Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 7 – Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop AO shares the challenges she's faced in academia and the field of physics, and achievements she's made during a long and successful career.

About this week's guest

Professor Halina Rubinsztein-DunlopProfessor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop AO is a professor in physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of Queensland. She was born in Poland and completed her Masters of Science and PhD at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop was the first woman to become a physics professor at an Australian university and served as Head of School for nine years. She is internationally recognised for her work in quantum atom optics, laser micromanipulation, laser physics, linear and nonlinear high resolution spectroscopy, and nano-optics. She also works with the Nanotechnology Laboratory in Gothenburg in the fiend of nano and microfabrication. In 2016, Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop was elected as an Australian Academy of Science Fellow.

She is the first woman to become professor in physics in Australia. She's had long career in a male-dominated field, she's served as Head of School for 9 years, she can give some admin perspective. 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 Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Professor of Physics at The University of Queensland. In 2016. Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop was made Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and in 2018, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for Distinguished Service to laser physics and nano-optics as a researcher, mentor and academic, to promotion of educational programs and to women in science. With impressive career and an outstanding number of publications, Halina is recognised internationally for her leadership and achievements in the field of laser physics. I could not resist the temptation to ask her if lightsabers were possible in reality. Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop, Good morning, and welcome.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 01:40] Good morning, thank you.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 01:41] Halina, you have so many rewards and recognitions, and it would probably take me an hour just to actually go through all of them and list them all. But one of your research interests is laser physics. And I just wanted to start by asking, do you think that lightsaber from the Star Wars is actually possible in reality? Or do you know if it is a reality?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 02:03] It... No, it's sort of reality, but not quite. So the lasers which are used in welding and cutting metals, and all that, are of the same sort of strength as laser saber was used in Star Wars for killing people. So in principle, you could say that similar technology can be used in industry, and it has been widely used, and that enormous amounts of different lasers for industry, which are being developed. And the game that was made in Star Wars still the game.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 02:44] It's still the game. Oh, my God. So many disappointed people now. Okay, so is it correct, that physics was not even your first choice, and that your mother influenced you to make this decision?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 02:59] It wasn't my first choice. I... When I finished school, I think that that probably most important part of it all is the way I was brought up and by my parents, and it was that basically, I could do anything I wanted to do. So this was the way I was made to believe the world functioned around me. And so I went through school, and I had good fun at school. And I had a lot of good fun out of school, of course, as well. And then there was a time to choose what I would do as my studies. There was no discussion about doing studies, it was just make your choice. And so I wanted to actually study music, not playing but history of music. And my mom didn't, didn't make me choose physics. But my mom only said, you know, 'maybe it would be good if you choose something that gives you good profession'. So that was the only advice I got followed up by saying, 'but you know, you can do anything you want'. So I didn't choose music. I sort of took her advice to show her that I know better. And chose physics. Actually, the second choice wasn't physics. It was mathematics. But I had very, very gifted, older brother, who already has been doing mathematics and I thought I cannot compete with him. That's too hard. So second best was physics. So I chose physics.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 04:35] So you chose what your mom has chosen for herself, isn't it?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 04:39] Yes.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 04:40] Your mom was a physicist.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 04:41] My mom was physicist and from very early on, I could see how you know researcher works and how happy she was with her choice and what satisfaction she had from it and all the rest of it. I definitely saw that but it wasn't my first choice now.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:00] So… we'll just think for a second, if you did choose music, do you think you would have been equally successful?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 05:07] No.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:08] Why not? I think you grew up actually feeling that you can do anything?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 05:13] Well, so definitely, if I would have chosen to perform music, definitely not. I don't have it in me, basically. Whether it's belief or lack of self confidence in that area. I don't know, but I haven't trained and so I don't know. But the feeling is that I wouldn't be able to do that. As far as history of music is concerned, and all the rest of it. Yeah, maybe.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:42] Okay. Okay, so the next question I wanted to ask is, was there the time that you found particularly challenging in your career? And what was it and how did you overcome that?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 05:54] So there were few instances of hard hardship, I suppose, or hard time. And the biggest one probably was during my PhD. And it took me only so many years to realise this, because I always used to say that I'd never had any difficult times in my life as a physicist. Anyway, so the most challenging time was when my principal supervisor was basically telling everybody that I wasn't worthy of doing PhD, I couldn't manage, and I was too stupid, and I didn't know my physics, and all this sort of stuff. And that went around the institution where I was doing my PhD, which was in Sweden. And that was very hard to take, and sort of causing quite a depression and self doubt. But fortunately enough, I had very good colleagues. And I also have- had incredible partner, who was incredibly supportive, and who helped me believe in myself, and continue. And so without that help, I suppose that probably I could have given up, but I didn't. So that was that was hard lesson to learn. And it also coincided with the fact that we were doing one of my very first publications, and this wonderful person decided that I wouldn't be an author on that, and I was fighting to be an author on it. So these are stories, which are, you know, not uncommon, but in many ways, when they struck you, you feel very exposed and very vulnerable. And that definitely it was very hard time. But as I said, without the help of the environment in which I was, which was very nice, and my partner, I think that I would have given up,

