What was your path to becoming a scientist?
I was fascinated, from an early age, by the marine environment and it's chemical diversity. Everything in Australia,
where I grew up, is toxic or venomous so ending up a marine toxicologist and biochemist is not so surprising. I was
fascinated by all these organisms that could produce these very potent toxins and then survive in this toxic world.
How is this possible? What are they doing? How does it work? At James Cook University, I remember having this one
moment in a class called Ethnopharmicology. Basically, a professor was talking about all the natural products or
chemicals that could be derived from the environment. In this case he was talking about the Amazon and all of the cool
chemicals that could turn into pharmaceuticals. After talking with him about the marine environment and all of the
chemical diversity there, I was hooked and I knew I needed to find out more.
Who is your most memorable mentor?
My first real mentor was in toxicology. Dr. Anna Marie Davey, at James Cook University, was the first person who
showed me that I could do this. She was the biggest influence on me. She was my first and only female mentor.
She saw something in me that I didn't see myself and she gave me an opportunity to see what research was all about.
She really believes in the quality of teaching and education and has a unique ability to see the strengths in others even
if they can't see them themselves. I see that now and that influences the way I am with students. Every student is
unique. Each student brings with them their own perspective, their own gifts, and their own experience. If we can tap
into things that are significant to them and show them what that path and trajectory could look like, then they start
believing in that and you can see the passion build as they get that self-belief and self-worth. That might be one of the
most valuable things that we can give students...the confidence to take risks, the confidence to be creative, and the
confidence to fail. Without failure, no student can appreciate those moments of success or insight. As a scientist, you
have to learn to be okay with failure.
Are there certain qualities women possess that make them great scientists?
There is a level of tenacity that women tend to have...to dig our feet in a little bit and be willing to suffer a little longer
perhaps than our male counterparts. I think all students, male and female, if they are going to be successful, it's
because they are hard working, have initiative, and are able to improvise. They can take criticism and have self-
awareness of their limits, but at the same time have the confidence to take risks and try new things. I tell my students
all the time that it's because of their grit that they are able to make it and succeed. It's not so much the failure that
matters, it's how you rebound.
Was there a particular "blunder" in your career that catapulted you?
There are so many things. As a PhD student, one of the biggest things that happened...I was trying to look for a
particular suite of natural toxins called paralytic shellfish toxins. These are produced by blue-green algae, ____ bacteria,
or dinoflagellates, which are microscopic algae. I was looking for the activity of these at sodium channels, which is the
target site of action for these toxins. They bind to sodium channels which are involved in nerve conduction and
generation of action potential so that we can think and move. I ran this one F.A. (??) over and over and it just looked
wrong. I remember showing my advisor and he would say, "What have you done? Do do it again." I would go back and I
must have done this same thing about ten times and then I realized, I had this kind of moment, where I thought maybe
this is real. This is clearly not me making a mistake the same way every time...maybe this is a real phenomenon. And
actually, that led to myself and my advisor discovering a whole new suite of proteins that were involved in binding to
these toxins. That was pretty awesome, but I do remember how frustrating it was running the same thing and trying to
get a different answer because I just thought I was screwing it up. There are lots of examples of that where
mistakes happen and you realize you were thinking about that the wrong way.
What are your goals for the future?
A research goal would be to look at the global connectivity of ciguatera fish poisoning. This is something that is a global
issue, it happens in all tropical regions of the world. But we still have a very poor understanding of the mechanisms and
at the moment we can't predict or prevent illness. My goal in this research is to connect with partners across the world
to try and build a cohesive network of effort. I think you can gain a lot by seeing how things change in different systems.
Trying to get global connectivity in understanding the science we do and working toward similar goals. In different
regions we all have a different focus and there are different knowledge gaps. I think, like in any walk of life, if you think
about a problem in a different way then you are halfway to solving it.
My second goal would be related to outreach. I would like to build a solid outreach in education program for kids of
lower socio-economic status...where they can have an opportunity to learn about marine sciences and the kind of jobs
they can get at the end of that. Really just to show them that it's not just hard work. I want them to believe that it's
possible and important...significant to them and their future. If you can show students that this is significant to them
personally, and to their families and community, then they're going to care.
What outreach projects you have been involved with?
I have worked on outreach in many different settings. One example is in the tribal communities in the Northwest where I
was a post-doc. We held week long summer science camps for kids age 5-15. We would have kids that really weren't
doing well in school and they didn't want to be there. The first day it was these sullen little faces looking at you in
boredom. By the second day, I remember this one kid standing on a chair and yelling out to his friends that he wanted
to be a marine scientist. The day before he was expressionless and bored, and thought it was stupid. This kind of
outreach and education is extremely important. It's most important for kids that don't have these opportunities. We
need to find these pockets of folks...the Gulf Coast region is definitely one of those where we have a lot of families
working really hard just to get by and students may not have the opportunity. Providing free opportunities and
engagement to these students is crucial, otherwise they will miss out. Connecting these students to their local
environment is key to conserving it for the future. If we can get buy in from kids that their environment matters, and
their ecosystem matters, then we will be able to protect it in the future because they will care.
What do you hope the scientific community will remember about you?
I would hope that I was able to inspire students to be the best that they can be. To always leave a place better than it
was when you arrived. It's not about a specific scientific achievement or goal, but I think it matters to be a good person
above all else. For me, mentorship and providing opportunity to the students that I see...that would be the most
important thing to me.
Dr. Alexandra Stenson with student Erin Capley.
Dr. Alexandra Stenson with her students at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, FL.