Celebrating International Women’s Day
Historically science and research were dominated by men. Francis Crick and James Watson are commonly known to have discovered the structure of DNA but the important work of Rosalind Franklin that aided this discovery is often overlooked. Luckily, this is slowly changing.
The male/female divide
Today more and more women are obtaining PhDs, post-doctoral positions and becoming very successful research group leaders. In fact, Worldwide Cancer Research is currently funding 49 internationally renowned female group leaders all around the world from Dr Meredith O’Keeffe in Australia to Dr Irene Bijnsdorp in the Netherlands and Dr Nuría Malats in Spain to name just a few. We are proud to fund both eminent and up and coming researchers. In fact, almost two thirds of the grants we have funded to allow researchers to set up their own groups, have been awarded to women.
A research lifeline
“If it hadn't been for this Worldwide Cancer Research grant, I would probably be quitting science,” Dr Anna Git told us upon hearing her grant application had been successful. This grant has enabled her to become an independent researcher and set up her own group. Funding for research is getting harder and harder to obtain, and the Worldwide Cancer Research funding rate has never been lower. So it is even more remarkable that Dr Git has managed this feat whilst working part-time. We caught up with her today, on the International Women’s Day to find out more.
You recently received a grant of £144,264 for your research into breast cancer; can you tell us a bit more about this work?
Among the greatest challenges in the treatment of breast cancer is the resistance to chemotherapy. This often happens because the cancer increases the abundance of molecules that can inactivate the drug or kick it out of the cell.
I am studying RNA, a temporary copy of a small section of DNA. I am particularly interested in short RNAs, called Vault RNAs (vtRNAs) of which there are several types. Two of these can attach to and seclude certain chemotherapy drugs, preventing their activity. Encouraging results have shown that altering the amount of vtRNAs in some lab-grown cancer cells substantially altered the cells' response to chemotherapy, making it more effective.
I want to test how vtRNAs attach to a broad selection of drugs. I will also alter vtRNA levels inside cells to affect drug resistance in models of different types of breast cancer. Finally, I will identify proteins that recognise vtRNAs to understand how vtRNAs lead to drug resistance.
I hope that if I can understand which tumours are resistant to which chemotherapy, I can help improve many patients’ quality of life. It could mean that patients who would never respond to treatment avoid futile toxicity from the drugs and alternative treatments could be used much earlier on.
Is this your first ever grant as a group leader?
Yes, I am slightly older than most other new group leaders but this is because of my life choices. After completing my PhD and one full-time postdoctoral 3-year contract, I moved to my previous lab in January 2004. While there I had my three children, (aged 10, 9 and 5 years old). After returning from my first maternity leave I chose to work part time (currently 2.5 days a week) to enable me to take an active part in my children's life, while keeping abreast of the fast-moving field of molecular medicine.
My main project was published in the world-leading journal Nature in 2013. I have recently published the first manuscript where I am the last-author. This means that I managed the project rather than performed all of the work myself. Now, as my youngest child is at school, I am eager to reapply myself more fully to breast cancer research.
How do you manage to ensure you have a good work-life balance?
Although I am passionate about, and committed to, breast cancer research, I will still be working part-time (4 days a week) on my grant so I can continue to meet my childcare responsibilities.
If it hadn't been for this Worldwide Cancer Research grant, I would probably be quitting science - not many funding bodies would even accept my application, so you deserve a lot of credit for your open-mindedness!
Being a female researcher can be tough, especially if you have a family. But if you have good ideas and work hard I am proof that it can be done.
Advice for females on International Women's Day
These thoughts are echoed by another grant holder, Dr Khuloud Al-Jamal at Kings College, London, who told us “For a woman in science it can be challenging, I think especially if you are young as well, sometimes you might have to work harder to prove yourself. But I like to take it positively. Once you show your skills and your competence- the good science that you do, it speaks for itself.
These are sound words of advice, especially on International Women's Day. We are proud to be supporting so many young women in science, hopefully all role models for a future generation of cancer researchers.