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.
Meet Professor Jenny Martin! The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at the University of Wollongong. She is an avid blogger and a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in science and was one of the founding drivers of the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative in Australia. She will be the guest speaker at our upcoming event In Conversation with Jenny Martin.
What is your training in the health or medical science field? Pharmacy, including a Bachelor degree, Masters and a PhD in protein crystallography.
What is your current role and what previous key roles have you held in your career journey? I am currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at the University of Wollongong, and previously Director of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (Griffith University) and ARC Laureate Research Fellow (University of Queensland).
What is one of your favourite projects that you have worked on? DsbA, a bacterial enzyme, has been my constant companion since my postdoc days in Rockefeller Uni, NY; that was more than 25 years ago!
What was one of your most memorable collaborations and how did those relationships come about? About 10 years ago, a collaboration with Defence Science and Technology in the UK came about when their scientists discovered that knocking out DsbA from a bacteria they were investigating rendered the bacteria harmless. The scientists contacted me to see if I would like to collaborate. It so happened that at the time I was on sabbatical in the UK, and simply had to drive down the M34 to meet with them. The collaboration continues to this day. Timing is everything.
What about your career are you most looking forward to sharing with the Franklin Women audience during the upcoming In Conversation event? My shadow CV, which includes the aspects of a track record not usually included in a CV because they weren’t successful.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are currently working on? Walking, baking, pilates, catching up with friends and family, the arts/theatre, searching the world for the ultimate cream tea.
What one piece of advice would you offer a woman following a career in the health and medical research sector? Carve your own path.
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? Vitamin C (chocolate)
Meet Harriet Swearman!! PhD candidate with the University of Sydney and the newest member of the Franklin Women Peer Advisory Group (Student Representative). Learn about her role at FW, her research into fertility, and her love of travelling and the great outdoors (definitely a lot more fun in the Australian climate than her native UK!):
What is your training in the health or medical science field? I completed my undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in 2009, and a Masters in Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) shortly after. Since then I have trained in clinics in the UK and Sydney and am a fully qualified Clinical Embryologist (the person who sits behind those giant microscopes and injects sperm into oocytes to make babies!). In parallel to my Embryologist role, I am currently in the 3rd year of my PhD through the University of Sydney.
What is your role with Franklin Women, and what motivated you to join? My role within Franklin Women is to make sure the student population is represented. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to join FW as Women in STEM is something I feel very strongly about. However, importantly in my role as Student Representative, I think it is vital to help students in research degrees understand their options on graduating and how to navigate their way into industry. FW offers a unique platform through which we can help bridge this gap.
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? As part of my PhD, I have had the amazing opportunity to work closely with some of our patients at the fertility centre on a clinical trial. I have been involved in the end-to-end process for this, including writing and securing our ethics license, devising the trial protocol, and recruitment. It has been an invaluable learning curve, and encouraged me to consider more broadly potential roles in industry clinical trial management on completion of my PhD.
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ from your work? The nature of my work is heavily translational, working very closely with patients, which means I can see the direct benefits of the research being put into practice clinically - through the clinical trial we are trying to improve the fertilization rates for patients undergoing IVF. Besides the human trial, I am also involved in studies using animal models – more specifically, we are looking into the effect of the laboratory environment on organelles inside the oocyte and how this may impact the result of an IVF cycle. As part of this, we have shown the impact of changing pH on the meiotic spindle inside mouse oocytes. The next piece of work will be to understand what the effect of this change to the spindle has on the embryo which is created once the egg is fertilized.
How do you think your work contributes to the health of the community? The impact of our work has a direct effect on those individuals undergoing fertility assisting treatment. The field has broadened significantly in recent years with the introduction of newer sequencing techniques to test embryos in a bid to combat genetic disease, and perhaps more controversially, the potential to edit the genome and remove faulty sequences. It’s an area of clinical science whereby ethical consideration already plays a key part, and will increasingly continue to do so given the wide implications on the community.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop? I am a bit of a keen cyclist – a few years ago I took part in Ride Across Britain and cycled from John O’Groats in Scotland to Lands End in Devon, 1580km in 9 days! I loved it and am keen to explore a bit more of Australia by bike (that’s if I can persuade my husband to Lycra-up and join me)…
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? CHEESE... any cheese with a nice glass of red wine – perfection!
