Alumna, Dr Darshini Ayton shares her lessons with MNHS 2020 Graduates

Congratulations everyone. This evening is an opportunity to celebrate your achievement, supported by your family and friends and your peers.

We are all proud of you – you finished your studies and graduated in the year of corona. But you may be thinking, what now? Tonight I want to leave you with 4 mantras that have been important to my career.

I am curious

I remember graduating and feeling overwhelmed and excited about all the opportunity and possibility. And thinking, how do I choose, what if I make the wrong choice? And I realised it didn’t matter. I worked as a research assistant when I first graduated, and then worked as a research assistant during my Masters and PhD. I worked on lots of different projects and with lots of people. And some projects I loved, some I found confronting and challenging, but I learnt something every time. The best way to know what you are good at, what you like to do, is to try and be curious.  Since completing my PhD, I still practice my curiosity and say yes to as many opportunities I can – it means I have the privilege of working with clinicians, laboratory scientists, patients, industry – across some of our biggest public health and health service challenges.  I encourage you to be curious and open-minded and to embrace the motto of our University – Ancora Imparo – I am still learning. Your learning doesn’t conclude with your degree, it is the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

I can do hard things

Bestselling author and researcher – Dr Brene Brown - talks about FFT – which stands for ‘freaking first time’ but the freaking stands for another F word that I can’t say up here. When we are doing anything for the first time – our first graduate job, statistics, applying for grants, seeing a patient for the first time –it is hard.  It is normal to feel anxious– and that is okay. It is also important to know that you won’t feel like this forever – our first times don’t last forever, we learn, we grow, we gain experience and we gain perspective. And through that perspective, we learn that we will sometimes fail. And failure is part of the process of succeeding. When I finished my PhD – I applied for a National health and medical research council fellowship. These are highly competitive. And I thought – you know what, I’ve done well in my studies, I’m good at my job, of course I’m going to get it. And I didn’t…. and I applied three more times… and didn’t get it. These applications are HARD to write, complex, technical, short time frames. But each time I applied, I learnt new skills - I learnt how to sell myself as a researcher, to articulate the importance of my project, to put forward innovative research methods. My research experience had also grown and I could demonstrate the work that I was capable of. My 5th attempt…. I was struggling, I almost didn’t apply, I was thinking about how the success rates are about 10%... that there are 3 x more AFL players in Australia than there are NHMRC fellowships awarded each year…. I was also not well… but I kept repeating to myself, I can do hard things, I can do hard things… and so while in hospital with an MS relapse, typing my application out with one hand and a drip in the vein of my other hand… I pressed submit on that application… and 5 months later I found out I was successful…. I can do hard things.

I can pivot

2020 taught us that nothing is certain, plans can be disrupted or changed and it is a fundamental lesson of adulting and having a career. We have to adapt, be flexible and be able to pivot. At the start of 2020 I was launching a project in hospitals. We recruited 3 patients for our study. COVID hit and we were rightly kicked out of the hospital. It could have been easy to twiddle my thumbs and think there is nothing that I can do while I wait for hospitals to open up to research again. Instead, I connected with a number of the clinicians I work with – I asked them – what are your wonderings right now? How can I partner with you as a researcher to help answer some of the questions you have? And so we undertook a number of COVID-19 healthcare worker and community projects. There was a lot of uncertainty – but we embraced it, leant into it and came out the other end a better understanding of what we had lived through and importantly for my research KPIs – some publications.

I am connected

I have only ever applied for one job in my life… since then, it has been through my connections and networks that I have been given job opportunities and created collaborations and partnerships.

  • You are now part of a truly global alumni community of more than 420,000 Monash graduates living in 160 different countries.

And this community is incredible. Personally I have studied all my degrees through Monash, it is a thrill to work alongside people who were my lecturers and leading researchers. I married a Monash alumni who I met in the computer labs on this very campus.

  • 2020 showed us that it is possible to connect with people. There is nothing stopping you from connecting with alumni living in Australia or elsewhere in the world.
  • Now that you have graduated, the first thing I recommend is that you activate your Alumni Portal. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of this network? Pull out your phones and type in Monash Alumni Portal – register your details now.
  • The Alumni Portal will help you connect with the global alumni community, and provide you access to professional development and mentoring opportunities and the alumni benefits program. Check out the Alumni Mentoring program. Who knows, that mentoring session may open doors for you down the track!
  • Tonight however, we have the joy of connecting with one another in person. I encourage you to take this opportunity to introduce yourself to the graduates around you, not just the ones you know. Say hello to the graduate next to you, or the person you are standing next to at the bar or coffee cart.

Come say hello to me! And to my husband Associate Professor Scott Ayton – a lab and clinical neuroscientist who even though he works for our competition across the river, will always be a Monash alumni.

So the mantras – I am curious, I can do hard things, I can pivot, I am connected.

  • Thank you for letting me share a little bit of my experience with you.
  • I hope you have all hit the submit button on the Monash Alumni Portal.

Congratulations again and have a wonderful evening everyone.