probably one of the hardest things was learning to balance the time and recognising that you can say no to opportunities when you're a young academic people will present you with opportunities that you feel like you just can't pass up. And what can often happen is you can get overloaded very early On. So I guess, because I had kids at home, you know, I was still needing to have those, that role and responsibility, it meant that I could put some boundaries around that. So there were points in my PhD where I think I was probably working too hard and not effectively. But I kind of learned along the way. I had good people, I had great advisory team. I work in a, well I was working across two disciplines, philosophy and physics at the time. And the physics department particularly is really wonderful place to work. So I was very fortunate in that sense.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 10:33] So you have published a number of papers. I was just wondering if you have ever gone through the rejection process? And how did you take it? Can you give any advice?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 10:45] Oh, absolutely. Everyone's papers get rejected at some point. Like, that's just part of being an academic.

[]Dr Elena Danilova - 10:50] And part of the process isn't it rejections? Rejection is part of the process.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 10:53] I think it's really interesting, depending on the discipline, because I've actually published in like a number of different disciplines, and the actual culture and practices are very different in the different disciplines. You can, you know, I think the hardest thing is, if you get a rejection, where, you know, the referee didn't actually read the paper properly, or, you know, you get a rejection that you feel is really unfair. And I have been a co-author on a paper relatively recently where the paper was rejected. And, you know, my normal approach would be 'Okay, next journal', but the lead author on that particular paper went 'No, that that response is, really, you know, not I don't think that's justified, I think we've got an argument here'. And that was two referees had said, no. And so we wrote a letter saying, you know, we think you've misunderstood this, we wrote it and went back, and it went through the process again, and after a few iterations, it actually got published. And that opened my eyes to the fact that, you know, if you really feel you've got a good piece of work, and you can justify it, sometimes it is worth raising the question about whether the referees have perhaps misunderstood you. I think during your PhD it can be difficult because typically you've got one really big paper that you're really excited about, you put your heart and soul into it. And so that first rejection might be really painful. And I think you just have to recognise it's never personal. Sometimes, you know, there is an element of luck, you can be unlucky and get a referee that happens to disagree with that, you know, particular approach. There are many, many, many journals out there, there's no shame in having a paper rejected and going, you know, applying to another journal following that. I think the other thing is that, depending again, on the discipline you're in, you know, one of the things I love in the machine learning literature, they have these open, this open review system that's open and iterative. And you can see the papers get better through the review paper review process. So often, you'll have a few, the first few reviewers say, No, we reject this for these reasons. And then the authors will refine the paper and prove it, come back and have another go. And you just see the paper improving. It's like the way science should be done. It's a very collaborative kind of approach. So I'd love all disciplines to move to that open review process. But, you know, in an ideal world.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:08] And I heard that actually, the open peer review also makes it a little bit more collaborative in the way in the way reviewers actually even communicate, to communicate, because you know, their name is attached to it. And absolutely, and it's also open to the whole research community. Yeah. So potentially, it's a little bit less subjective. Yeah, in that sense, you know. Interesting question, I think, and maybe a little bit provocative. Do you think it is harder for women in academia, especially like in science discipline, because of the under representation of women?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 13:45] I have no doubt that it's much harder. I think there are many different ways that it's difficult. One of the kind of very subtle ways is the fact that there just are a lot of unconscious biases and cognitive biases that we bring to the workplace. And you see that people look for people like them to support. And it's one of the things I mean, I'm, I'm very fortunate, I would say the physics department at UQ is was really amazing. It's been incredible place to work. And I did, you know, face some gender discrimination in my early career back at Imperial College, and you know, back in the 90s, and then coming back as a mature academic into the physics department, which is full of blokes I was ready for, you know, to be have to fight for my corner. And, and I was really pleasantly surprised that they advocate for more women in their discipline. They're very aware of the biases, and they're trying to address them. There's some terrific mentors in that school. And I have seen other areas in the university where it's not the case. And I would say one of the things that I still see even in physics is that thing of people do look, they just automatically look to people like them. So I've been, you know, where people have said, Oh, he'd be a great hire. He's just Like the guy that just retired, you know, he's just like he was 20 years ago. He, you know, he does the same kind of research and I go, Okay, you've just ruled out half the population in that statement. That woman who's applying for the job is never going to look like that old Professor that's just left. She's never going to behave like him. Or, you know, that's probably not a good criteria when your filling a job position. So, yeah, I mean, I would say the difficulties for women are the lack of mentorship available, because there aren't so many women in level D, Level E positions across the university landscape. But you know, I think there's a really good groundswell of support to make change at the moment, which I think is a good thing. I really left academia, one of the reasons why I left I went back to clinical medicine, rather than continuing on after my degree at Imperial College was partly there were no role models that I could see, female role models that had families, and had been able to do that balancing act. So it seemed to me like you had to choose, you're either going to be an academic or have a family that that wasn't something you could combine. And I think that's not the case anymore.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 16:08] I think that's a really interesting perspective. And so that you partially answered my next question, but I was just wondering, have you had a mentor that will, you know, male person who was your mentor who actually gave you a different perspective on things? And,

