We are handing over our blog to women working in the health and medical research field so they can share their personal and professional stories with us. This is a way to get to know other Franklin Women, learn about different health and medical research related careers (not just academia!) and promote the great contributions women make to the health and medical research field every single day! We will also use our blog as a way to share with you other important tit-bits as they come our way.
To see posts made by each of the authors, click on their name from the list to the left.
Clare: Janelle, let’s start with your current role, which is an exciting new venture in clinical trials. You have recently founded Research4Me, an organisation reimagining the way the public, researchers and industry come together for better, faster clinical trials. What does a normal day look like for you in this role? What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Janelle: With Research4Me , I’m on a journey to disrupt the way we run clinical trials, making them more efficient, achievable, and importantly, deliver better treatments quickly. I believe health consumers need to be treated as valued members of the research team, not just these subjects that we collect data from, who we don’t involve in what’s going on, ask their experience or tell them the results at the end.
I wouldn’t say that I have a normal day. Most of what I’m doing at the moment [for Research4Me] is about relationship building. I need to build a relationship with the [health] consumer community because I need to understand what they want, look for and need in terms of support for participation and partnership in clinical trials. Relationships aren’t built in a day. You need to build trust with people. I’m also working with industry and researchers running trials to encourage them to consider more consumer involvement. I’ve been interested in consumer engagement in clinical trials for a number of years and I’ve been trying to involve consumers in the work that I do. I established AccessCR about ten years ago to start down this path but it got to a point where it wasn’t going to grow. I now just provide contract operational assistance for clinical trials through AccessCR. It was a great learning experience and I am using that experience to change how I establish Research4Me. Now I’m actively pursuing relationships with organisations with a common interest to build that.
So, I’m gathering information to direct my business through workshops and reaching out one-on-one to people and organisations to say “This is what I’m interested in doing. Do you have a common interest? Are you involved in research and clinical trials, and what would you need?”
What I love is hearing consumer’s stories. It really validates to me why I’m so passionate about clinical trials and why we need to make this an option for more people. Each one of us is a health consumer at some point in time – either for our parents, our children or for ourselves, our friends and family – and we all have our stories. It’s those stories that make what we do meaningful. I’ve work on the industry side of clinical trials for a long time and you are purposefully removed from the patient. You have to keep that line of separation so you get lost in the paperwork, the process, collecting data and fixing queries. The best part for me is being able interact with people, to hear their experiences of a trial so you can learn how we could do it better.
Behind the scenes, I’m also thinking about how I actually build the business – the technology platform, building the website and the online community, the marketing and the IT infrastructure that’s going to support Research4Me.
Clare: You held a workshop last year in conjunction with Health Consumers NSW and published a report entitled ‘Involving Health Consumers in Health and Medical Research: Enablers and Challenges from a Consumer Perspective’. Can you tell me about the process involved there?
Janelle: The two organisations reached out to consumers and their networks and invited them along to a workshop to talk about consumer involvement in research, particularly in the co-design of research. It was a three-hour workshop. After an introduction from both organisations about what we were trying to achieve, we passed it over to the consumers in a guided way to talk about their experiences in being involved in research and what they thought helped, or what got in the way of them being involved. While it wasn’t always easy for people to be involved in clinical trials, it was interesting how well-informed the consumers we had in the room were about the research process and how empathic they were to the challenges researchers have around funding.
For me, the workshop was a perfect example of the value consumers can bring to the table. Sometimes we assume that consumers don’t know the science and hence question what value they could bring – and I’d argue that they don’t need to. What they bring is their lived experience, which we don’t have. The partnership of those two things is where the value lies. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Kate Patterson, Visual Science Communicator, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, and Research Fellow, 3D Visualisation and Aesthetics Lab, UNSW Art and Design.
Clare: Hi Kate, you have built a colourful career as a visual science communication specialist and it is difficult to summarise your your current roles in one sentence! Can you tell me, what exactly IS visual science communication?
Kate: I use visual language to translate complex science concepts and ideas into a form that a broad audience can access and engage with perhaps in a different way to traditional modes of science communication. That varies from animations (paired with a voiceover) to illustrations and virtual reality experiences. Interestingly, it often is not just the product but the process of creating these visuals that inspires the best conversations and opportunities to communicate aspects of the science.
A lot of the time [with visual communication], I don’t expect the audience to understand every single part of what I’m showing them because the images are complex, show dynamic events and most of my audiences don’t have a strong science background. In this case, what I hope to achieve is an interest and sense of awareness for the complexity and detail of the biology and the technologies that we can use to understand molecular mechanisms in the cell.
Kate: I’ve just started a new project, which is super exciting – it’s a virtual reality (VR) project. Most of what I’ve done in the past has been screen-based animations and you watch in that 2D screen-based mode. Often people would ask me ‘How can I get into the screen? How can I actually experience what it is like inside a cell?’ That sparked the idea to use virtual reality to put someone inside the cell or inside the genome, for example.
