SallyAnn Harbison

Senior Science Leader - Forensics

If SallyAnn Harbison were pressed, she might credit the actions of four people as leading her into her current career as a Senior Science Leader with ESR’s Forensic Biology.

“I first decided to be a scientist after watching Neil Armstrong’s moon landing,” she says. “I turned out to be quite good at maths at school and went down the science route, and I was good at maths because my best-ever teacher, my dad, and I spent hours at the kitchen table doing algebra, which I loved.”

Once SallyAnn had settled on science as a career, her choice of university was an easy one.

“I followed my football team to Liverpool to study biochemistry rather than staying at home in Oxford,” she explains. “Everyone's university years are the best years, and I was lucky to spend four years at every home game on ‘the Kop’, when standing on the steps at your football team’s ground was still a thing … and I still managed to emerge with a decent degree and a PhD place.”

SallyAnn completed her PhD at the University of Liverpool and the John Innes Centre in Norwich. She credits her PhD supervisor Dr Michael Wilson “who taught me everything I know about being a researcher, a paper writer and a supervisor and gave me the confidence to move to New Zealand in the days when flying around the world was neither easy nor affordable and was a really long way from home,” SallyAnn says.

SallyAnn travelled to the University of Auckland to take up a post-doc research post and found herself sequencing the genome of white clover mosaic virus and genetically modifying clover to resist the virus by inserting the viral coat protein into cells.

From there, SallyAnn took up a role with DSIR, in Forensic Biology attending crime scenes and testing the samples from them first using blood grouping and then DNA profiling.

“I credit Dr Margaret Lawton for giving me a chance in this job,” SallyAnn says, “especially as I was heavily pregnant at the time, and for all her encouragement and advice when she was my boss and after she moved on.”

“And now I circle back to sequencing RNA viruses, this time, SARS CoV 2. I love being back in the lab when required and working in a cool little team on this. I still enjoy my casework, although I don't get to do as much as I would like. My biggest ‘operational’ role these days is as DNA Technical Leader, which means oversight of QA and training in the Biology team, in which I am supported by an amazing group of dedicated QA officers.”

“What gets me up in the morning is the young people in our team and my students, and the best bit of my job is seeing them flourish and develop and sometimes move away to bigger and better things.”