STEMM Profile: Khatora Opperman | PhD student | South Australia Health & Medical Research Institute | University of Adelaide | Adelaide | SA

Khatora Opperman [photo: Sanuja Fernando]

“One of the great parts about science is the diversity. I am proud of all of aspects of my career, from research, to teaching, to scientific communication, to community outreach”

Khatora Opperman is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, working within the world-leading Research Institute, SAHMRI. She competed her undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 2016 with a Bachelor of Health Science (Honours). Khatora subsequently commenced her PhD candidature focusing on the immune cell, macrophages, in the development of the blood cancer, multiple myeloma. Her research aims to develop new treatment strategies to substantially improve the quality-of-life and survivorship of individuals with myeloma and other cancers.

As a passionate and highly motivated medical researcher, Khatora strives to inspire young women towards a future in STEM. Khatora volunteers for various outreach programs, teaches into several undergraduate courses and has led several local and State committees. Being featured in more than 10 worldwide media outlets and being selected to present at 20 national and international conferences, Khatora is enthusiastic about research communication. She has been awarded more than 20 prestigious awards and highly competitive scholarships for her work. Most notably, being nominated by the University of Adelaide as one of only two PhD candidates for the CSL Florey Next Generation Award 2020. In addition to her academic achievements Khatora has also maintained an admirable work life balance. Over the past 5 years, she has been engaged and married, bought her first home and is currently expecting her first child.

What was the key thing that helped you get to where you are today?

Without a doubt, support! I can honestly say I would not be where I am today, without the support of my husband, friends, family and co-workers. I have been lucky enough to have an extremely supportive laboratory environment and have made many great connections with others across many fields throughout my career. In my opinion, surrounding yourself with positive people, who bring out the best in you is key to success.

How do you cope with loss or rejection in your career?

Having a supportive network is vital to coping with loss or rejection in any facet of life. Unfortunately, science can often be a challenging career – in the sense that you have to deal with failures including unsuccessful experiments, manuscript rejection, futile hypotheses, grant rejection, the list goes on. From this perspective, it is important not to put all your eggs in one basket. Collaborate, have several projects on the go, obtain multi-disciplinary perspectives and most importantly, celebrate the big and little successes. As women we should support each other and celebrate all achievements. By widening your research goals, rejection is often coupled with success, which makes it much easier to cope.

What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?

Resilience and persistence. Throughout my PhD candidature I have faced numerous challenges, both personally and professionally. It came to light late in my PhD that the well-established models and techniques implemented were unknowingly inadequate, resulting in a drastic loss of data and a re-structure of my PhD project. In addition, I dealt with the loss of my father, and two other family members throughout my PhD. However, despite these hurdles my unwavering persistence and resilience has paid off, enabling me to successfully complete my PhD studies. I am delighted to have overcome these difficult hurdles and exhibit these traits which are important in other fields and aspects of life.

What are you most proud of in your STEMM career?

It is extremely difficult to pick just one aspect that I am most proud of. One of the great parts about science is the diversity. I am proud of all of aspects of my career, from research, to teaching, to scientific communication, to community outreach. Publishing my first research article was certainly a high point of my career, but overall, I would say I am most proud of how I have grown throughout my PhD and how far I have come in my career.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in STEMM?

Network your way to success. Now when I say this, I do not just mean attending networking events and interacting with the same individuals. I encourage women to take on every opportunity – whether it be to visit another lab, join a committee, present at a conference, speak at an outreach event, teach into undergraduate courses. You never know who you will meet or impress and what doors this will open. As a part of this, I suggest building your support network early on, find good mentors, and colleagues at a similar academic level, to encourage and push you from the start. And lastly, be confident, as women we are often afraid to speak up and ask that big question or speak with that distinguished expert. Being noticed and being memorable is paramount!

LinkedIn: Khatora Opperman (nee Said)

Twitter: @KhatoraOpperman

ResearchGate: Khatora Opperman