Prof Sarah Robertson

Director of the Robinson Research Institute at The University of Adelaide
Adelaide South Australia
Science and Engineering,
Health and Medical
Research Intensive
Senior Leadership
Industry Engagement

Sarah Robertson is direct, bold and at times a little provocative; she has always been determined not to be defined by others perspectives. She is a graduate of the University of Adelaide, and in 1993 completed her PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences. She was an NHMRC Principal Research Fellow until her appointment to Director of the Robinson Research Institute in October 2013 after 18 years in the NHMRC Fellowship scheme.

Sarah’s life was shaped when she unexpectedly became a mother at the age of 21. Raising a young child, she couldn’t move overseas to gain the experience typically accepted as necessary for career success in biomedical research. Refusing to let this hold her back, she was determined to get into the NHMRC fellowship scheme. In the face of naysayers she became the first RD Wright Fellow not to have worked in an overseas laboratory. She found different ways to gain international experience, such as short-term sabbaticals and visiting fellowships in Edmonton, Canada and Gothenburg, Sweden, and developed strong international relationships through conferences and meetings.

After graduating, Sarah spent three years in the Department of Immunology, which had a traditional culture of hierarchy and hardly any women; she went on to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology where she appreciated the significant cultural difference. When offered the RC Wright Fellowship she was also offered an academic appointment in the Department of Immunology, and had to make a tough decision whether to take a risk or choose career stability. She took the Fellowship.

Many people have told Sarah about her limitations."You're a single mother..." "You don't have gravitas..." "Adelaide is a dead end...". She has spent the majority of her career in Adelaide, which has sometimes been frustrating, but is happy about being part of Adelaide’s now thriving medical research sector.

One of Sarah's biggest challenges was finding the confidence to express her views publically, as she felt less articulate than others in her field. She used this to her advantage, and through learning to explain the science in simple terms, was able to build a bridge between the disciplines of immunology and reproduction and create an entirely new field. Later, after learning to network effectively she was appointed to the NHMRC Council and has been active in research policy and leadership since then. Sarah wants to demystify the stereotype of the scientist. She understands that the path isn't easy, and she’s shared many of the same challenges people coming up in their careers are currently facing. 

As a mentor, Sarah will be generous with opening doors to people and making connections. She is well-connected internationally, and has extensive commercialisation experience having taken a product from the lab and licensing it to a major international company. Her mentoring style is honest and candid - she'll tell you things that might be hard to hear, but will ultimately help you develop. She is open to learning more about mentoring and is keen to challenge mentees to think more about stakeholder engagement and taking research beyond the university walls.