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 16:25] Yeah, definitely, I've... There's probably been a couple of male mentors that have been very influential. Gerard Milburn, so he's a professor. He's an emeritus professor now, he's been with the physics department for many years, is a very well respected, internationally well respected quantum physicist. And he was a terrific role model. He was always professional. He always spoke to me like a peer who had something interesting to say, I never felt that I was less worthy of being in a room, you know, because of my level in academia, or because of my gender, or because of my age, or those things just didn't seem to matter. If I was keen and interested on the work, then he was happy to support that. And Andrew White who's the Director of EQUS, which is the ARC Center for Engineered Quantum Systems who I work with. He's been very instrumental in promoting women within that particular institution, they have a Deborah Jinn Fellowship that they initiated, which is for women only. I think there's a the... I was on the Diversity and Equity Committee for EQUS and that was very forward thinking and actually looking at making change rather than just kind of symbolic gestures all the time. So those two have been very influential. And also Matt Davis, who's the Head of Physics, he's a professor as well. I think he has a very good outlook on, you know, they all recognise the fact that physics is missing out, because women aren't staying on. And they all want to see that change. So, you know, I've been very lucky, I guess.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:50] And has such a positive change, isn't it?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 17:52] Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:54] I actually, I must say, I came to Australia on a scholarship from UNESCO. And that was also women in engineering education. So that was my lab. So I'm glad that there was you know, that initiative, and they gave me an opportunity to become part of the university and part of the academia.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 18:11] That's right.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 18:12] So I have a little quote here. So according to Immanuel Kant, science is organised knowledge and wisdom is organised life. And so I was going to ask if you are able to actually disconnect from the "daily job"? I'm doing the quotation marks. And how do you balance life and work?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 18:34] Oh, what a great question. It's funny, because coming from medicine, so when I was a GP, I used to feel a bit frustrated, or, you know, like, you'd get some result in at nine o'clock at night, and you'd have to action it, you know, people get sick all the time. And I resented the fact that work encroached on my home life a bit. But the problem is, I love the research that I do. And I find the disciplines the other way around, I actually have to force myself to stop doing work on the weekends, because I just think I'll just read that paper. You know, this is great paper that's come out or I just want to find out. Burnout is a huge risk in academia. And I, you know, I have had to learn that just because I've got three hours where I haven't got something planned on the weekend, that doesn't mean that I should do work related things because you do just start to spin your wheels a bit. So I just had to be more disciplined about actually allocating time to force myself to do something completely different. You know, read a novel, that kind of stuff. I spend a lot of time with my kids. That's a very natural way of having downtime. But I think it is important for your research capacity and creativity to force yourself to have those breaks, but yet took me a while to learn that.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 19:50] Oh, that's really good advice, though. Thank you for sharing. Do you have mantra that you know something that inspires you and motivates you so what what is your Why?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 20:01] I don't have a mantra. I think for me, if I'm, you know, sometimes you're just, you know, drudging through some admin task, and kind of feeling a bit like, oh, okay, this job, you know, some aspect of the job feels a bit like, it's, it's hard work. And I just think about the research questions that I'm getting to answer. I'm working on quantum robots and machine learning. And you know, it's like, my childhood dream from reading science fiction to be able to work on this and be paid and, and speak to lots of really creative, intelligent people as part of my day job. It feels like a great privilege. So I think the thing for me is, I think, those big questions, you know, the really big questions like, are there limits to what we can learn? That kind of big question, that what keeps me going.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 20:49] And the next question was, exactly, do you dream big? And it seems like you actually don't only dream big, you actually get to do what you like.

Dr Sally Shrapnel - 20:57 Yeah, that's right. I think the foundational stuff for me is the real pleasure in the job. I do a lot of applied machine learning in the health sphere. And that's very rewarding for different reasons. It's kind of practical, but the thing I really love and gives me joy, is that really foundational stuff, the really thinking big. So yeah, that would be the answer to that.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 21:16] Would that be your legacy as well? You want it to be your legacy?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 21:20] Um, I guess I've not really thought about that to be honest. I think you can get caught up with thinking about too much about what other people think about you or what you will leave behind. Or I think your better to stay focused on what brings you joy and what you want to achieve for yourself. And for me, it's understanding and... understanding the universe and the way things work. I try not to think too much about that, about the legacy side of things.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 21:42] You live in the now.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 21:43] Absolutely.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 21:44] Not in the future.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 21:44] Yeah, absolutely.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 21:46] So, Sally, if you were to start your career again, would you have done anything differently?

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 21:52] That's a great question. Probably not, I do wonder if I'd gone, you know, if I hadn't done medicine and gone straight into physics, I mean I do love the job I'm doing now. But being a medical doctor gave me a lot of insight into the way human beings are. And it was a real privilege kind of position to be in to to be able to help people through illness and things like that for so many years. So I wouldn't say I regret it. But I'm kind of, I'd be curious to know where I'd be now, if I'd started this second pathway when I was much younger. In terms of any other regrets? I don't think so. You know, I look back and think should I have stood up for myself as a younger woman, like, now I'm older, I'm just inclined, I just call everything, if someone's saying something inappropriate whatever, I'll just call it out. And I feel I've got less to lose. When I was a younger woman, I probably kept my mouth shut more often, because I was frightened of repercussions, etc. But when I look back, when you're in those more, though, that kind of vulnerable stage of life, that's maybe you know, that's maybe a sensible thing to do. So it's bit hard to say.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 22:56] Thank you very much. It's been, it's been a really good conversation. I really appreciate your time. And we hope to see you again soon.

[Dr Sally Shrapnel - 23:05] Thank you very much.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 23:09] That's it for this episode of women finding success. The podcast series was initiated by the Sage Athena SWAN team at The University of Queensland. Thanks to Workplace Diversity and Inclusion team and Gender Steering Committee for their support and coordination. The series is produced by Dr Elena Danilova with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoy this podcast, please like, subscribe or write a review on the platform you get your podcast from. Thank you for listening.


Return to Women Finding Success