Everyday researchers are working towards new discoveries and breakthroughs in cancer, but have you ever stopped to think how many are female?
Statistics show that less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women, and International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February is here to help change that.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science is focused on improving gender equality within the field and empower women and girls everywhere. A cause close to Ms Leske’s heart as a PhD student in clinical psychology at Flinders University, whose research area is in pyscho-oncology and in collaboration with Cancer Council SA.
Like many others, Ms Leske has been touched by cancer, including some of her family members and many close friends. In 2014, she was even a Youth Ambassador for Cancer Council SA.
In 2019, Ms Leske once again worked with Cancer Council SA for her Honours project, where she investigated psychological and social factors associated with delivery preferences for a healthy living after cancer program. Since then, Ms Leske has continued to work with Cancer Council SA on her PhD project, developing an online healthy living program for those who have completed cancer treatment.
To celebrate and shed a light on women in research and International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we invited Ms Leske to join us for a very special Q&A about her, her work and her thoughts about being among the minority in her field:
Q: How long have you been involved in the research sector for?
A: I have been involved in the research for the last two years.
Q: Briefly, what does your role/research entail?
A: I am currently working on my PhD project called ‘Developing an online healthy living program’. This project aims to develop an online healthy lifestyle program for people who have completed cancer treatment. We are involving a group of cancer survivors, health care professionals and people who are involved in cancer support to ensure that this program is developed specifically to meet the needs of those who have survived cancer.
Q: How did you get into science and research?
A: Research is something that I have been interested in doing for a long time. I was particularly interested in research in psychology because I believe it combines my passion for learning with my passion for helping people. However, during my undergraduate studies I could not decide whether I wanted to focus on my clinical training and become a psychologist or if I wanted to pursue a career in research. It was not until I was in my Honours year where I had the opportunity to take on a research project of my own that I truly discovered my passion for research. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy my first taste of research, but my supervisors encouraged me to do the PhD in clinical psychology, where I could combine my clinical training and research at the same time.
Q: Have you always had a passion for science?
A: Yes, definitely. I have this distinct memory from high school where I was told by that I was a ‘unique student’ because I wanted to take classes in physics and psychology. No other student wanted to this combination of classes, as even in school, psychology was not considered one of the science topics. It is hard to believe now, but I was torn between choosing to study physics or psychology at university because I thought that psychology would not have a large enough science component. In hindsight I am so glad that I chose the psychology path as it has given me opportunities to explore and further develop my passion in something as complex as human behaviour.
Q: Do you have a special reason to do what you do?
A: Growing up I always wanted to work in a career where I could help people and when my younger sister was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, I became increasingly interested in how living with a chronic health condition can impact our mental health. Cancer was always something I was particularly interested in because I think in some way, shape, or form everyone has been impacted by cancer. For me, I have had family and close friends diagnosed with cancer.
I also feel quite personally attached to the development of the online healthy living program because of my experience of having family and friends with cancer in rural areas. As I am from the country myself, I understand some of the access limitations that are associated with living in the regional and rural areas, and I can truly see the benefit that an online after cancer program can provide those who are in these disadvantaged areas. My hope is that cancer survivors who access this program will not feel forgotten and that we are all still here with them.
Q: What has been your most memorable moment in your career?
A: I am still very early in my career, so while I am excited about the road ahead, the most memorable moment in my career to date was the day that I found out that I got into the PhD in Clinical Psychology. Not only was this a major achievement and something that I had worked incredibly hard in to get into, but at only 22 years old, this marked the start of a very rewarding future throughout which I hope to make a difference to cancer survivors as well as those suffering through different walks of life.
Q: What is the best thing about your current research role?
A: I think the best thing about doing research in psychology is being able to work directly with people and hearing about what they have experienced and how this changes things for them. In my PhD project, I have had the opportunity to talk one on one with a variety of different people including cancer survivors and healthcare professionals working in oncology. I have found it incredibly rewarding to hear about how they overcame such a challenging time and what they are doing now to stay healthy. Also, the people that I have showed the initial design of the program to has been really excited, which makes me feel really excited.
Q: Do you have any goals for your work/career?
A: My first goal is to finish my PhD. After that I hope to continue working in the cancer space in both research and clinical psychology.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women?
A: As disappointing as that number is, I am not surprised. For a long time, women were not encouraged to pursue a career in research, but this is slowly changing. In some ways, we are very lucky in Australia, but I think we still have a long way to go in making sure there are enough opportunities for women in this space.
Q: How do you feel about being one of those ‘women in science’?
A: I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to pursue my career goals. However, I am also aware that I am lucky to be in the area of psychology, where in my cohort of post-graduates are comprised of mostly female researchers. I really admire women who have chosen to tackle research in areas like physics or mathematics, which are much more male dominated.
Q: Would you encourage other girls and women to seek out a career in science? Why?
A: If science and research is something, they are passionate about, I definitely would encourage other girls and women to seek out a career in science. It can be quite challenging, and you have to be prepared for that, but personally I have also found this experience very rewarding.
Because there are so many different areas in science, I think it offers so many different career pathways and opportunities to research different things. Even just in the field of psychology, there is such a wide range of areas you can go into. Some examples might be testing the effectiveness of treatments for mental health conditions, looking at how people interact with their environment, investigating how the brain works, or determining the genetic risk of certain mental health conditions and there are so many more. I am sure every other field of science is the same. Once COVID-19 has settles down, being in research also offers opportunities to travel and meet fascinating people.
Q: If there are any girls or women reading this who are thinking about a career in science and research, what would your advice be to them?
A: I think something that I wish I had known before pursuing a career in research is how much you will need to put yourself out there. The research space is all about sharing your work with the world, which can be both fantastic and intimidating at the same time. Personally, I have always had trouble when it comes to public speaking and it is something I am still working on. If this is something that you also have some difficulty with, my suggestion is to keep practicing whenever you can and always ask for feedback about how you can improve.
To find out more about the incredible work of other women in research working every day with your support to bring a cancer free future closer, click here.