Last week I had a chat with Dr. Kylie Gorringe at the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC). If you haven't been inside, go ahead, grab a coffee from the cafe and check it out - it's a beautiful piece of architecture, with an atrium that no doubt leaves a positive impact on every individual who walks through.
What sparked your interest in science? Was it a teacher, an experience, or maybe a scientific breakthrough?
The first thing that really grabbed my attention in school was punnet squares – working out the inheritance of particular traits in a Mendelian fashion. I enjoyed doing them because it was like a logic puzzle, which I had always found fun. However, I think I must have always had an enquiring mind… aged about 7 I set up an experiment in the pantry to see what ants most liked to eat, much to my mother’s despair no doubt! (answer = honey)
Half of all Australians will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85, which means that cancer research is a pretty ‘hot topic’ for news articles. As a cancer researcher, does this publicity impact your work?
I think cancer has always been of great interest to the public and the media. It doesn’t directly affect me, except to make me cautious about publicising work that might be “over-sold” by an eager media, giving a false impression to the public. It’s hard to communicate the truth that science often progresses in small steps, each adding a piece to the full story, rather than a eureka moment.
What are you currently working on? Describe what a typical day at work might look like for you.
I spend a lot of time at my computer these days. If I’m lucky that means I’m doing some analysis in R, if I’m unlucky it means I’m writing a grant application! More often I might be working on a paper, reading something a student has written, or exploring the literature. Most days I’ll also go to a seminar or have a meeting or two. At the moment I’m working on our paper about mucinous ovarian cancer, which has been a 5-year project collaborating with people all over the world, so it is challenging to bring it all together.
What are you most proud of in your career?
What comes to mind is after using some of the Lea Award money to help get one of my PhD students to a big international breast cancer conference in the US last year, at the end of the day on which she presented her work she told me that it had been the best day of her life. How often do you get to help someone to the best day of their life?
"have confidence in your abilities, and do what you love – having a passion for the science you are doing is critical for a career in the field"
You are the first recipient of the Lea Award, from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, which “seeks to address the disparity in women holding mid-to-senior positions in research”. What did winning this award mean to you?
It was a tremendous validation of my worth as a researcher. It is so easy to let the doubts, failures and inevitable rejections that are part of a scientific career get you down – imposter syndrome is very real! So having a committee judge me as being worthy of such a prize was a big boost for my confidence. In addition, having some extra money to go to conferences and pay for open access publishing was a great help in raising my profile.
The award itself centres around leadership. What does your perception of leadership look like? And why do you think the gender disparity is so evident in leadership positions?
Leadership is about bringing people along with you to accomplish your goals. The best leaders achieve what they set out to do without stomping all over their team. The reasons for gender imbalance at the upper levels are many and varied. The cumulative effects of conscious and unconscious bias, maternity and child care disruptions, lack of confidence, societal pressures, and so on, add rungs to the ladder that women have to scale to get to the top. I think all of these are things that can be changed (over time), but some of the
m are incredibly subtle, widespread and early – think gender imbalance and gender role stereotyping in kids books, toys and TV programs.
As a Big Sister with Sisters In Science, you will be a mentor and role model for teenage girls. What kind of influence has mentorship made on you, and what advice might you give to your 15-year-old self?
I have been lucky to have many amazing mentors, people willing to give generously of their time and wisdom. The senior PhD student and post-doc and in the labs where I did my Masters and PhD respectively were fantastic mentors in demonstrating the qualities that a rigorous scientist should have. I think to my 15-year-old self I would say to have confidence in your abilities, and do what you love – having a passion for the science you are doing is critical for a career in the field.
Has there been any recent studies or breakthroughs that have been a major step forward? What kind of discoveries do you think we’ll be seeing in the future for your field?
There were two papers in Science this week (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6375/521) that were about the somatic genetic events in neurons detected by single cell sequencing. This proof that we are all accumulating mutations in our tissues from before birth and beyond is very relevant to cancer research. Cancers develop in most part due to these mutations occurring in genes that promote aberrant cell growth and behaviour. It makes me wonder whether one day someone could invent a cellular genome therapy, whereby every few years we get some kind of drug/enzyme mix that goes around repairing our DNA in each cell of the body. I can’t imagine how it would actually work, it sounds very sci-fi; but then again in 1997 the idea of being able to sequence a whole genome from a lip imprint in minutes was sci-fi (Gattaca), and now is likely just around the corner (e.g. see https://elifesciences.org/articles/27798).