[Dr Elena Danilova - 07:53] Well you have certainly proven him wrong.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 07:55] I have, and he had to eat it up.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 07:59] That's right.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 08:01] And he did, I can tell you that much.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:03] Oh, fantastic. I'm really glad to hear. And it's always good, as you are rightly saying, to have that environment where people help you see yourself through their eyes, you know, because people do have self doubt. And in particular, I know a PhD is a very, he's an exercise where you have a lot of self doubt. So a very difficult question from my perspective.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 08:26] Okay.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:27] Can you describe research career in one or two words?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 08:30] So I was thinking about it. And I suppose that I would describe research career is the path towards your dream in research then. So research career, for me, is following my dream, and going for the stuff that I like, the best to do, and doing it.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:51] Do you set up really high goals and have high expectations of yourself as well?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 08:56] Sure thing. Definitely.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:59] Yeah. I was doing my research and I actually, for myself decided that research career is probably a lifestyle. It's not really a profession. I mean, yes, of course, you have recognition, you're attached to a university, you know, you have all these exposure, global exposure, but it's a lifestyle. You wake up thinking about your research and you go to sleep, you're still thinking about your research.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 09:24] Yeah, I think this is pretty much how I function. And I think that my children, now grown up men, would say that I am branded by my research dreams in everyday life. So I think that what you said would be right.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 09:43] I was looking around, and I think it's probably not a very accurate data so I apologise in advance, but I found that you have published 14 book chapters, 225 journal articles, 166 conference papers, and now you're engaging in a new form of scholarly communication, you have two preprints. What is the secret of your productivity?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 10:11] So don't forget, I'm working in a quiet large group of people, which I love doing. And so I ran two large research groups. And in each of them, we have several aims, which we want to achieve. And each one of them leads to quite a number of publications. I do not have a lot of publications, which are only in my name, if you saw that there's always multiple authors. And I always put my students first and postdocs first or last, or whatever it takes. But I don't know what the secret is. Maybe a little bit of want to have of communicating what we find and tried to describe to others where we are at.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:03] And hard working. I think you have forgotten that?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 11:08] Well, a little bit. But can be fun, you know, writing paper can be actually fun, in that you have finished something and you think that it's worthwhile communicating to the broader community of researchers. And you want to tell them that, and so you want to impress them with what you are doing. And so, paper publication fulfils those needs in you to communicate your results, I suppose.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:41] Can I ask you, do you remember your first paper?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 11:44] Absolutely.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:45] Did it go well?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 11:47] No.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:48] Okay, can you share?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 11:49] Yes, I can. So there was a paper that eventuated from my, what you would call here honours. Yeah? So that was, I was very proud to be able to communicate the results of my honours project with my then supervisors. But you know, we haven't been born with knowing how to write scientific papers. And in those days, we are talking just few years ago, there was no training in scientific writing, communication skills, anything of the sword. So you were supposed to drink it with your mother's milk and just sit down and do it. So my first attempt of writing my paper, of course, was totally flawed. But because there was a supervisor on it, as well, my PhD supervisor, not the one I was telling you about before, but another one. Then, then it was made a little bit easier. And so eventually, we got the paper out. It has never been one of my hottest papers, and most cited papers or anything of the sort. But it was very steep learning curve to get that paper out. So it was like a lot of sweat and tears and what have you. But it went to the world and stayed there.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:12] That's fantastic. That's really, really good experience, though, because you need to learn as well, about the publishing process, right, and what it takes and you know, how do you actually respond to reviewers comments, one of the things that is very often recommended is just leave the feedback, the reviewers feedback for at least 24 hours, because it hurts. You take it personally, you know, and then when you, when the emotions cool down a little bit, and you look at it again, you understand that well, certain things do make sense. And maybe, you know, if you're thinking that your reviewers are your first readers, those who are reading your paper will probably ask similar questions. So...