The project will explain concepts related to a cutting edge approach to cellular genomics we are building at Garvan [Institute of Medical Research] where you can assay a single cell. It’s called single cell transcriptomics or genomics. Instead of taking a bunch of cells and looking at what the genome is doing over an average of thousands of cells, scientists can now assay thousands of individual cells – so it’s a much more sensitive assay to see what is going on in certain populations of cells. The new centre will host some pretty amazing research projects that form a collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Lorraine Chantrill, Honorary Research Fellow, The Kinghorn Cancer Centre at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, and Senior Staff Specialist Medical Oncology, Clinical Lead, Oncology Clinical Trials, St Vincent’s Hospital.
Clare: Lorraine, you’ve forged an exciting career in translational medical research and you are applying your oncology training to clinical trials. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Lorraine: My main job is as a practising medical oncologist but what I really love doing is trying to combine that with translational medicine and the best way I can do that currently is within clinical trials. Clinical trials in oncology are often testing new treatments but increasingly we are also collecting tumour specimens from patients and looking for biomarkers that might predict response to those treatments – that’s really exciting.
In terms of my average day, it’s quite variable because my clinical work is very different day-to-day to the translational work. As well as seeing patients in the hospital or in the clinic, I manage the clinical trials department [at St Vincent’s Hospital] to make sure all the trials are running properly. Often they need input from me with start-up visits for new trials, for example.
I also maintain a research interest in the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative. I meet with the group every fortnight to assist with ongoing action items and projects. I don’t at the moment do any bench work myself; it’s more about directing ideas on translational research into projects for the scientists I work alongside.
The part of my job that I enjoy the most is the research part – but it is also the part which can be the most frustrating in the sense that I actually feel like I fail most of the time. Doing research in cancer that translates into actionable changes and results in improvement in patient health is really challenging. But it has happened in other diseases and it is happening incrementally in pancreas cancer. I like to quote J.K Rowling about the fringe benefits of failure. As some people will know, we ran a clinical trial in pancreas cancer that didn’t work but I think it’s important to capitalise on the learnings from failing to do something properly. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Melanie Thomson, General Manager of Education, Skills and Events, at MTPConnect. Melanie tells us about her current role and her transition from academia.
Clare: Mel, you’ve recently started a new role at MTPConnect which sounds like a lot of fun – congratulations! Can you tell us about your current role and what a normal day looks like for you?
Mel: MTPConnect is a non-profit medical-technology (med-tech), biotech and pharma industry growth centre, one of the six federal government-funded growth centres that have been set up under the national innovation and science agenda so we’re a start-up ourselves. I’ve gone from a tenured position in academia to working in a start-up; it has been really exciting to make that leap.
My current role as the general manager of education, skills and events is, in part, to make sure that the current courses and training offered around the country are meeting the mission that we have – to help to grow the med-tech, biotech and pharma ecosystem here in Australia. By education, we mean the whole spectrum: from tradies who work as contractors for pharmaceutical manufacturers and have to understand what a clean room is, to VET courses and skills competency training for people who actually work in manufacturing, all the way through to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and into early career research scenarios.
We also try to teach early career researchers industry-relevant skills so that they can engage more appropriately outside academia. The focus is to help people coming through education pathways and who become bench researchers to learn the business side of things and entrepreneurialism to develop a med-tech or pharmaceutical (pharma) product.
I also run events, like recently the MedTech Mingle. It’s a student industry speed dating event where we invite companies who are interested in having a student intern work with them. There’s a thirst out there with the students that are interested in getting that industry experience, which is great – we had over 200 students attend! It means the message that you can do other things outside of academic science is getting through – but we haven’t quite developed the ecosystem to support that zeitgeist. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Heather Catchpole, Head of Content & Co-founder of Refraction Media, about her career journey which, like many of us, started with an undergraduate science degree.
Clare: Heather, your latest pursuit is an exciting new venture in science publishing – so let’s start there. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you?
Heather: In my current role as Head of Content at Refraction Media, I can be doing anything from editing magazines to creating new programs for educators, to making videos or driving my own business growth by finding ways to increase the audience that we reach. I also have to stay on top of science and health as a subject.
At Refraction Media, we do a combination of custom publishing and publishing of our own products. We are really proud of the ‘Careers with STEM’ (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) series, which we started in 2014 with the support of Google – ‘Careers with Code’ was the first magazine that we did. That year, we knocked on a lot of doors and told everyone that we thought we had a really great idea to promote computer science careers to students with the point of difference being that we would talk about computer science plus ‘x’: computer science plus your passion or another field, or a world changing goal that you have. So we’re looking at finding those careers which are at the intersection of a couple of different fields.
