Fabienne Mackay

STEMM PROFILE: Professor Fabienne Mackay, PhD | Head, Biomedical Sciences School | University of Melbourne | Melbourne | VIC

mackay-f-labpage
Professor Fabienne Mackay [Image: University of Melbourne]

“So many large research grants awarded to teams that have not included a single woman as an investigator. Insisting on the inclusion of women as investigators, as part of the eligibility criteria would force future applicants to pay attention to the female talents around them”

Professor Fabienne Mackay is an immunologist who obtained her PhD in 1994 at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France.  Over the years she has acquired an international reputation for her highly cited work on cytokines from the TNF superfamily, fundamental B cell biology, autoimmunity and cancer.

In 1994, Fabienne joined BiogenIdec Inc in Boston where she developed inhibitors of TNF ligands and characterised the factor BAFF. In 2000, she joined the Garvan Institute in Sydney as a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow with a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) program grant. She was director of the Autoimmunity Research Unit. Her laboratory discovered the role of BAFF/BLyS as a key factor driving lupus. A BAFF inhibitor was approved by the FDA on March 9th 2011: the first new treatment for lupus in over 50 years.

In 2009, Fabienne became Chair of the Department of Immunology, Monash University. She is a NHMRC fellow and has authored over 131 articles/reviews/book chapters, many in high impact factor journals, with over 12,000 citations – an average of 101 citations per article.  In 2012, Fabienne received the Thomson Reuters Australia citation and innovation award and in 2014 she received a trophy from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris for outstanding contribution in education and research as an expatriate.  Her laboratory continues to focus on autoimmunity and has recently initiated an important funded research program on restoring immunity in cancer.

In 2015, Fabienne was appointed as the inaugural Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

What is the biggest challenge to all women pursuing a career in science?

Having a family, lack of sufficient childcare facilities and cost of childcare. Very few can afford a nanny at home to allow the occasional travel to a conference and early or late meetings at work. Not many have a family/parents nearby to help. Childcare for infants is very expensive and has a long waiting list in cities.

The other challenge is the advancement path for women. Women are in competition with men in all grant schemes and advancement programs. Men, generally (but not always), do not experience the same degree of career disruption. Women are automatically unfavorably compared to men in appointment’s committees because of the inevitable gap in their CV.

Considering research output versus opportunity as a way to mitigate the gap, is introducing the risk of minimizing the research output of men working full time, so we can move up women in the final ranking. The risk is to fix an injustice by introducing another.

It is pleasing to see that several men in senior positions are campaigning in support of women in Science, but active support is not yet uniform across all institutions. I do think Australia is making some progress on this issue and this is giving me some hope for future generations of women in Science.

How do we keep more females engaged in scientific careers? How do we retain women?

Testing women against women has never outraged anybody during Tennis tournaments, why not in Science? Similar to a different muscle mass dictating gender-specific Tennis competitions, should we not accept childbearing/breastfeeding as another physiological difference dictating a separate treatment of women in Science?

Judge women against women to support and promote the most talented, particularly early in their scientific career (childbearing age).

Similar to Tennis, this process would ensure gender balance in the competition.

If you could give one piece of advice to the current government what would it be?

Insist that applicants for large research grant demonstrate their support of young women in Science as part of their proposal. Gender balance should not be limited to the scientific program of conferences. So many large research grants awarded to teams that have not included a single woman as an investigator. Insisting on the inclusion of women as investigators, as part of the eligibility criteria would force future applicants to pay attention to the female talents around them.

What inspired you to science? Have you always liked science? What do you love most about science?

What inspired me about biomedical research: the possibility of understanding the cause of many diseases and the opportunity to discover novel biology enabling the development of a novel lifesaving therapy.

How do you cope with loss or rejection (e.g. rejected papers, non-funded grants, loss of personnel)?

I go to Collins street in the City and spend an extravagant amount of money on a pair of designer shoes. I have a large number of designer shoes….