Frances Separovic was born in Croatia but grew up in Broken Hill with her three younger siblings . Her father worked as a miner, while her mother was a caretaker on the mines and cleaned houses. As a child Frances was determined to learn about Australia in order to be like the other children, and so set about reading every book in her school’s library. She would go on to top her subjects and be named dux of the school – although she did not yet know the word ‘dux’ and initially wondered why they had named her ‘duck of the school’.

In high school Frances wanted to study maths and physics – but it wasn’t a passion for science that drove her. Her traditional parents did not allow her to go out with boys, and Frances figured that maths class offered a valuable opportunity to meet them. She excelled in the sciences and was offered two scholarships to continue her studies in Sydney. She took the opportunity but life in the big city proved challenging. She had already covered maths at this level and found further study pointless. Frances soon left university and took a job at the CSIRO as a junior technician.

It was after she had a child that Frances realised she needed more from life, and so returned to her studies, this time at TAFE. She went on to university, working all the while to support herself and her son and, by the time he had turned 18, completed her PhD in physics.

Frances worked in the United States for two years before returning to Australia, where she would go on to become the first female professor of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne.

Today, she is the Deputy Director of the Bio 21 Institute and has been a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School and an honorary academic at Oxford University as well as a host of other international universities and institutions.

Professor Frances Separovic is a pioneer in the study of membranes and the proteins found within them. She uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to learn more about these proteins and their applications. Her focus areas are antimicrobial peptides or antibiotics, and amyloid peptides, the small proteins found in plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. By understanding the structure of these proteins science can build on this knowledge to create better treatments.

Professor Frances Separovic was the first woman chemist to be elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. She was also elected a Fellow of the Biophysical Society and the International Society for Magnetic Resonance, and in 2019 was appointed as an Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia.

But deep down, Frances says, she just wants to know how things work.

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Illustrated by Mark Conlan