The scientific pursuit of happiness

There is this tendency to think that if you don’t have a mental illness, then you are mentally well. But that is not true. You can not have a mental illness but still not be that great… but not enough to warrant a diagnosis.

Spotlight on psychologist Haeme Park

By Anikó B. Tóth

The great philosophers Socrates and Confucius recognized that the pursuit of happiness was one of the main secrets of leading a meaningful life. Later, U.S. government founder Thomas Jefferson canonized it as an essential human right. But UNSW Women in Maths and Sciences Champion Dr. Haeme Park takes the pursuit of happiness to a whole new level: she is a scientist who studies what makes people happy.

There is this tendency to think that if you don’t have a mental illness, then you are mentally well. But that is not true. You can not have a mental illness but still not be that great… but not enough to warrant a diagnosis.” She emphasizes that a vast majority of the population, including children, falls on a spectrum between real happiness and clinical mental illness. Haeme is studying how we can help average people improve their mental wellbeing. She uses a combination of cutting-edge brain imaging techniques and questionnaires to delve into the source of human happiness. People who don’t have mental illnesses but are not necessarily mentally well are very neglected in the field of human wellbeing, and Haeme is working to change that.

The road less travelled

As a kid, Haeme had no idea what she wanted to pursue as a career. All she knew was that she wanted to do something useful, and that she enjoyed working with people. These qualities and the satisfaction she gets from solving difficult problems are what attracted her to a career in psychology. However, the road was far from straight. Initially, she had no idea that psychology was even a field anyone could have a career in. “When I was still at school, psychology was never a thing that was talked about.” It took part of an undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences (and hating it) to find her calling.

After completing a master’s degree followed by a PhD in her native Auckland, NZ, Haeme decided to enjoy the flexibility of an early research career and moved to Belgium to start her first postdoctoral role. She used brain imaging technology to study the relationship between the happiness felt from factors associated with motivation, such as earning money, and factors associated with an emotional response, like seeing pictures of puppies. Haeme moved to Sydney for her second and current postdoctoral role where she used her growing skillset to conduct applied happiness research. She is particularly interested in what factors make people resilient, studying twin pairs to isolate genetic and environmental factors. This work became all the more relevant during the COVID pandemic, which began shortly thereafter.


Haeme’s timely research will delve into the effect of the pandemic on mental wellbeing of Australians. Though much of the data has yet to be analysed, she is already finding differences related to biological sex in young people. According to her analysis, during the pandemic, young mens’ wellbeing often hinged on their ability to proactively manage their emotions. Young women did not show such an effect, suggesting they tend to use other, potentially external, resources to regulate their mental health.

Clinic days to cognitive challenges

Haeme operates the MRI machinery that she uses to image the brain activity of her patients.

Between intensive contact with research subjects in periods of data collection to the strongly individual task of grant and paper writing, Haeme never becomes bored with her day-to-day job. In the clinic, she uses her people skills to reassure research subjects and make them feel safe and comfortable while she records their brain activity in a scanner. Other days, she is puzzling over data collected from questionnaires and running data analyses. Sometimes, she spends weeks writing grant proposals and papers alone, a process that she admits can be one of her greater challenges because it’s so isolating. “No one knows your work as well as you do, so it can be difficult to find someone who understands why you are frustrated by a particular thing.”

Inspiring future scientists

When I ask Haeme what her proudest achievement is, she answers instantly: “The fact that I’m still here!” A career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) is not easy. Regardless, she is adamant that a successful career in STEM is not about numbers. It doesn’t matter what your grades are, or whether you’re good in school, or if people tell you that you are not good enough. Instead, pursuing a career as a scientist or engineer is more about curiosity, passion, and most importantly, persistence. Haeme has weathered her PhD, two international moves, and the COVID pandemic, and has nonetheless stuck passionately by her work. She is quick to add that it comes with huge perks! Many academics have flexible working hours, variety in their work, and ample opportunities to travel and see the world on top of the excitement of discovery.

Haeme looks after her own mental wellbeing by hanging out with her adorable sidekick Evie, the whippet x kelpie.

We chat about her hopes for the future of the field. It can be very challenging, particularly for women to stay in STEM careers if they want to raise a family. Haeme hopes that support for women staying in, or returning to academic careers after a break will increase. With women dropping out of the STEM workforce being a current major challenge in the industry, this support is key to encouraging women to continue working and pioneering in this sector.

You can catch up with Haeme on her professional pages and social networks.





Beneath the Waves: Journeying into the Secrets of Marine Microbiology with Jadranka

By Yongxin Lyu

In the vast world of science, there are extraordinary people who dedicate their lives to unravelling the mysteries of our planet. One such amazing scientist is Jadranka Nappi, a marine microbiologist with an insatiable curiosity and a deep love for the ocean. Originally from Italy, Jadranka’s journey led her to the shore of Australia, where she embarked on a path that combines studying and working with marine creatures, uncovering the fascinating world of marine microbiology. Let’s dive into Jadranka’s story and explore the wonders she encounters every day. 