Meet Dr Erin McGillick! A NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow focussed on investigating the effect of pregnancy complications on fetal lung development and identifying ways to improve the transition from fetal to newborn life.
What is your training in the health or medical science field? I’m a very proud Adelaidean, completing both my undergraduate and postgraduate study at the University of South Australia. I trained as a medical scientist, completing my Bachelor of Laboratory Medicine in 2012. During my honours year, I focussed on investigating the effect of pregnancy complications on fetal lung development, particularly understanding how preterm birth, maternal obesity and maternal diabetes affects lung development at the molecular level. A field of research I continued in to complete my PhD (2012-2016). As part of my PhD research, I also had the amazing opportunity to work at the University of Cambridge to gain a greater understanding of the effects of severity and timing of chronic hypoxia during pregnancy on lung development.
What is your role and how did you get to be a research fellow at The Ritchie Centre? Upon completion of my PhD in 2016, I was recruited to The Ritchie Centre (Hudson Institute of Medical Research and Monash University) in Melbourne, which is Australia’s leading perinatal research centre. During my honours and PhD, I had closely followed the fascinating research being undertaken in The Ritchie Centre and I had established networks with their researchers while attending conferences, so it was the perfect fit to expand my research focus as a postdoctoral fellow. In my current position, I’m able to bring together a strong background in molecular, structural and functional aspects of fetal and newborn physiology to identify mechanisms and interventions to improve the transition from fetal to newborn life. My research is currently supported by a NHMRC Early Career Fellowship.
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? An absolute highlight of my research is synchrotron imaging studies both in Australia and Japan. The synchrotron accelerates electrons close to the speed of light, producing X-rays one million times brighter than the sun, which allows us to see what is happening in the lungs from the first breath in our pre-clinical models. The knowledge from these studies can then inform clinical trials to improve outcomes for newborn babies. This work will also progress to a clinical trial to implement interventions in the delivery room to reduce the risk of babies developing this condition, which I am very excited to be a part of!
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ from your work? I have published 21 peer reviewed articles on factors regulating normal and abnormal fetal lung development, maternal diseases affecting the newborn and understanding factors regulating the transition from fetal to newborn life.
I absolutely love science communication and getting the opportunity to share my research with others. I have had the opportunity to present my research at over 50 occasions, at national and international conferences, which has given me the chance to travel internationally to the UK, Italy, USA and Canada. One of the most rewarding experiences was having the opportunity to run a delivery room audit workshop integrating my knowledge of fetal/newborn physiology with observations from the delivery room during my time working in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about?I am very fortunate to work as part of a large multidisciplinary team. My studies involve national and international physiologists, physicists, synchrotron scientists and clinicians. This ensures that we are researching and generating the necessary findings to address the most critical issues in perinatal medicine and that these findings can be translated back into clinical studies to improve newborn outcomes. I absolutely love the diversity and that there is always something to learn or a different way to think about a problem! The biggest highlight to date was having the opportunity to gain international clinical research experience with collaborators working on a clinical trial at a neonatal intensive care unit in the Netherlands. This study was based on some findings from my group’s synchrotron imaging studies to improve the transition to spontaneous breathing in the delivery room in premature newborns. During this time, I was incredibly privileged to attend births and work as part of a team caring for the most vulnerable babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop? I am passionate about sharing the wonders of science and physiology with others through science communication in any way possible. I particularly enjoyed engaging with the general public as a science curator at ‘The Amazing Bodies’ anatomy and physiology exhibition. I was fortunate to take part in the Fresh Science program where I won a prize for best science communication by limerick at a public engagement event. I am also focussing on expanding my leadership training, as I work towards establishing myself as an independent researcher in perinatal medicine.
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? Chocolate…I highly recommend Haigh’s truffles and mint peppermint frogs!
