The journey from James Herriot wannabe to research superstar

The road to one’s career is not always straightforward and for Senior Lecturer Dr Alex Whittaker, it was rather circuitous. 

From the wise old age of four she dreamt of becoming the female version of James Herriot (a British veterinary surgeon famed for his books and the films and TV series that followed). 

She studied veterinary medicine at university and at 18 she believed she was on track to fulfil her destiny. She had developed a strong interest in veterinary welfare, believing there was a way she could use her knowledge to enhance the lives of many animals. And she could see there was much to be done. 

She had a few professional roles working in animal welfare but felt that her knowledge bank was stagnant. And here’s where her introduction to research began. 

The University of Adelaide took a punt on her as a junior lecturer and a new career path formed. 

She learnt about teaching and was supported to pursue her PhD in animal welfare. During her PhD, she studies animal behaviour to gain insights into animal welfare. And as part of this, she examined new techniques that could be used to assess welfare. 

She has continued this study and expanded her species focus – learning lessons from medical neuroscientists to start investigating neurobiological markers that might provide insight into animals’ welfare states. 

Alex also founded the Evidence Synthesis Initiative for Animal and Veterinary Sciences (ESIAVS) and directs this initiative. This cross-disciplinary group performs evidence syntheses on a range of topics related to the animal and veterinary science fields and performs metascience evaluations. 

It turns out she loves studying too, and she has picked up a few other degrees along the way! 

She now uses her law degree to understand, and hopefully navigate, the tricky jump between welfare science knowledge and policy implementation. 

It’s clear she loves working in STEM, but what appeals about it the most? 

I love that each day is different. I could be doing research, teaching, talking to the public, or just brainstorming ideas with other enthusiastic individuals. Plus, my ideas always matter because I get to drive their growth through pursuing research on them.  

I think my favourite part is mentoring of research students. I see their individual growth from somewhat nervous honours students to confident independent researchers within three years, and I share the highs and lows of this journey with them.    

If she could give her younger self some advice, either when choosing what to study, or during her studies, what would it be?   

Don’t think that you are limited by what you choose to study and that you can’t change direction later on. Change is not failure, it’s actually a form of self-awareness and growth.  

Also, don’t underestimate the value of soft skills - communication, resilience, and emotional intelligence are valued across sectors. The rest can be learnt.  

What personal or professional training opportunity would she love to attend? 

I’d really love to understand more, on a practical level, about how science feeds into policy. How are all the balancing factors are weighed. So, I guess a chat with MPs and public servants would be great, or the chance to be a fly on the wall during meetings discussing legal reform. 

Are there certain achievements that make her proud, in career or life?  

There are many – but my children would have to rank pretty high.  

How does she spend her spare time and what helps her unwind?

It might surprise to people to learn that I teach fitness classes at the gym. Bike classes are my favourite. I love that I have a second persona – it’s Alter Alex rather than Dr Alex. Truth is, I’m still very much me, and that’s who I bring to the stage underneath the disco ball.

It seems like Alex’s star burns brightly even without the TV contract.  

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