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 13:52] Oh absolutely, that's, that's, you know, this is what I tell my students and postdocs. But when it hits me, the first reaction is exactly what you describe, oh, you know, this was harsh, and this was not right. And I'm angry, I'm removing the paper from that journal, I'm not answering those things and all the rest of it. But as you say, you sleep on it, and you wake up and you think, okay, maybe maybe there was a little bit in it that I should take into account. So, yes, we do that. And it's always you know, we can talk about self confidence and all the rest of it that we might have, might not have, but when you get bad reviewers comments, self confidence goes, just so low down that, you know, that

[Dr Elena Danilova - 14:21]  Is it always reviewer two? Is it always reviewer two that is negative?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 14:44] No no. [laughs] It can be all of them, you know, and that's even worse and or, or, you know, two reviewers who are totally different. One is superbly positive and one is superbly negative and using our 'I can play them against each other, though'. That's how you can do that. But yeah, that's a learning curve.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 15:05] That's a good tip. I love it. I never thought about it. Taking it on board. Halina, as a chief investigator, you are leading a large group of people, and you have a number of projects that are actually running in parallel. So I wanted to ask you, are you are born a leader? What are your strongest qualities? And how, how would you recommend people develop their leadership skills. So first, are you are a born leader?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 15:34] I don't know what a born leader is. So I don't know whether I am born leader. I don't know whether that category actually exists. But I like people. And I like working with people. And I like listening to people. And I think that that could possibly mean that I can be leading people. So born leader, no. Learned leader, maybe. But the most important thing is to listen to people and listen to their ideas and, and be able to also give them your own ideas and get them on board for wanting to go along those lines and do it. So yeah.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 16:22] You know, looking back at all those publications, and you know, every possible work you're involved in, I was just wondering whether you are successful in finding that work life balance?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 16:36] I suppose it depends who you ask. If you would ask my sons, they would say no, she's hopeless with that. If you ask me, of course, I would say fabulous, I have always work life balance. If I critically look at it, um no, it has always been full on. And a lot of times 24/7 and just running. So work life balance is something that I am still learning.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:07] So what is then your favourite thing to do? When you can switch off.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 17:11] I listen to classical music, I'm going to my first choice of stuff, and I do a lot of reading about music and listening to it and having fun whether going to concerts, when it's no COVID.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:25] That sounds really interesting.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 17:26] And I read a lot, not physics necessarily on it. But a lot of literature.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:31] I want to bring us to discuss a little bit of a different matter. So women are still widely under represented in physics. In one of your interviews, you actually talking about fantastic blinkers, referring to the fact that you have likely been ignoring anything that was going against gender, and it was probably for quite a long time. So do you actually see things changing right now in academia? And what in particular stands out for you? What is changing? Is there any positive change happening?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 18:07] So I think that a lot of positive change is happening. But on the other hand, if I were critical, I would say that those changes are unfortunately happening very slowly. So we all... all organisations around the world have equity, diversity and inclusion committees and actions and programs, like our SAGE program in Australia, or Athena SWAN in the UK. And so everybody's trying to do something. Is that something enough? That was basically a question. Do I see big changes? I see some changes. But as I said, I would say that those changes are, unfortunately, incredibly slow. Do I have good solutions for it? I think that there are solutions we can look at. And these can be discussed at length. And I think that we are much more alert to the problems that are still existing. And if you take physics, it's a typical, especially my field it's quantum physics and biophysics, in quantum physics there's almost, there are almost no women. And you know, there are articles now coming out, quantum physics needs women, because we're talking about the pool of society, 50% of the pool, which is not tapped into. And the question is, why aren't we doing it? Why is it so difficult for women to, for example, be represented equally or represented in bigger numbers in quantum? And very often people point to culture of the institution. And that's something that I think we should be working on. It's a culture of the institution. And that's very broad term. It's very general term. But I think that women very often get out of doing science at higher levels because of the lack of proper culture around them. So that's something to address. Another thing to address as looking at employment, perspectives for people in those fields, and make it much more equal. So you know, the biggest problem is unconscious and implicit bias. So I think that there's simple things that can be done, like every