Meet Gal Winter Ziv! Microbiologist and course coordinator for the Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of New England. She believes that education is everywhere and owes much of her biomedical knowledge to binge watching medical TV shows. Gal will also be presenting at Soapbox Science in Sydney in August (you can read more about this event in our recent June newsletter edition)
What is your training in the health or medical science field? I have always been fascinated with food and nutrition so I enrolled in a bachelor degree in food science and biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Through that I discovered the world of microorganisms and the major role that they play in food preparations and in our bodies. I continued my studies in the field of molecular microbiology and completed a Masters in Food Science and Biochemistry. I then moved to Australia to commence a PhD on wine microbiology at the Australian Wine Research Institute and followed that with a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Queensland focusing on microbial biotechnology. A few years after, I changed my focus and use my expertise towards biomedical research at the University of New England (UNE) – one of the most satisfying career moves I’ve made!
Tell us about your current role? I am a lecturer in the biomedical discipline and a course coordinator for the Bachelor of Biomedical Science at UNE. I also run a research program looking into the gut microbiome and its connection with the brain. Transferring from a biotechnological background to a biomedical discipline was a steep learning curve; however, I found that with a strong scientific background, tons of motivation and a very pressing list of deadlines, everything is possible!
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? That’s an easy one – understanding the role of the gut microbiome in the development and treatment of mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety. It still amazes me that microorganisms can be related to such mental processes. This is something that not too long ago we would have never conceived as logical and all of a sudden, it is common knowledge. I’m excited to contribute to this understanding and look forward to new developments in the field.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about? I collaborate with colleagues from UNE that specialise in different areas to mine, mainly neurobiology, psychology and immunology. Together we complement each other, which creates an awesome working environment! Outside UNE I collaborate with a bioinformatics expert in Europe that I’ve met through a mutual colleague. Always happy to create new collaborations – it brings out the best of both worlds.
Do you have any side interest or passions that you are looking to develop? Hmmmm…Professionally I’d like to develop more leadership skills and science communication. On the personal front, I’d like to have more time to do absolutely nothing ‘productive’ and just BE with my family. I was at a meditation workshop the other day and they asked us to visualise our idea of a ‘perfect day’. I realised then that my perfect day had nothing special about it, no exotic vacation or amazing experience. It was just about being at home at ease with my family…I find that life is getting too busy and I’d like to pursue the art of doing nothing!!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? There are two foods I’m absolutely obsessed with – tomatoes and dark chocolate! I have been obsessed with tomatoes since I was a child and probably eat a few kg per week…raw, cooked, large, small – I eat them all :). My challenge is to combine chocolate and tomatoes in one dish. I’ve had multiple attempts and they were all pretty disgusting!
Meet Dr Sarah Best, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, who talks on her career to date and the experience of winning the Griffith University Discovery Award in the 2018 Research Australia Awards! Quintessentially Melbournian, she is passionate about a good coffee and brunch. Applications for the 2019 Research Australia Awards are open until July 5 – what are you waiting for?
What is your training in the health or medical science field? This could be a really long-winded answer so I’ll keep it simple: BSc(Hons), PhD (Medical research).
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there? I am a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). It’s a bit of a circular story really, because I was a PhD student at the WEHI too. My research focuses on epithelial tumour biology, so I’m interested in cancers that arise in solid organs, their genetics and their cell-of-origin. My PhD research was in breast cancer, then I moved to the USA and worked on non-melanoma skin cancer. When I looked to come back to Australia, it made the most sense for me to come back to the same Division at WEHI, where the research focuses on epithelial cancers and cells-of-origin. I was really fortunate to get a postdoctoral position with Dr Kate Sutherland to investigate lung cancer. All the experience working in these different organs has helped form the way I investigate the lung today, so it’s a really nice perspective to come from.
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? I research an aggressive type of lung cancer that currently has no effective therapy. That sounds pretty grim, but it means that every time I identify a new way to treat this type of lung cancer, it can have a real impact for patients. The road from ‘bench to bedside’ is long, but being part of the initial research that can eventually help people is amazing.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about? I collaborate with a lot of people! There are plenty of cliffs in my expertise that need to be bridged by collaborators who can help me keep my research cutting-edge, clinically relevant and well-informed. That means I work with a lot of other researchers and clinicians. It’s important to share that all of my research has been performed not just by myself, but by teams of people contributing their expertise.
