Dr Karen Hawke: A Journey From Struggle to Success


“I really want to change the world and not just in a little way.”

Meet Dr Karen Hawke, successful post doctoral researcher at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute. Her specialty is infectious diseases, and her current role at SAHMRI is looking at viruses and sexually transmitted infections in aboriginal communities. As much as her story is about achievement and contribution, Karen’s story is also one of struggle and survival.


When Karen finished school, she worked in a bank. The idea of going to university had never occurred to her. She hadn’t ever received career counseling and like her peers was never expected to achieve anything. It wasn’t until four years after she’d left school, when someone she shared a house with asked her about Uni that it ever occurred to her that she could actually go. She didn’t even know what her tertiary entrance rank (SACE) was. Her friend helped her make enquiries. She was shocked to discover that not only were her grades good, they qualified her for university entrance! She enrolled the same year.

This wasn’t simply a matter of not having any particular dreams or expectations. In reality Karen’s life from a young age was a daily struggle with alcohol and drug addiction that had started in high school.

Back-track to when Karen was nine. Her beloved step-father and an uncle had died in a car accident. From that point her life became, in her words, “unbalanced”. Not only did she lose the love and care of her Dad, but she also lost the stability of her world as her mother and other adults around her went through their own grief. At high school she was an intelligent student, but also found drugs and alcohol, and by the time she finished school her life was slowly spiraling downwards. By the time she was 19 her life was dominated by a domestic violence relationship, drugs, alcohol, and a constant feeling of not being good enough, being “in a constant state of adrenaline – waiting for something really bad to happen.” Karen would remain an addict for 13 years in total. It almost killed her.

Her wake-up call was a seemingly off-handed comment from a counsellor, that if she didn’t admit herself to rehab, she was going to die. Karen knew at that moment that she’d run out of chances.

She admitted herself to rehab at the age of 23, and stayed for 6 months, one day at a time. After Karen had made it through a whole year clean and sober, each following year that she stayed clean was marked by a milestone of one kind or another: the year of re-building relationships; the year of travel and self-discovery; the year she became a devoted co-parent, the year she achieved her doctorate.

Karen Hawke Doctorate Graduation

It hasn’t always been an easy time though. Karen has now been clean and sober for 13 years, and while she has achieved some amazing things, she has also had her fair share of heartbreak during this time. She lost two loved ones to suicide, and one of her dearest friends passed away two years ago after a long illness. She has also dealt with some serious health issues of her own, while juggling study, work and family.  “Life happens around us and there isn’t much we can do to control it. Sometimes it seems extremely unfair and it’s hard to understand why bad things keep happening. But ultimately, I try to see all my life experiences as lessons that shape me into someone resilient, someone with a great capacity for empathy and understanding. And I never take for granted how precious the good times are, I treasure them and try to live in the moment.”

She has nothing but gratitude for all the people who supported her along the way, and understanding for those who didn’t. “They were doing the best they knew how in a very complex situation”.

PORTRAIT Karen HawkeWhile she spends most of her time looking forward, Karen acknowledges that her history is an important story to help others who are struggling with addiction. “People need to hear these stories, and see the reality of what it means to be clean and sober. If they don’t, they think it’s an impossible goal. When I was first getting clean, it was so helpful for me to talk to people who had gone before me, and to see how dramatically their life had changed. It made me motivated to keep going so many times when it was all too hard. If my story makes even one person motivated, or gives someone else hope, then it’s worth telling. That’s why I’m open about my history even though it was a long time ago and my life is completely different now. Because someone else is living the life I used to, and they need to know there’s a way out.”

And her life certainly is different from those dark days. Along with a successful career in research, Karen is a devoted mum and Aunty, a loving partner and a loyal friend. She is also an ambassador for Common Ground, which aims to end homelessness and provide a stable environment for people with similar backgrounds to Karen. She also plays competitive mixed gender roller derby, and just competed in the world’s largest roller derby tournament in June this year.

Karen pictured centre, with plaits

Karen, centre, with hair plaits,  in a Roller Derby match in the Light City Derby League. Photography by Parker

Karen is also a huge advocate for gender equality both in and out of work, and is excited for November when she’ll be taking part in a month-long trip to the Antarctic as part of project Homeward Bound – which aims to elevate female scientists into leadership positions to ensure a gender equal environment. Together with 77 other female scientists from around the world Karen will be involved in important research about the sustainability and healthy future for planet earth.

Beyond that, she’s looking forward to being a mum to more children and taking on a leadership role at SAHMRI. Outside of work though, she hasn’t yet decided yet what shape or form that will take.

Karen Hawke SAHMRI

“I really want to do my part to make the world a more balanced place”, says Karen, “and not just in a small way. I think about what I want to do all the time. I know I want to be an advocate for those whose voices are not being heard.

I think all my experiences to this point in my life have shaped me into a person who can see things in shades of gray, when so many leaders in the world see things in black and white. They lack empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think I can use my experiences to provide some balance as a leader. I feel I’m ready to take on anything the world’s got to throw at me, I know I can handle it. Yes, I’m really excited about where I’m going.”

Part of the Homeward Bound expedition involves each woman fundraising $30,000 for her place on the trip. Karen now only has $3,000 left to raise, to make a tax deductible donation please click here.



  1. I think the story about Dr Karen Hawke is amazing. She visited with us only yesterday in England and we had a full day showing her around our part of Kent and had lunch.
    I had a feeling that there was something unique about her ; her enthusiasm for life was so clear.
    Now I Know !

  2. Cocktail Revolution on

    Thanks for your positive comments Mike. We’ve gotta agree. When you meet Karen, her love of life is infectious and she’s incredibly inspiring. And of course she’s an incredible role model , especially for anyone dealing with adversity.

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