Transgender neuroscientist Alison Wright looks to the stars

Dr Alison Wright completed a PhD in neuroscience as part of the Spinal Injury Project team at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery

PhD graduate Dr Alison Wright is taking her first steps into a postdoctoral adventure that she hopes will one day put her at the forefront of space research.

The Spinal Injury Project (SIP) neuroscientist has her sights set on Munich, landing a job in the Helmholtz Zentrum München research centre for environmental health.

“My long-term goal is to work in space biology. There’s already interest in collaborating with me on research into microgravity and immune neurological interactions, that’s what I’m working towards in the future,” Dr Wright said.

Microscope image of macrophages. These cells detect and destroy pathogens. Photo by Dr Alison Wright.

She recently completed her PhD as part of the SIP Glial Immunity and Phagocytosis and Cleaning up the Injury Site teams. Her research observed interactions between macrophages, a type of white blood cell and olfactory ensheathing cells, found in the nerve of the nose and which aid in cleaning up debris and regenerating the nerve.

Her work has led to several published papers and the development of new culture techniques, moving SIP closer to finding a therapy for functional recovery from spinal cord injury.

Dr Wright says she developed a passionate interest in science and space, watching science fiction TV shows with her father.

“Outer space invites a sense of curiosity that inspires humanity to overcome anything with engineering and problem solving. That’s why I’ve loved science since I was a kid, you take this hope and you apply it to real life.”

Road blocks on a personal PhD journey

But Dr Wright’s medical research career was almost over before it began. She had to reckon with the difficult decision between pursuing her professional ambition or living out her truth as a transgender woman.

“I thought I had to choose between becoming who I am and getting to where I wanted to go. Luckily, I’ve got a really good supervisor in Dr Jenny Ekberg who encouraged me from the get-go”

Transgender scientists can face discrimination and hostile workplaces, but Alison says she was lucky that the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) lab, where SIP is based, was supportive of her journey.

“GRIDD is a small community where everyone gets along. You know everyone and you can strike up a conversation about anything over coffee. I’ve worked at bigger institutes where you can feel somewhat isolated.”

She said immersing herself into her work helped distract from the significant costs in time and money transitioning imposed, as well as the accompanying mental health issues.

“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars just to get to a baseline for everyone else. When you put in all this time and effort and you get misgendered or discriminated against, it feels like wasted effort.

“But if you have a reason behind the work that you’re doing, it makes it easier. Getting to meet people that come to the lab and seeing the enthusiasm on their faces and doing open days, that made the work worthwhile.”

STEM’s diverse future in the making

While the future is bright, Dr Wright plans on doing more public outreach, using her own journey as a positive example that diversity and transgender visibility in STEM is possible and inevitable.

“I used to worry that I was a bad fit for a career in science. But my journey has made me stronger and more resilient. Anybody can be a good scientist, you just need to be curious, creative and enthusiastic about asking questions.”