Nyakuoy Yak: Microscopy, visibility, and exploring Antarctica with Homeward Bound

What makes a leader? The person with the loudest voice? An unmatched drive to be seen and heard?  

Who’s to say a great leader isn’t someone most comfortable behind a microscope in a dark room?

As a PhD scholar from The University of Queensland, Nyakuoy Yak says shyness or introversion should not be seen as a roadblock for leadership potential.

“I've always struggled with being really introverted,” Nyakuoy says.

“A lot of people encourage you to be assertive if you want to be a good leader or have a voice. But that's not what my family or tribe have taught me to do. That's not what my culture teaches us, so I reject the dominant, aggressive leadership models that are often pushed onto me. 

“Over the next year it is going to be really amazing to see what other types of leadership models are out there.”

Nyakuoy is referring to her selection in the latest cohort of Homeward Bound: the global leadership program designed for women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Nyakuoy completed a Master of Philosophy from UQ’s Institute of Molecular Biosciences in 2022, and her PhD with Dr Merja Joensuu focuses on molecular neuroscience, and is being undertaken at both the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, and the Queensland Brain Institute.

You might already be familiar with Nyakuoy’s incredible journey from the refugee camps in her birthland of Sudan to her arrival in Toowoomba as an eight year old, and her drive to forge a career in science. 

Through Homeward Bound 8, Nyakuoy and 110 other women from 18 countries will be honing their outstanding potential to create better outcomes for the planet.

They’ll be capping off the program with a voyage to Antarctica in the 2024-25 Antarctic season.

Nyakuoy says while her own leadership style is constantly evolving it is based on a belief that there is a leadership model for all personalities.

“I'm not going to shy away from places where I must be visible. I will just be more selective about where I am, and how visible I am,” she says.

Read on to hear Nyakuoy’s thoughts on leadership, visibility, and the importance of bringing people along for the science journey. 

Nyakuoy congrats on being selected for the Homeward Bound Program! How did this come on your radar? 

Thanks! I actually heard of Homeward Bound through one of my friends who applied and got in, and she said it was amazing. It’s an internationally competitive program based on building leadership, and the whole focus is that it's a female-led. That’s crucial for me.

Do you think the representation of women in the science community is improving?  
I think generally a lot of people want to see more change - and it is changing - but we still don't hear enough from the perspective of women in science. You almost have a 50-50 split of women and men in undergrad programs but so few end up becoming group leaders, or attainting positions of power. It is still very much a male dominated space.

I'm really fortunate that my PhD supervisor is a young, decorated female scientist who has amazing skills and abilities and shares her experiences with me.  

Your supervisor is Dr Merja Joensuu, right? 
That’s right. We both have one foot in the AIBN, and one at QBI. Ours is a relatively new lab that is looking at the early secretory pathways. That’s the process of how a protein gets created and then transported to the surface of the cell. 

My focus is primarily on microscopy and my PhD project utilises a range of advanced imaging techniques, for example super resolution, Structured illumination microscopy (SIM) and Transmission electron microscopy (TEM). I think at the end of my PhD, I'd love to work as a microscopist and develop microscopes.

Have you always seen yourself in the field of microscopy?
I actually experimented with a bunch of different fields in the beginning.  I started out in physics and then I moved over to biology and molecular biology and a whole range of things. I worked with mosquitoes for a while then bacteria and then my masters focused on the immune system and fungi. And I think the general question I've always had is: how does the cell work?  Any cell really, whether it’s a human cell or bacteria. Or a virus? What are the proteins that are involved? How does it move, eat, do its daily functions?  

That said, for me, the thing that underpins it all is how we visualise science. How am I able to show this stuff to people so that they can see it and really understand it? Because I think a lot of science uses jargon that gets in the way. And something which speaks for itself is being able to show someone a video of a macrophage eating a microbe, or show a bacteria escaping, or show them a zebrafish and its entire neural brain network. 

Someone's had to come up with a protocol on how we can image that. Someone's designed the microscope, someone made the dyes. I want to be at the forefront of that, and any effort that is about finding other ways that we can visualise things.

I understand that not everyone is interested in science, or wants to understand, or wakes up in the morning and dreams about proteins or anything like that. But I want the general public to have a level of understanding of the overall picture, know where their money is going and what scientists are doing. 

What are you looking forward to most about the Homeward Bound program? Apart from heading to Antarctica, of course.
Yes, Antarctica has always been a bucket list item for me, I can’t wait! But I think that one of the things that I really want to use this program to do is to refine my leadership style. 

Leadership has always been something that's been a part of who I am, but the way in which I lead is something I'm still developing, and I think a good leader should always be redefining it. The Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship and program have involved a lot of really positive experiences, exposing me to different modes of leadership, showing me that leadership can be community driven, that you don’t have to be a dominant male, or even have a dominant personality. 

I bring this up because I have Asperger’s (autism spectrum disorder) and I've always been introverted and struggle with social anxiety. I'm most comfortable when I'm in a dark room with a microscope by myself and I want to find ways that I can lead, that I can be visible, that don't require me being the centre of attention.  

A lot of people encourage you to be assertive, that you need to want to be the leader, you want to be the voice. But that's not what my tribe has taught me to do. That's not what my culture has taught me to do. And over the next year it is going to be really amazing to see what other types of leadership models are out there. 

Would you say that the challenge is to be visible, without necessarily courting visibility? 
I think, for me, it's hard in the sense that I understand that I am visible, and I understand that I must remain visible to represent my community. In Adelaide, I spoke to Sally Scales, a proud Pitjantjatjara woman, artist and young First Nations leader about this… the idea of feeling like you have to always appear at the table, to attend and represent at events you’ve been invited to. That was something that I did a lot when I was in undergrad, and continued to do it for a very long time. I was driven by the feeling, if I'm not present there will be no one representing me or my community, be that women or African Australians. But that experience can be exhausting. I burnt myself out very hard. Tokenistic experiences are not places you want to be. 

So how do you speak for an entire group of people that have different personalities, different thoughts, different beliefs? How do you represent the black community or female scientist, which is something that I might not choose to do, but it's inherently what people will see me doing. 

Sally said something to me that was really helpful, “One is token, two is a conversation”. They told me to see it as an invitation, a chance to collaborate with people and have them come along with you, and for others to speak where you don't want to be visible. And that's something that I'm really keen to try. 

I'm not going to shy away from places where I have to be visible. I just will be selective of where I am visible, and how visible I am. 

Last updated:
2 May 2023