In the next year we decided that the narrative of combining, not just computer science, but all STEM subjects with another field is really relevant to the careers that students might be expected to have in 5 or 10 years. We think those intersections are where the jobs are going to be created and where the innovations are going to happen. We decided to create a ‘Careers with Science’ and a ‘Careers with Engineering’ as our own publications without any major funding.
Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Heather: My day is so varied. Just in the last hour I spent some time talking to a STEM teacher at an all-girls school in Sydney, followed by talking to an animation specialist in Malaysia. So I sit in between the audience and the content creators. I really love being at that interface, being the one who can talk to people about how to create content and also talk to the audience about what their needs are, what their interests are and what they most want to find out about STEM. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Shu Yang, Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Macquarie University, Sydney, about her research career journey which started in Beijing.
Clare: Shu, thanks for joining Franklin Women. Let’s start with your current role: you’ve established yourself as a senior postdoctoral research fellow at Macquarie University. What specifically are you researching?
Shu: I started working at Macquarie University as a senior postdoc researcher in 2013 but I’ve been working part-time since I had my first son in 2015. Our team has been working on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease. In Australia, ALS is known as motor neurone disease (MND). Currently, there are more than 2000 people who are living with MND in Australia. This is a really devastating disease and currently there is no effective treatment or known cure.
Our team is comprised of a few geneticists and a few functional cell biologists. I’m currently leading the cell biology work of our lab. We have established a biobank in collaboration with neurologists at Macquarie University Hospital on campus. We have been collecting patient samples for analysis (gene mutation screening) for many years.
My role in this project is to use the known gene mutations identified from ALS patients as a tool to try to uncover the biology behind this disease – the functional consequence of those mutations – using cell and animal models. My research has strongly suggested that there are multiple biological pathways that are implicated in ALS.
Clare: You completed your bachelor’s degree at Capital Normal University, Beijing, before moving to Australia to the University of Queensland for your PhD. How did you go about securing this position?
Shu: I was born and raised in China and [after my undergraduate studies] I decided that I wanted to complete a postgraduate degree overseas. I was accepted by University of Queensland for a Masters by research degree and at the end of the two years I was given the opportunity to extend this Masters degree to a PhD. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Megan Downie, Assistant Director, Research Investment Section, Health and Medical Research Branch, Commonwealth Department of Health, about her career journey which started out as a lab-based scientist.
Clare: Megan, let’s start with your current role, which is within the Research Investment Section at the Department of Health. What does a normal day look like for you in this role? What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Megan: The research investment section [of the Department of Health] looks after a couple of new measures from the government for investment into health and medical research. Our role is to develop the policy that will underlie those programs. We also prepare briefings and documents for the health minister among other things.
The great thing about my role is that there is no normal day. I could be in the office drafting correspondence, or I could be at meetings, or we’ve just concluded a roadshow around the country. I think that’s what I probably most enjoy about it: you never know quite what is going to happen. The most exciting days are the days where you’ve been productive but it was all spur of the moment, reactive issues rather than what you had planned.
The mix of people that I deal with on a day-to-day basis is really interesting. I interact with other officers, and with other people in the Australian Government: policy people, program people or legal professionals, for example. A lot of my stakeholders in this role are people in academia, in health and medical research, and also industry. I’m always meeting very impressive people, who are science heroes and I get to meet them in the flesh – it’s really exciting!
Clare: Before you started working for the Department of Health, you completed your PhD at the Australian National University where you were studying the malaria parasite followed by several postdoc positions. What was a highlight for you from your time in the lab and is there anything you miss?
Megan: I miss the feeling you get when you’ve got the results in from an experiment and it’s worked fantastically. And I miss playing with data actually – that was always fun. I don’t think I have a single highlight from my time in the lab. I miss the opportunities you have during a PhD, and during postdocs, to completely own what you’re working on and to follow your passion rather than doing what was strategically necessary. I don’t think I realised in my PhD how valuable that time was. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Lia Paola Zambetti, Assistant Head, Office of Scientific Communication and Archives, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore, about her career journey which started out as a lab-based scientist.
Clare: Lia, you have had an exciting career journey, from lab-based research to science communication work in Singapore. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Lia: My current role is being an Assistant Head in the Office of Science Communication and Archives in A*STAR. In my normal day I tend to care for a number of projects in science communication. It can be things like organising a scientific conference, or being an editor, or organising outreach [events] or talking to scientists that are being asked to participate in our outreach program, helping them and giving them feedback on their presentation.
It’s a job that I really like because it’s very varied. When I used to work in the lab, it used to be experiments all day – day in, day out. Here, it’s more of an office type of work but I still talk to scientists every single day. I actually see a lot more science now and, paradoxically, of a lot more varied type than what I used to see when I was in the lab. I find that for me it’s a much better fit.