Tell us about your experience of winning a Research Australia Health and Medical Research Award last year, and what impact this may have had on your career? It was such an honour to be nominated for the Griffith University Discovery Award last year, let alone to win the award! To be selected in the top two finalists and invited to the awards dinner was just fantastic – I got to bring my lab mates with me and we had such a fun night. Winning the award has definitely helped to publicise my research, and reach out to the broader community. I think importantly it plays a role in validating my research and will always be a key factor in my CV. I find it hard to avoid feeling imposter syndrome, especially as a basic research scientist. The other finalist was doing outstanding research for the community, and as a clinician he was directly impacting the lives of patients. Imposter syndrome can often hold us back from applying for awards, and allowing ourselves to enjoy them if we are successful. So I think it’s important to listen to those around us when we’re encouraged to apply for these opportunities, and to allow ourselves to be proud of our achievements.
Why would you recommend women of your career stage to nominate themselves, or their colleagues, for awards such as this? Since winning the Griffith University Discovery Award (for early career researchers, within 5 years of PhD completion), I have slipped out of the early career bracket. This is such an insidious event, moving from early- to mid-career postdoc. I feel like it wasn’t that long ago that I finished my PhD! I would definitely recommend women to nominate for this award – I know the feeling that if you wait until next year, maybe there is another discovery/publication before nominating for awards such as this. But really, something else is always around the corner and time keeps moving forward! So you have to jump on every opportunity that comes your way.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop? I always have a long list of interests that I would like to spend time on and develop. I have a half-finished letter to the editor, a pile of New Scientistmagazines to read, and I would like to take a course on Indigenous medicines. Good thing I can organise my time at work, because I’m a bit hopeless at home!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? I am an absolute lover of mushrooms. I would happily have them every day and have even turned an old housemate into a mushroom-hater from all the exposure!
Meet one of the presenters at next month’s Women and Heart Disease Forum, Principal Research Fellow (Lifestyle Medicine and Rehabilitation) and Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the School of Medicine, Deakin University. She writes on her career journey straddling mental health and heart health, and working with her passions
What is your training in the health or medical science field? My background is psychology and public health and I am also a trained Family Violence Practitioner.
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there? This week, I launched the Heart and Mind Research (HaMR) group, of which I am Director, and commenced my co-appointment as Deputy Director of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Geelong.
For almost 15 years, I have been researching the link between mental and cardiovascular health, now sometimes referred to as psycho-cardiology. After doing my PhD at Monash University, and an NHMRC ECF at Deakin and Stanford University, I returned home and commenced a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship at the University of Melbourne where I was for 5 years. A big part of my work is investigating the role that lifestyle plays in the onset and outcomes of depression and cardiovascular disease (CVD), both respectively, in relation to each other and when they co-occur.
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? An interesting part of my new position at Deakin will be working with world experts in lifestyle medicine, particularly in psychiatry, like Professor Felice Jacka (President of the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatric Research and founder of the sub-discipline of nutritional psychiatry) and Professor Michael Berk (Director of the new NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence for the Development of Innovative Therapies in Psychiatry). We will be applying what we know works and doesn’t work in cardiac rehabilitation and other areas of chronic disease management to the management of common mental disorders like depression. CVD and depression share many risk factors and pathways that are affected by the way we live, so it makes sense to address both in a uniform way. The idea is that if we can prevent the depression occurring in the first place, we will prevent or at least delay the onset of CVD. That’s how intricately mental and physical health are linked.
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ of your work? About 5 years ago, my team and I showed that Australian women with clinical depression have double the risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the following 18 years compared with women without. This is a really important finding because many people – both clinicians and patients – don’t recognise poor mental health as being associated with poor cardiovascular health. The good news is that Medicare now subsidises GPs to check a patient’s blood pressure, cholesterol, lifestyle factors, smoking status and family history to estimate their risk of a heart attack in the next 5 years. This is a great time for GPs to ask their patients about their mental health in the context of their cardiovascular risk, or for patients to flag any concerns with their GPs, so that they can get help managing their mental and physical health at the same time. This work really kicked off my interest in gender (as a social construct) and sex (as a biological variable) as determinants of cardiovascular health. I’ll be speaking about mental and cardiovascular health in women at the upcoming NSW Heart Foundation and George Institute’s Women and Heart Disease Forum on June 19.