Jadranka freediving at Montague Island, Narooma, NSW, Australia (photo by Victoria Gray).

Immersed in Passion: Jadranka’s Journey into Marine Microbiology

Jadranka, also known as Jadi, comes from a diverse background with Italian and Serbian roots. Her connection to the sea is embodied in her Serbian name “Jadranka”, which echoes the Adriatic Sea, a part of the Mediterranean Sea separating Italy and Croatia. Growing up, Jadi has been captivated by the enchanting wonders of marine life. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, she set her sights on becoming a marine biologist from an early age.

As she delved deeper into her undergraduate studies in marine biology in Italy, her fascination with the ocean only grew stronger. “I always had the dream to study humpback whales, and to be in the ocean all the time. It is under the waves where I am at my happiest”. When it came to her final project, an exciting opportunity came to explore the world of marine microbiology overseas. Jadi packed her bags and set off on a life-changing adventure to Australia.

Stepping into the new field of marine microbiology was a challenge for Jadi, but she enjoys the excitement of exploring new things. Several months as an exchange student in Sydney eventually led to 11 years of an academic journey dedicated to studying bacteria in the ocean. After completing a PhD in biotechnology at UNSW, Jadi secured a postdoctoral fellowship in the Centre of Marine Science and Innovation, collaborating with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. 

Uniting Academia and Industry: Jadranka’s Exciting Collaborations

Jadi’s academic journey took an exciting turn when she entered her postdoctoral research which involves collaboration with an industry partner under the SIEF Ross Metcalf STEM + Business Fellowship with CSIRO. This unique collaboration allows Jadi to blend her knowledge of microbiology with insights from the business world. “I bring my knowledge about microbiology and bacteria, but I am also constantly learning about aquaculture, absorbing knowledge from every single person who works at the facility. I share successes and challenges with everybody, and I see how every day we all work towards the same goal. I am part of an incredible team”. 

Jadi finds great fulfilment in collaborating with the industry, appreciating the diverse knowledge and different approach it brings. The exchange of expertise creates a rich learning experience, where she constantly learns something new every single day.

A Life between Waves and Lab Coats: Jadranka’s Daily Pursuits

Jadranka on her field trip at the aquaculture facility (left), back in Sydney working at UNSW (middle), and with her dog Argo (right).

Jadi’s typical day is a dynamic mix of exciting fieldwork, laboratory analysis and academic responsibilities, depending on whether she is on field trips or back in Sydney. During field trips, she wakes up super early to embark on her marine research adventure. Working with marine animals in an aquaculture facility, Jadi takes care of them, does treatments, and collects samples. These samples are quickly processed in the on-site laboratory before being taken back to Sydney for further analysis.

Back in Sydney, Jadi’s day is quite different. The morning starts with walking her lovely dog, Argo. During the day, Jadi immense herself in office work, engaging in data analysis and writing research papers. Apart from doing research, Jadi also enjoys assisting PhD and honours students with their experiments and data analysis. 

Diving into Discovery: Jadranka’s Dual Life as a Researcher and Diver

Jadranka teaching scuba diving.

Jadi’s love for the ocean goes beyond her scientific work. Scuba diving and freediving are her greatest passions. Being in the water allows her to escape and find balance in her academic life, recharging her spirit. During her PhD studies, she worked as a scuba diving instructor on weekends, feeding her passion for underwater exploration. 

Inspiring the Next Generation: Jadranka’s Advice to Young Science Enthusiasts

With a strong desire to encourage young girls to pursue careers in STEM, Jadi has some valuable advice. She emphasizes the importance of curiosity and the courage to explore different fields. Jadi believes that by following their passions and being driven by patience and curiosity, young scientists can find fulfilment in their chosen paths. “Don’t be afraid of looking for something new, different from everything you know already. If you follow what makes you excited and a little scared at the same time, and if you do it with passion and eager to learn new things, it will take you somewhere incredible”. She encourages them to fearlessly pursue their interests, knowing that it is through curiosity and persistence that ground-breaking discoveries are made. 

Jadi’s journey into marine microbiology is an inspiring tale of passion, exploration, and the deep connection between science and the ocean. Her story reminds us that by following our curiosity and embracing the wonders of the natural world, we can unravel the mysteries that lie beneath the surface. Jadi’s work continues to shed light on the hidden world of marine microbes, inspiring future generations of scientists to dive into the thrilling realm of marine biology.

Follow Jadranka on Twitter: @JadrankaNappi