meeting, telling people about unconscious and implicit bias and making people accountable to it. And all the time looking at the methods that would promote gender equity. So one very simple thing would be to have the when you try to employ new people to always have two positions, one for males in that area and one for females, and assess them separately rather than together, because it has been proven that when the assessment is done together there is a lot of unconscious bias, not only from men's point of view, but also from women who are on the committee's. So to avoid that, assessing them separately is probably one good solution. And you know, if you would ask me 20 or 30 years ago, whether I thought that having women only positions was a good move, to change the balance in the field, I would be- I was totally against it. And now I think it's fantastic idea, I think that if it's done properly, it's the thing that can change the balance quite substantially. And it's very important to do it. Because, you know, there is a lot of untapped potential that we are not using if we let all the women leave science.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 22:16] I can't agree more. And especially in the point that you're making about, you know, assessment, like separate assessment for different positions.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 22:24] There is also, sorry to interrupt you, but there is also another thing that really is, you know, deeply in my mind at the moment, and it is... the question is whether we are doing science right, as far as diversity and inclusion is concerned, and gender equity. The norms that have been set up for how we do science, and what is success in science, have been set up by old men 100 years ago, okay, and was comfortable in their frame of reference, and this is still what we are doing. So the question to ask is, are we doing it right? Are we assessing people right? And I think that we are not. And I think that that has to be a little bit of change in order to accommodate the life of today, and the reality of today of how science is being done. And it's not only important for, for young women, it's also important for young men, because those norms that have been set up, then are pretty awful.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 23:31] And I think on top of that women very often have career interruption, because they have, you know, they have family to take care of.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 23:39] And you know, the saddest thing is now quite often I talked to women, and they're very ambitious, and they want to make that career be the centre of their attention. And they make a choice of not having family and not having partner in order to be free to progress their career, and I find it- okay, if it's their choice, that's great. But if it is to fulfil the requirements, that assessment of success in research career is, that is very sad.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 24:16] Your absolutely right.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 24:17] So I think that, that, you know, again, going back to culture, at every workplace is something that we have to look at, and also assessing science in different way. What success is.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 24:30] And I think culture is actually the most difficult thing you can change, you can attempt to change and it takes quite a long time.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 24:38] Yeah, but if you if you're conscious about it, you can do changes. You know, change is something that we fear, but at the same time, which gives us a lot of new insights to things and so just persuading people to look at change is something that could be very helpful.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 24:57] I wish I could just take that lightsaber and just cut it off.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:00] Well, that would be nice.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:04] We need your help with that, Halina.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:06] That's right. [laughs]

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:07] Well, another question I wanted to ask is, what best advice would you give to yourself at the time when you started your academic career?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:16] Go for it. That would be my advice. Go for your dreams and just believe in yourself and, and do it.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:24] Be assertive. Be persistent.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:27] You know, that sort of comes with the game. But I think that the biggest one is to believe that you can do anything. And if you choose to do something, you will do it well. And I think that this is what I would say to younger people now as well. Go for your dreams.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:46] And dream big. Dream Big.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:48] Definitely dream Big. Yeah.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:50] So do you have a favourite quote?

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 25:52] Yes, I do. I actually recently have been looking at Ruth Bader Ginsburg as everybody else that is of her recent that. And I read that... I read a book about her and I looked at a lot of stuff that she presented. And one of the quotes that stayed with me is, I'll read it out to you. "As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we'll all be better off for it".

[Dr Elena Danilova - 26:31] That is such a fantastic way to finish our conversation today. Halina, thank you so much for your time and this insightful conversation. And we wish you all the very best.

[Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop - 26:41] Thank you so much. Thank you.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 26:47] 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