How do you think your work contributes to the field and/or the overall health of the community? I hope in two ways. I’ve always straddled psychiatry/mental health and cardiology/chronic disease management, so while sometimes I feel like a fish out of water, I also feel like I can approach things from a different perspective. Being able to contribute to improving the cardiovascular health of people with mental illness, and the mental health of people with cardiovascular disease, is a real passion. I have family members who are affected by both conditions and every day I try and think about them and others who are managing these chronic diseases. Second, as a woman in science – and a privileged one at that – I somehow feel that it is my duty to provide professional opportunities and support to not just other women but those who are less fortunate than I. I guess I try and apply a social justice lens to both my research and mentoring.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about? I look to collaborate with others in the field who show ethical leadership, integrity in their science and people management, and who are just nice and fun people! – Professor Jacka and Berk being two of them. And very talented early career researchers like Anna Scovelle and Emma Thomas, who are emerging stars in public health, are others.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop? I am extremely passionate about improving diversity and equity in science and more broadly across society. We still have a very long way to go, even in public health where it is assumed that because there are large numbers of women these issues are less pronounced than in male-dominated sectors. It is just not the case, from my experience or from what the data show –, which is, of course, why I love the work of Franklin Women!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? Chocolate. I have a terrible sweet tooth. I’m best to avoid having it in the house at all
Meet Denise Cummins! HIV specialist in community nursing, and recent PhD graduate, at Sydney Local Health District (one of Franklin Women’s newest Academic Partners!). She writes on her career journey and her commitment to HIV and community nursing in Australia and beyond.
What is your training in the health or medical science field? I have been a nurse for 30 years. Starting off on the wards, I went on to complete postgraduate certificates in oncology, palliative care nursing, HIV and sexual health. I then became a Clinical Nurse Consultant in the community for people with HIV. I completed yet another postgraduate certificate in Community Nursing and also a Master of Public Health. I have just been awarded a PhD focusing on HIV and cognitive impairment. Who knows what I’ll study next?!
For the past 15 years, I have volunteered in South East Asia providing workshops on HIV issues for agencies in Nepal, Thailand and Myanmar. I engage in fundraising in Australia to provide practical support to a HIV hospice and orphanage in Nepal – Nava Kiran Plus – and have developed and facilitated a workshop in Papua New Guinea for the Red Cross. Working in the area of HIV has opened so many interesting doors in my career and I have enjoyed working with like-minded passionate people!
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there? I am currently working as a HIV specialist in community nursing for Sydney Local Health District. I never planned my career, I really got here by just saying ‘yes’ when opportunities provided themselves to me. In all honesty, I knew very little about HIV, but was very interested in the associated social aspects, particularly stigma experienced by people with HIV. A friend then said, “Hey, I found a post graduate course for you”, so I did a Master of Public Health and became interested in research. Another door opened when a colleague who was going to Nepal became sick (unfortunate for him, but fortunate for me!) so I took his place and started my adventures and volunteer work in South East Asia! I have just completed my PhD, which came about as I was in an educational session and asked the speaker a question afterwards. They said you should do a PhD and I can be your supervisor and so the studies began! So it really is just saying ‘yes’ and not being afraid to grab hold of the opportunities that come your way!
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on? I have just finished working with Positive Life NSW, a non-profit community-based organisation working to promote a positive image of people living with and affected by HIV. My work focused on HIV and cognitive impairment. We did a survey of people living with HIV (PLHIV) and then developed resources and established the first support group in Australia for PLHIV and cognitive impairment. I now plan to start a study to assess PLHIV in the community setting for cognitive impairment to identify and treat them early, as it is a potentially treatable disease, and to reduce the social and financial impact to the person. I am also working with five clinical nurse educators in a community setting to provide HIV training to all undergraduates on clinical placement with our service.
