The University of Queensland
Genomics of Reproductive Disorders

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:

SUMMARY

I work in a world leading team researching endometriosis, one of the most common underrepresented medical issues facing Australian women. Endometriosis is a complex disease where both environmental and genetic factors contribute to a person’s risk of developing the disorder. I am the lead computational biologist in the Genomics of Reproductive Disorders (GRD) research group at The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). My research aims to find differences in women’s DNA that increases their risk of endometriosis and understand how these differences increase the risk of disease. In the last five years, I have worked with colleagues across Australia, and across the world, to understand how genes and biological pathways are affected by specific genetic risk factors. I am now turning my focus to the discovery of new diagnostic tools and effective new treatments for endometriosis.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Endometriosis is a significant burden on patients, the medical system and the economy. 1 in 9 Australian women live with endometriosis, a chronic gynaecological disease that can cause severe pelvic pain and infertility. Endometriosis takes an average of 7 to 12 years to diagnose and costs the Queensland economy more than $1.5 billion dollars a year. There is an urgent need for more effective methods of early diagnosis. Understanding factors contributing to endometriosis allow us to work towards better diagnosis and personalised treatments and has the potential to benefit the 120 thousand women in Queensland suffering from this chronic disease.

My research aims to reduce the burden of disease for endometriosis sufferers by; improving diagnostic procedures, endometriosis management and data capture. These are all major objectives of the Australian Government’s 2018 National Action Plan for Endometriosis. Over the last 5 years, I have introduced and led sophisticated analyses that have expanded knowledge of the regulation of genes in human endometrium, a vital tissue for endometriosis research. I play a leading role in national and international consortia and through these collaborations have identified novel genetic risk factors for endometriosis and genes linked to endometriosis. This knowledge provides the evidence base for new diagnostic support tools and treatment pathways within Queensland. My lab leads a Queensland alliance of clinicians, scientists, hospitals and patient advocate groups. Together with clinicians at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital (RBWH) we coordinate one of the largest recruitments of women with endometriosis in Australia. We collect valuable symptom and clinical data and samples from over 300 women a year and have established vital data infrastructure. Clinicians at RBWH now implement new patient questionnaires and reports generated by this program to aid patient care.

I am currently collaborating with QENDO, the longest running patient support group for endometriosis in Australia, using a community research-based approach to improve the lives of women suffering from endometriosis by analysing data from their mobile application that can track endometriosis symptoms. This project showcases my drive to increase community participation in citizen science within Queensland to contribute to scientific discovery.

I have been successful in obtaining significant funding for endometriosis research within Queensland. I am a chief investigator on the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) funded ($1.9 million) Genetic variants, early life exposures, and longitudinal endometriosis symptoms study which will use, and generate data, from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) to advance our understanding of the underlying factors in early life and adolescence, and of the causal pathways that contribute to the development and progression of endometriosis. The findings will be translated into clinically useful tools, for use within Queensland and nationally, an endometriosis risk calculator and improved clinical guidelines, and evidence based information to provide relevant health advice for women.

The knowledge and tools generated by my research has the potential to shift the paradigm from generalised treatments to earlier diagnosis and more personalised endometriosis management to promote better outcomes for women in Queensland impacted by this chronic condition.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)
I am a good role model because I show women and girls that they are capable of a career in STEM and capable of making a difference. I am passionate about encouraging, and providing opportunities for, women and girls to develop their skills and pursue a career in STEM.

I am committed to increasing the number of women in STEM by actively recruiting students to undertake projects within our group in molecular and computational genetics and strengthening their skills and experience in leadership and project management. I have mentored and trained many graduate students including seven women looking to pursue a career in science. I have been primary supervisor for six students (2 current, 2 completions, 2 summer interns) and associate supervisor for four students (3 current and 1 completion). I played an important supervisory role and provided computational training for four female students who have successfully published their work. One female masters student, went on to a role as a bioinformatics specialist at the Genome Institute of Singapore.

I am able to show future researchers the importance, and value, of working with the community to achieve better outcomes and new discoveries. My work with QENDO has raised awareness for endometriosis, endometriosis research and has resulted in new collaborative projects that have the potential to improve our understanding of endometriosis and develop tools to aid diagnosis and disease management.

The funding landscape for early career researchers is limited and highly competitive, with many hurdles. I dedicate time to supervise and mentor female PhD students, providing them with the skills needed to overcome these challenges and navigate a research pathway. I use scientific and community engagement to advocate for more funding for early career scientists to ensure that the next generation of female scientists is not lost. Such a loss could leave a gap in researchers dedicated to research in endometriosis, further limiting future scientific discovery in a disease that affects so many women.  

My passion for studying endometriosis has come from my studies as an animal scientist where I developed a real passion for genetics and realised that I could use genetics to understand, treat and prevent diseases in people. Having witnessed the difficult endometriosis journeys of strong and courageous women in my family, I was inspired to take on the challenge of research in endometriosis. Rather than be the next generation in my family to suffer at the hands of this disease, I want to be the one who takes it on. I hope that I can show young researchers that passion for science can inspire and empower you to make a difference.

It is important to see representation of women in STEM and ensure that women are given the opportunity to use their diverse range of skills, critical thinking and passion to solve the problems facing society. I am dedicated to building research capacity for women’s health in QLD and to support the next generation of female researchers to find answers for the thousands of women across QLD.
 
ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

Endometriosis effects as many women as diabetes and asthma yet it has not received the same level of attention or funding, leaving women to suffer in silence. As such, it is particularly important that I engage with both the scientific and non-scientific community to increase awareness and ensure that research in this area can continue and that the next generation of researchers are supported.

I work closely with patient support groups within Queensland to promote awareness and encourage support for endometriosis. My continued engagement with QENDO allows me to connect with women with endometriosis, inspiring me to push ahead and ensure that my research remains patient focused. My engagement with QENDO spans public seminars and events and collaborative research projects. I also engage with other members of the community to promote STEM in annual ‘Meet the Researcher’ events at the IMB, providing tours of the lab to interested members of the public and virtual seminars, attended by over 50 members of the community, where I am able to promote our research and ways in which the community can get involved. In 2021 I was also involved in conversations with the CEO of Netball Queensland to discuss ways in which we could partner to increase awareness of the endometriosis in women’s sport and promote our research moving forward. Together this collaboration with QENDO and public engagement increases community participation in science and aims to grow scientific literacy.

I have also participated in several media interviews [Nine News, The Guardian, The Australian, Herald Sun] to promote endometriosis awareness month and the quality and importance of our research to the broader community. I was also able to use these media platforms to highlight the challenges faced by early career researchers in the field.

I equally dedicate time to engagement with the scientific community. I regularly participate in both national and international conferences to increase awareness of the University of Queensland’s great science and generate opportunities for engagement with scientists. I am also an invited speaker/tutor for the 2022 Genetics & Genomics Winter School for statistical and computational methods at The University of Queensland, where I will be teaching modules on computational methods in genetics and genomics for students and early career scientists.

I am a member of the Women’s Health Research Translation and Impact Network (WHRTIN) Queensland and the local Endometriosis Network, Queensland (EndoNet). EndoNet was established to facilitate research, education and dissemination of information for women, researchers, and health care professionals working in the field. EndoNet is an opportunity to explore the work currently performed around the state, to collaborate on research and to set educational and research priorities. Through this network I have been able to form new collaborations with researchers at QUT to support the work of a female masters student investigating proteins involved in endometriosis.

Through engagement I aim to generate, greater awareness of the importance of endometriosis research, opportunities for community participation in science, and more support for women pursuing a career in STEM.


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