This path suits someone who has an interest in science but is not interested in diving so deep into a topic that you can no longer see what is outside of it – that used to be one of my issues when I was doing research. If you don’t find your niche then that’s it, you won’t make it. If you have that kind of [broad] mindset you also won’t be a very successful researcher – at least, that’s my impression of the scientific landscape in 2016, regardless of where you are in the world!
Clare: What do you enjoy most about your role in science communication?
Lia: The fact that there are no two days that are the same. I don’t have to do the same type of work every day. It depends on what the particular activity of that day is. If it’s organising conferences for example, I need to get in touch with the speakers. If it’s editing, then I need to check articles. There’s no longer a typical day for me. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Suzanne Elliott, Operations Manager, Chief Scientific Officer and Deputy CEO, Q-Pharm Pty Limited, about her career journey which started out as a molecular biologist.
Clare: Suzanne, let’s start with your current role. Since 2003 you’ve been managing Q-Pharm, a private clinical trial site facility co-located within the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. What does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Suzanne: Before I go to work, I go to boot camp – that’s my stress release and my time to myself. When I get to work, there’s no one typical day but from the prior Friday, I’ve got the work week mapped out in terms of various meetings. We have standard work meetings for administration and operations. Our weekly Monday administration meeting (which involves our general manager, senior admin assistant, senior project support officer, head of business development, our quality assurance manager and our current interim CEO) is a catch-up on a week-to-week basis. The team gets together to understand what clients might be coming through, what work we’ve got available and what things we’re scheduling. Our operations meeting (which involves our manager of medical services, clinic manager, clinic training manager, my support officer, general manager and our interim CEO) is more an update of what’s actually happening in the clinic, if there are any issues – staff, equipment, anything that impacts the conduct of our studies but also future planning and scheduling [of studies].
In terms of the rest of the day, it comes down to what’s happening in the clinic. We have between 15 and 20 studies active all at one time, at various stages. Balancing all the various meetings and hosting clients while you’re actually trying to do the research as well – that’s what I find is the biggest challenge in my role. I have fairly long days. I have to attend client meetings, audits and meet with the clinic team, and then you’ve got to figure out when you’ll get the rest of your work completed.
Clare: By the sound of it, communication amongst all your team members is key!
Suzanne: Exactly. And the thing is attacking [communications] at different levels because people use different mediums to communicate – some people do all emails, some do text. You’ve got a lot of people who aren’t sitting in front of the computer – they’re out on the floor. Internally, we put out a “Q-Weekly” newsletter one-page summary in the tea-rooms, have monthly company meetings, have “all of company” emails and department meetings. If possible the personal approach to all departments, my one-on-one – “my rounds” – is where I speak to various staff members regularly to keep fully up to date, as things move so rapidly between projects. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Dessi Mladenova, Research Officer in the RNA Biology and Plasticity Lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, about her career journey starting off as a lab-based scientist and now as a bioinformatics researcher.
Clare: Dessi, you’ve forged an exciting career in the exponentially growing field of bioinformatics after completing your doctoral training in lab-based research. What is your current role and what does a normal day look like for you in this role?
Dessi: My current role is to study the genetic components that are important for cognition. In particular, I study a mysterious mechanism called RNA editing that has the power to edit or override the information hardwired in the genome. This mechanism of editing the genome may have played an important role in the evolution of human cognition and could be the secret to our higher cognitive capacity – at least this is my boss’s theory. This is because this mechanism allows the genome to be plastic and pliable in quick response to environmental stimuli, just like the human brain is very plastic and constantly changing.
On a daily basis, I open my computer and use bioinformatics tools to answer different questions. These tools allow me to make sense of an enormous amount of data, generated with the next generation sequencing technology. I spend my days writing computer code, in order to interact with the bioinformatics tools from the command line, but a big proportion of my day is dedicated to learning how to code because I am very new in the field. It has been like doing a second PhD, really!
Because of my wet lab background I can also go back in the lab and perform experiments to validate the findings from what we call the ‘dry lab’ or the computer.
Clare: What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Dessi: Today I really enjoyed being in the wet lab and doing a lot of pipetting – it was my meditation for the day because I had to focus! Our group lab meetings are always a favourite part of my week too, because we talk about big science and big questions.
Clare: You mentioned earlier you needed to learn to code in your current role. Did you need to complete any additional training specifically to move into bioinformatics or was it simply a natural progression of your research?
Dessi: It was a natural progression but my husband would tell you that I am a complete computer illiterate. When I moved into bioinformatics I had no understanding of the computer environment and high performance computing. I still don’t have in-depth understanding. I just taught myself very practical basic coding skills. I also attended numerous one-day bioinformatics courses conducted by QFAB (Queensland Facility for Advanced Bioinformatics). They organise these wonderful events to help researchers transition into bioinformatics. I have also had a lot of support from my bioinformatician colleagues. I guess I found myself in the right environment at the right time. More...