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ of your work? I have been fortunate to present findings from various research projects, as well as workshops, in Nepal and Myanmar, and have co-authored numerous publications. I’ve also collaborated with a team to develop two resources for PLHIV regarding cognitive impairment, available from Positive Life NSW. Plus, I have another exciting opportunity, having been invited interstate to develop education sessions for community nurses and the Queensland Positive People agency.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about? I collaborate with the patient and their caregivers. I work with other medical, allied health, nursing and NGO staff, as well as key HIV agencies in NSW and interstate, such as AIDS Council of NSW, Positive Life NSW and the Australasian Society of HIV Medicine.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop? There’s a list! (1) I would like to empower community nurses and undergraduate nurses with skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable populations, such as substance users, and people from LGBTQI and CALD communities who have HIV. (2) I would like to support more nurses to undertake research. (3) I would like to help the orphans I support in Nepal to reach their potential (we have one that has started university!) and to help them attend international HIV conferences where they could meet other young people, and share their stories and develop networks for the future. And (4) I have started to learn French twice and, now that I have time, I would love to complete this study of the language which will help me order delicious food on my travels!!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life? Where to start … Chips, chips and more chips. Then there is the strawberry tart, oh and liquorice when I was studying – this was a daily nibble. Sadly, I gained weight, but then I found fennel, so I nibbled on that instead – yum
Meet Hossai Gul! Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation and all-round feminist. She writes on her career journey through the health sciences sector and creating opportunities for herself in areas she’s passionate about:
What is your training in the health or medical science field?
I left school thinking I wanted to be a doctor, so began working in the pathologies of hospitals because I couldn’t wait to be around patients. A few years in, I realised I had changed from being idealistic about caring for people to being robotically efficient at work. So I decided I needed a gap year or two to try other things, and in this time I worked in almost every industry and had about 30 different roles (had lots of fun on the side too!). But I realised I didn’t want to be away from healthcare-related sciences, and eventually decided if I loved science then I should just do science and not worry about getting a job afterwards. Fast-forward and I completed by BSci (Adv Sci), did an honours thesis on cancer drug discovery, then a Master of Research thesis in bioinformatics and neurodegeneration. During this time, I became more curious about how scientific discoveries were translated into real-world settings on a larger scale, why most research papers are read only by seven people, or why most of medicine isn’t actually ‘evidence-based’. So now, for my PhD, I am working on understanding the translation of complex technologies into complex systems like healthcare, for example genomics. I want to understand the complexity of technologies that go beyond the clinical setting, the types of evidence required for large-scale implementation, and how we can monitor the evolution of the interaction of new technologies entering human systems.
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there?
I am currently at Macquarie University where I wear about four different hats. Foremost, I am a Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow and a Research Assistant at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation (AIHI). I’m also the Director of Macquarie University TEDx, and Founder/Manager of a researcher development program called Future STEMM Leaders. I’ve gotten to these roles because I create opportunities for myself in areas that I am passionate about, not waiting around for things to just happen to me. This is something I’ve picked up being a long-term Franklin Women member. The women in this group have taught me to have this audacity to full-heartedly believe in myself. And the support of the women from the network has also impacted my career changes – I literally consulted with Melina before I changed disciplines, haha!
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on?
Ahh, so hard to pick, I love all my four projects! So maybe I will pick the one I believe has been most transformative thus far – designing my PhD research project from scratch in a completely new discipline has been a rich personal and intellectual journey. This required me to transform everything from my research philosophy to the types of data I value as a ‘scientist’. I have had this freedom of truly understanding the type of research I want to conduct, then designing a project that fits into these newly formed foundations. I am in a really good space and I love what I do – it’s such a great feeling to be excited on a Monday morning (yes, I am one of those annoying people now!).
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ of your work?
My favourite recent output was presenting my PhD study design at an international conference with 600 delegates from over 30 countries at the Global Evidence and Implementation Science Summit late last year. The reason why this was major is because I had been in Implementation Science for 10 months and had designed an implementation study going against most of what the discipline prescribes (I obviously like to make things hard for myself). First, I thought how did I get a talk?! No other PhD project had a full-length talk in a session with decade-experienced researchers and practitioners. I was sure they just wanted to teach me a lesson! When it came time to get up and talk, I was suddenly so calm and happy to share my work. My ideas were so well received – had great discussions about the gap I had highlighted and made new important collaborations. A person got up to the microphone to tell me it was the best session of the conference for them. Eeek!
