STEMM Student Profile: Clare Weeden | PhD student | Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research | Melbourne | VIC

Clare Weeden

“Science is an increasingly difficult career choice, but I feel like I would still choose science as I am fulfilled and fascinated by it”

I am a final year PhD student in Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat’s laboratory at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. I study lung stem cells and how these cells contribute to the formation of lung cancer – a cancer that is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide yet is poorly understood. I chose my PhD project because I admired my supervisor and also due to a fascination with lung and stem cell biology.

I have been awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award (2012) and a Cancer Therapeutics Top Up scholarship (2014) to complete my PhD and have so far contributed to two publications in PLoS One and Cell Death Discovery (2015). My work has been selected for oral presentations at national (Lorne Cancer 2016; Melbourne Health Research Week 2015) and international conferences (Gordon Research 2016; World Lung Cancer 2013). I am currently preparing two first-author manuscripts for publication – getting these two papers published would be a highlight of my studies!

I completed my undergraduate and Honours studies in chemistry at the University of Western Australia. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to start a PhD straight after my Honours studies, so I worked for a year as a Research Assistant with Dr Shelley Gorman in an asthma laboratory at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth. I contributed to two team publications during this time (PLoS One 2012, 2013). It was here I became interested in lung biology and then made the decision to move to Melbourne.

What is it you love about science?

I love science mainly because I am never bored at my job – I get to discover things no one else (hopefully!) has ever known before. I have a genuine curiosity about basic human biology and it also feels amazing to think that your work could potentially help sick people. When your experiment works and you get a definitive answer to your scientific question – there’s no feeling like it! I also love being part of the scientific community – you can commiserate with your friends about experiments, talk about what could be improved in science, argue over theories and also just to chat and forget about the lab for a while.

If you could do it all over again, would you make the same choices?

Science is an increasingly difficult career choice, but I feel like I would still choose science as I am fulfilled and fascinated by it. One thing I would have changed is to have taken more holidays during my PhD.

What achievement are you most proud of in your studies so far?

I am most proud of our team’s discoveries – we have been able to identify early molecular events leading to the formation of lung cancer. Although we have had difficulties publishing this work, I think the project has revealed some really cool attributes of lung stem cell biology. Hopefully one day soon reviewers and journal editors will agree with me! I am also so proud that genetic profiling performed in our laboratory allowed for a patient to be enrolled in a clinical trial in Melbourne where they achieved response to the drug. It is not often your research directly helps patients and it felt amazing to contribute to this.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to you growing a career in STEMM?

I think the biggest obstacle will be securing stable funding for myself, and finding time to do inspiring science in the middle of a million fellowship and grant applications. The second biggest obstacle will most likely be maintaining a work/life balance. I see the culture of long hours and weekend work being very respected and almost expected from scientists, which I think unfairly disadvantages those with family commitments.

What motivated you to get involved in supporting women in STEMM?

I think it is important to advocate for change in order to make things easier for the next generation of women in STEMM. It’s a scary thing to consider the lost knowledge, discoveries and talent that occurs when women leave STEMM.

[Image attribution: Laura Galvis]

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