veski's portraits of innovation

Where dreams are made

Johnny Carson coined the term A New Year minutes for the time it takes the driver in the car behind you to honk his horn after a Manhattan traffic light turns green – a reference to the frenzied and hectic pace of New Yorkers lives.

It could also describe Dr Alyssa Barry’s early days back in Australia, when everything happened very quickly.

Alyssa was seven-months pregnant with her first child, Marley, when she and her banker husband Brett Lewis landed at Tullamarine from New York. Two weeks later, she accepted a veski innovation fellowship.

“It was a really difficult, tumultuous time and veski’s untied funding was a great buffer for me because it stretched out my funding and topped up my research salary,” she says.

The Melbourne native returned in 2006, after postdoctoral training at the University of Oxford followed by a stint at the New York University School of Medicine, to build a team within the International Health Research Group at the Burnet Institute.

Seven years down the track, Alyssa is also mother to Rafferty, working full-time as a Laboratory Head at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Her work is focusing on tracking malaria parasites – a vital prong of the global effort to control, eliminate and ultimately eradicate malaria.

She “basically didn’t stop work” after having her second child, bringing her baby in to the office two days a week until he was six months old, then returning to full-time work with the help of a nanny and a flexible role which allowed her to work from home when needed.

Melbourne has been described as the major world hub for malaria research because there are 40 or so laboratories, with nearly 200 scientists working together to develop innovative ways to respond to the disease.

In 2009 and 2011, Alyssa played a role in the ‘Malaria in Melbourne Conference’, which helped to strengthen this network and increased the profile of scientific research carried out in Victoria.

Alyssa is also a member of WEHI’s gender equity committee. She is proud of her workplace’s “strong gender-equity agenda” which, by “putting its money where its mouth is”, is providing women on maternity leave with the opportunity to have a research assistant for three months “to keep experiments going”, as well as providing childcare assistance, and delivering policy changes that will help women reach their full potential.

She says the committee’s current focus is on the “major attrition rate” among women, and she is glad to see funding bodies such as NHMRC “introducing better guidelines to assess a woman’s track record and taking into account career breaks and opportunities offered”.

When she finds time, the veski innovation fellow also enjoys contributing to the agenda of veski’s women in science program, as well as networking with other fellows with whom Alyssa has found she had a lot in common, “including coming back from overseas, despite being at different levels of our careers”.

Alyssa may have left behind the frenetic rhythm of life in the city known as the city that never sleeps however, she has no regrets. Alyssa has traded it for “great food and coffee, wide-open spaces, parks, beaches, and the connectedness I feel being back in Australia”.