Raquel Stevens

When the CV of Dr Annie Duncan landed in my email inbox for the next Burrow Banter interview, I nearly had a panic attack.  Her credentials are so varied and impressive, I immediately wanted to do an express course in Chemistry.

The highly proficient scientist has a PhD in Biochemistry, an honorary D.Litt. for her work in women’s issues, speaks three languages, and has sat on more boards than I have had roast dinners.

Upon meeting the President of Daylesford’s U3A, my fears of intimidation quickly switched to feelings of sheer awe.  I was in for quite a treat.

Your CV is most impressive, how would you describe yourself?

I’m an activist, I’m a feminist, I’m a woman and I’m a mother.

What attracted you to study science?

I was a Brownie in the 60s, and I was a very curious child.  I went to a girls’ school and most of the teachers were the widows of deceased Presbyterian ministers. However, we did have a good maths and science teacher. I liked experiments and learning stuff.

My mother thought education was very important.  In Year 10, my father wanted me to leave school to help him in his Real Estate business.  My mother wasn’t having a bar of that.

I was the first member of my family to go to university.  No-one in my family finished high school.

Annie (centre) as a young girl with her family.

Science is heavily male dominated. Did you come across many obstacles?

When I was in third year university, I became president of the Chemical Club.  They used to have Friday afternoon drinks, which consisted of strippers and a keg of beer.

I got rid of the strippers and beer, instead we had afternoon tea with chocolate biscuits.  I went back 20 years later, and they were still having tea and biscuits, but there has never been another female president.

What brought you to Daylesford?

I’m from Perth, but then I lived in Canberra and Melbourne. I always lived in new houses, and I wanted a project with an old house. So, the first house we saw here in Daylesford was on Melbourne Cup Day, 2009. I went, yes, this has got to be it.

 I hear that U3A is quite a movement in Daylesford. What’s the secret to its success?

In Daylesford you find friends immediately. If you join something and you put in, you can foster relationships. I have met so many people, and now with U3A I know thousands of people. I’ve got more friends here than I had in Perth really.

U3A (University of the Third Age), it’s all over the world.  However, it’s not a university where you learn.  You have tutors in the community who teach for free. I teach Italian.  It’s for learning but also mostly for socialisation.  I keep saying to my students, ‘every new language you learn, you put off Alzheimer’s by four years.’  We have over 50 courses, and now have our own premises in the Neighbourhood Centre.

You are currently on the board of ‘Women Can.’ How does the organisation help women?

It’s assisting women in rural areas get into TAFE and work.  Women who are refugees or escaping violence.  For example, there’s this group of female Afghan judges who fled the Taliban.  We have them doing the ‘learn to drive program.’  Women weren’t allowed to drive in Afghanistan.  Here, they can’t practice law, but we are trying to teach them a skill so they can find other work.

A wombat walks into a science class in a top hat, what does he say?

 He asks where the advanced science class is.  I ask him why he doesn’t think this is the advanced science class.  He replies, ‘well Miss, because it’s full of women.’  I respond, ‘firstly I’m Professor, and yeah, it’s full of girls that’s why it’s advanced.  And by the way, take your old-fashioned ideas back to your burrow!’

Advice to your 18 year old self?

Really invest in your career young, but don’t stress. I think you can have it all, but not all at once.

How do we fill classrooms, laboratories, and boardrooms with female scientists?

There’s a big thing about STEM and women, but I think it’s a horrible circle that is just going down the plug hole. You need a good teacher to inspire you and think you can do it. You start with the teachers.

What would be the name of your memoir?

“I think. I am.”  With a pic like of me in the lab on the front cover.  Now to write it…..

What is next for Annie Duncan?

I think I’m going to stick with being the president of U3A for a few more years, as this is my second year, and I think I’m getting better at the job.  I don’t have anything on my bucket list as such.  When you get to 73, well, I feel quite glad about the opportunities I’ve had. I’m very happy here, we love our lives.

I know I won’t move house again.  That’s for sure!

Do you have a secret guilty pleasure?

Chocolate and watching ‘Death in Paradise.’ Do you watch it? It’s so good. It’s set on a beach, and they are all drinking rum, and dancing. The murders aren’t too gruesome either.

If you were a hashtag, what would it be?


Annie Duncan, like your hair, you are one ‘flamin’ inspirational woman. I’m off to enrol with U3A and start learning a new language.

Raquel Stevens is a former Network Ten News Journalist. She has been a part time local for more than 25 years, and one day hopes to be a full time local.