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.
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
Meet Dr Amy Vassallo (that’s me!), Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cancer Research Division at Cancer Council NSW, and curator of the monthly Franklin Women e-newsletter. Many of you have been asking what’s next for me since completing my PhD, so here’s an update:
My initial training was in science, completing a Bachelor of Medical Science at the ANU. This was great foundational training, but I pretty quickly decided I wanted to try something with a more population-level focus, so I completed a Masters degree in community health. I then worked in public health policy (#Canberra!), which helped me gain such valuable insights into the workings of the health system, and I’ve drawn on many of these in my research career since then. After working full-time for a couple of years, and wanting to do more research, I enrolled in a PhD in injury epidemiology. I graduated in October 2018 and started my first post-doc in December, which is the perfect culmination of all this training!
Tell us about your current role and how you got to be there?
Just before Christmas I started a new role as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Cancer Research Division at the Cancer Council NSW, working in ovarian cancer. The role will specifically focus on new and emerging technologies for the earlier detection of ovarian cancer, and use microsimulation modelling to develop evidence-based recommendations to decrease the number of women dying from this disease.
Like many others, choosing my post-PhD path was not easy or straightforward. My interest in medical research has never been limited to one specific content area. So I started to think more about the skills development opportunities, working environment and impact of potential post-docs, rather than the area of research. While this position ticked so many of the boxes I was looking for, it certainly was ‘outside of the box’ in terms of research content. I almost didn’t apply, but I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone and a mentor of mine reminded me that this is an opportunity to demonstrate the transferrable skills of a research degree. She encouraged me to go for it and I’m so glad that I did. ☺
What is one of your favourite projects you are currently working on?
It’s still very early days, but as the founding member of the ovarian cancer research group at Cancer Council NSW, one exciting element of this position is being able to scope out research and project plans. Having this ownership and the opportunity to see projects through from start to finish is quite a special position to be in as an early post-doc. Another key element of this role will be establishing a Scientific Advisory Committee of experts in the field of early detection and management of ovarian cancer, and I’m enjoying getting to know the local researchers and clinicians.
How do you think your work contributes to the field and/or the overall health of the community?
Ovarian cancer is the 8th most common cancer in women in Australia. Every year about 1,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and about 770 will die from the disease. Due to vague symptoms and aggressive tumour growth it’s often diagnosed at an advanced stage. Over the past decade, little progress has been made in reducing the mortality rate of ovarian cancer, and therefore there is keen interest from clinicians, health policy makers and the community to continue investigating options and technologies for earlier detection of this disease. The initial aim of my research is to understand the potential impact of applying new approaches of existing or emerging technologies in a potential ovarian cancer screening program in Australia, and develop evidence-based recommendations based on the potential costs and benefits of such programs.
Who do you collaborate with and how did those work relationships come about?
The work of Cancer Council NSW crosses the full cancer control continuum, including primary prevention, advocacy, information and support, as well as research. I think these internal organisational relationships are so valuable for keeping our research priorities ‘on the pulse’ and relevant to the community. We also collaborate with many external academic-based researchers, clinicians and policy makers, through our Scientific Advisory Committees and other projects. My position is somewhat unique in that it was directly funded by a major philanthropic donation, so the opportunity for collaboration and relationship-building with research funders in the community is an element to this position that I’m looking forward to.
Do you have any side interests or passions that you are looking to develop?
The promotion and support of women in STEMM is an ongoing passion of mine, and I enjoy contributing to this space through Franklin Women and having this outlet for some of my more creative visions for our sector. In 2019 I will continue to curate the Franklin Women e-newsletter, and look forward to being blown away each month by the research breadth and talent that exists locally. The new skill I want to start to learn in 2019 is Auslan (yes, inspired by Emma Wiggle).
What food have you eaten too much of in your life?
Hummus, I am basically 95% hummus at any time.
Three years ago, Clare was one of the first contributors to the Franklin Women blog, speaking about her role as a research assistant and clinical trial coordinator. Now, she is launching into freelance writing. Recently, Clare has been writing for Australian Geographic and the University of Wollongong. She is also looking forward to speaking at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle later this month. As Franklin Women celebrates its third birthday, clare looks back at the stellar advice shared by leading ladies for the FW blog over the past 18 months.
Straight up, career pathways are not as simple as they appear on a professional CV, where one role is neatly lined up after another. But we can easily forget this when comparing ourselves to others on paper. There are career sidesteps, pauses, hops and let’s-see-where-this-leads opportunities. Reflecting on career crossroads, our Franklin Women have spoken honestly about times when family responsibilities, health or lifestyle considerations have factored into their decisions too – it’s always personal. More...
Our Roving Reporter Clare Watson chats to Ros Blakley, General Manager, Bupa Medical.
Clare: Ros, let’s start with your current role. Since 2014, you have been managing Bupa Medical, a branch of the Bupa healthcare group that delivers primary health care services through city-based GP clinics and Telehealth services for regional residents. What does a normal day look like for you in this role? What have you enjoyed most in your day today?
Ros: There are three main areas that I am responsible for: operations, clinical development and governance. Operations is managing our primary care strategy and executing Bupa’s aspirations in multidisciplinary care to provide team-based, coordinated primary care in one location for patients. Bupa, originally a health insurer in Australia, is now cementing our place in health care provision.
I also am one of the national medical directors for Bupa for the Australian-New Zealand market. I primarily have responsibility for the leadership and development of our clinical workforce. This entails developing our strategy for how we can – as a new business in health care provision – attract, retain and develop our clinical workforce, which I find really exciting. I also head up clinical governance, as well as driving our safety culture, across our health services, so that includes our dental, optical and primary care facilities.
At any one point in my day, I could be doing one of these three things, somehow combined or separately. In a management position like this, you need to be able to change tact at any minute or hour of the day, from one topic to another – but I enjoy that.
In my role, I really enjoy realising change. I am very much a person who can’t fix something just for me. I could spend my day just fixing my little part of Bupa but if I see an opportunity to fix a bigger thing that realises the root cause, then let’s fix the root cause because then everyone benefits.
Ros: I had committed to military medicine before I had even finished my training. I actually joined the army in my fourth year of the undergraduate program so I set my path to the military at that point [but there were other specialisations that I considered].
In my first two years in the hospital system, I became very passionate about orthopaedics and loved that immensely. I considered doing [orthopaedics] as a career until I decided that I had already had two children and that I didn’t want a 24-hour 7-day week role.
I did get most of the way through my fellowship with the College of General Practice but that was when the college was brand new and it was not flexible. The college didn’t really understand the military – any time that you did with the military [as a medical officer] wasn’t accredited; they said it didn’t count as real medicine. There was a real disconnect between capability and experience, and what the college viewed as reasonable. I couldn’t meet their requirements because I was going here, there and everywhere [with the military].
I spoke to the Chief of the army and said that you won’t be able to recruit and train doctors if this is the view that the college takes [– if they don’t recognise military experience]. We needed to engage with the college, help them realise what it is we do and get consideration of the skill set we have. The college now has a direct liaison with the military. More...
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...