How do you think your work contributes to the field and/or the overall health of the community?
Everyone expects innovation when it comes to healthcare. However, when scientists and doctors make discoveries in the labs and clinical studies, there is no magic implementation fairy that puts the new discovery into practice. I am investigating this gap on a systems level. For example, currently we are generating different types of evidence for the clinical usefulness of genomics testing – testing the entire DNA of a person as part of their care. For areas of medicine where we do generate evidence, how are we going to make this technology available in a sustainable and ethical manner while reducing risk of harm? How can this be done on a health system scale? How can we monitor change and uptake? So, you can see my work is entrenched with the work of many within the health and medicine community – it brings different siloed parts of the system together to provide a holistic picture to aid decision-makers on new discoveries entering the health system.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop?
If you asked me ‘what are you?’, I would say I am a feminist. If I could put ‘feminist’ as an occupation on my passport I would because it really is a full-time commitment. My commitment to the equality and equity of women is immovable and I prioritise it daily. My feminist sidekick is my dog and fur-baby Lulu, who has been seen around town in her Wonder Woman outfit. To keep sane and keep my anxiety at bay, I do yoga and I am a huge fan of mindfulness which is changing evidence-based modern psychology! I also love to cook, and if I won the lotto, I would adopt 100 dogs!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life?
If you find a day in my life where I haven’t drunk tea, then I’m obviously dead because I drink tea every day. Not that you could eat too much of it but I do love wontons and dumplings, and always have about six different cheeses in the fridge!
Meet Alison Todd, Chief Scientific Officer of SpeeDx, a molecular diagnostics company co-founded with Elisa Mokany. The pair are serial inventors with 18 patent families between them and they have brought 11 medical diagnostic tests to the market which are driving changes in clinical disease management worldwide.
What is your training in the health or medical science field?
I attended the University of Sydney and graduated with Hons (Class 1) and a PhD. My PhD studies were undertaken at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and, during this time, I developed a passion for inventing technology for unmet clinical needs. After that, I took a job at Johnson & Johnson Research (JJR) where I did a 17-year ‘apprenticeship’ acquiring broad skills around science, intellectual property, clinical trials, commercialisation and team management!
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there?
I am currently the Chief Scientific Officer at SpeeDx. The global financial crisis of 2008 resulted in the closure of JJR but, in turn, provided a new opportunity for the pair of us. While at JJR, Elisa and I had invented some cool tools, namely PlexZymes, which had been the subject of her PhD (supervised by me). Together we persuaded JJR to assign the PlexZyme IP to our new venture, and with the financial backing of two Venture Capital firms, we set up a small start-up operation at Australia’s premier deep tech incubator, Cicada Innovations.
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on?
I am extremely proud of the SpeeDx ResistancePlus menu which focuses on providing solutions for antimicrobial resistance (AMR), recognised as one of the world’s most pressing priorities by the WHO.
What are some of the major ‘outputs’ of your work?
Two key technologies – PlexZyme® and PlexPrime® – have revolutionised molecular diagnostic approaches and form the basis of a suite of diagnostic technologies supporting precision medicine. They have been applied to cancer diagnosis and patient management through a licensing contract with a Belgian company that sells ‘companion diagnostic’ and ‘liquid biopsy’ tests. Through SpeeDx, the technology has been applied to creating diagnostics for infectious diseases with additional information on resistance or susceptibility to common antibiotic therapy. These tests empower clinicians to make informed treatment choices, practising antimicrobial stewardship through Resistance Guided Therapy.
How do you think your work contributes to the field and/or the overall health of the community?
ResistancePlus tests for the STIs Mycoplasma genitalium (MG) and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (GC) both identify the bacterial infection and determine resistance or sensitivity to specific antibiotics, thus allowing treatment options to be either ‘ruled out’ or ‘ruled in’. ResistancePlus MG was the first test worldwide to combine molecular diagnosis of an STI with susceptibility testing. Clinical studies reported that use of this test to guide therapy could increase the cure rate by up to 30%. This success prompted a review of MG management and, subsequently, new guidelines recommending resistance testing were implemented in Australia, the UK and Europe. As such, SpeeDx is driving changes in clinical practice for infectious disease management worldwide.
In another world-first, the ResistancePlus® GC test enables doctors to prescribe an inexpensive, oral antibiotic (no longer in common use due to resistance) in preference to an injectable alternative, preserving this last remaining option for GC treatment and slowing development of new resistant strains. These individualised treatments immediately help the patient and. in due course, benefit society by preserving drug efficacy and slowing the spread of drug-resistant pathogens.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about?
SpeeDx has a spectacular network of key opinion leaders in the field of AMR located worldwide. As a developer, manufacturer and seller of molecular diagnostic tests, it is essential for SpeeDx to collaborate with groups with a broad spectrum of skills and interests. This includes scientists studying basic mechanisms conferring resistance or sensitivity to drugs, clinicians who have access to patient specimens for testing and a strong desire to improve clinical management practices, instrument manufacturers who provide platforms for analysis, and other collaborators with the capacity to research consumer needs or analyse social and economic impact.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop?
I am passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs. When not at work I love being with my family, and my partner and I are avid travellers. When I retire I fantasise that I will park myself somewhere peaceful and have a go at writing a novel!
What food have you eaten too much of in your life?
I drink far too much coffee and am not about to give it up!
Today, the 11th of February, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As a female scientist myself, this particular United Nation’s day of acknowledgement is very close to home, but there are many reasons why this day is important for us all.
You see, even though it is estimated that Australian workers will spend 77 per cent more time using science and mathematics skills by 2030, we not doing a great job at engaging half our future workforce – girls – in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). Girls and young women are less likely than their male counterparts to study science subjects at school and university. It makes sense than that for most disciplines there are fewer women entering scientific careers, and sadly, once in these careers, fewer make it to leadership positions.
So, it is not only an equity issue that boys and girls have the same opportunities to enter and fully participate in STEMM careers, it is also economically smart for our country. While there are several initiatives in place in Australia to increase participation of girls and women in STEMM, there are small things we all can do to combat the long-standing stereotypes and bias in the way of our daughters, nieces, sisters and girlfriends becoming the future of science. Here are some of my favourites:
- Books. There are many awesome books available which present science in a fun way and that also crush stereotypes around what a ‘scientist’ looks like. Some of my favourites are the Ada Twist series, Little People Big Dreams, the crowd funded Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and Chris Ferrie’s awesome science books for babies (as you can from the pic my daughter loves them!)
- Events. Museums, charities, schools and workplaces are organising science and technology events as a great way for kids to get their hands dirty with practical science – front drones to coding to setting up experiments. For example, next month DCC Jobs and Tech Girls are Superheroes are holding events for Superhero Daughter Day to encourage primary school aged girls to get excited about STEM. What are you waiting for register here.
- Toys. Science toys often don’t get a look in when picking a gift for a little girl (yes unconscious bias is a thing). While any science toy will do the job, there are also a few really cool toys that specifically aim to engage girls in skills like problem-solving necessary for STEM careers, such as GoldieBlox. If you need more inspiration A Mighty Girl have curated their top 60 list of science toys.
- Role models. The saying ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ has always resonated with me. I still attribute my career in health researcher to my year 12 biology teach Ms Leverett. I remember her genetics classes to this day. Many schools take part in programs that bring scientists to the class room, for example the CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools. If your school doesn’t let them know about it. Or even better, sign up to take part yourself. I did and I loved it.
- Celebrating the trailblazers. Although a lot of the dialogue can focus on the lack of women in STEMM careers, we must also shine a light on and celebrate the women who are forging rewarding and impactful scientific careers. One way to do this is through awards. Nominate a woman you know who is doing amazing things through their science career so they get the recognition they deserve. We don’t often think of scientists like we do sports heroes, but we should. Right now nominations are open for two of Australia’s prestigious science awards: the PM Prizes for Science and the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes – who will you nominate?
Any others to add to the list? Would love to hear them! Melina