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International Women’s Day, held on Monday 8 March, is a global day to celebrate all women, in all their diversities. This year, we sat down with leading cancer researcher Professor Deborah White, funded through Cancer Council Beat Cancer Project Principal, to discuss her work, her achievements and what it means to be a woman leading the way and making change.

Q: How long have you been involved in cancer research? How did you get into a career as a cancer researcher?

A: I worked as a technician in diagnostic haematology straight from school, while I studied part-time. Being placed in a haematology lab was somewhat random, that was where there was a vacancy, in those days you applied and were ‘placed’. I loved haematology and from then on knew I wanted to continue to work in the field. I worked in diagnostics and assay development for a few years, before taking a job in molecular biology (in malignant haematology). This was over 30 years ago and I am still going!

I continued to study, and then embarked on a PhD in Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) with Professor Tim Hughes. This was really when tyrosine kinase inhibitors (targeted therapies) first came into use, and my PhD was essentially looking at the varied response of patients with CML and developing biomarkers to predict patient response. A couple of years after I completed my PhD, I took the brave step to start my own lab in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia research. This married my areas of strength: genomics and molecular biology and translational research /biomarker development/Precision Medicine (working on samples from patients).

Q: Briefly, can you explain your research and what you are working to achieve?

A: Very simply put, the work of my group is centered around understanding what causes Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), what genes are involved and how/if we can target them to ensure each patient receives the best possible treatment—with minimal toxicity—and has the opportunity to live a long and healthy life. ALL is a disease that is most prevalent in children under 10 years. No child, or adult, should lose their life to ALL and we work daily to do everything we can to improve outcomes.

Q: Do you have a special reason to do what you do?

A: However corny it sounds, I always wanted a job that made a difference. When I was younger, I didn’t really know specifically what that was…but once I understood more about cancer/leukaemia and worked in the area I knew that’s where my passion was. I loved working in labs doing all sorts of cool experiments BUT if it wasn’t patient related, then I knew I couldn’t do it long term. I had to be in translational (patient related) research.

Q: Women make up less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide, in light on International Women’s Day 2021, can you share with us what it means to you to be a woman in research?

A: I am one of the lucky (in part) ones I think. I was always well supported to further my career/study at school. I was one of only two girls at high school that did the suicide five (maths one and two, physics, chemistry and english). I have had great mentors/supporters throughout my early and academic career; Prof Tim Hughes and Prof Steve Wesselingh, who recruited me to move to SAHMRI in a leadership role— and Em Prof Kerryn Williams, who pushes me in Grant/Fellowship applications to be the very best me I can be, and have the confidence let people know. Imposter syndrome is alive and well in many of us.

For me being a successful woman in research hasn’t been a great deal different (in a work sense) to being a successful male. Emphasis here on successful. It’s a really hard road for both to get to this stage, but more complicated for women in many, now well documented, ways.

I was lucky in my early career that I was rostered after-hours/weekends/on call, so I was very familiar early on that work was not 9.00 am – 5.00 pm, five days per week. It remains a very long way from that now. If you want a career in cancer research then it has to be much more than a job. As someone said to me after I gave a public lecture… “this is your passion, not just your work”.

Rightly or wrongly, it has to be. I am married, have two grown children and am a grandma. My husband—also a workaholic—has been a great support and has always ‘shared the load’. I worked part-time for eight years after the birth of my second son, who has a chronic illness. It was my choice, but not all would or could make the same decision. It certainly slowed my career significantly, but I was lucky. I was in an environment that when things normalised and I was able to return to full-time work and was well supported to do so. We need to ensure that everyone has this support, but this is much more complex now with current funding shortfalls than it was back then, and this needs to change.

Research doesn’t stop—if you stop then someone else in another lab/part of the world will get that grant or write that paper. It’s a highly competitive field, and in truth it has to be. We are talking about cancer here, a deadly disease that needs to be researched. But what we must ensure is that we have an ‘even playing field’ that doesn’t disadvantage any researcher.

Q: The theme of International Women’s Day this year is ‘‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’’, what is your message other female cancer researchers who want to become leaders in their field?

A: My personal challenge is to ensure those I mentor and teach become the very best person they can be. We talk a lot about expectations for them both personally and within the job they aspire to. We talk a lot about setting goals that are achievable within the environment in which they work and live, as well as about working smarter and finding/setting personal limits for them. I can’t significantly change the professional requirements around being a research leader, at least not quickly, but I can make sure that my staff/mentees are recognised for who they are, for their strengths and that they personally recognise their own abilities. Importantly, we must ensure that they are not disadvantaged because they are a woman.

I am on the NHMRC Women in Health Science (WiHS) Committee and we work very hard to make changes to ensure that women are not disadvantaged on the basis of gender, and that things that largely impact them more than men—such as childbearing/raising etc—are not seen as negatives but are appropriately accounted for in track records. It is a slow-moving train, but it has certainly left the station!

I do look forward to the day that we see track records from both men and women that show career disruptions for child rearing. This will be an indication that we as a society are breaking stereotypical barriers. I think this is still a little way off.

As my group will attest (not all with a smile), I think there is always a place for disruption and change. COVID provided us with the opportunity to run the best (with many caveats) “experiment” in changing workflows that we could have run. It gave us all an opportunity to assess our response to working from home. I have seen data analysed and papers written (some now in print) that we had talked about for way too long! I have also seen staff struggle to retain focus and productivity. This speaks to both human nature and the nature of particular roles.

Q: To date, what are your greatest achievements as a cancer researcher?

A: Personally, being granted Fellowships (NHMRC and Beat Cancer) that recognise the importance of my work as a leader in the field of cancer research. Being awarded the NHMRC Research Excellence Award and the Beat Cancer Women in Leadership award added to this recognition that what I am doing is worthwhile.

From a research perspective, it’s about achieving goals, proving hypotheses and, because I work in translational cancer research, it’s about seeing the work we do translate to the clinic to help with the understanding of patients’ leukaemia, and possible treatment options. We still have a way to go, but in many areas we have had a significant impact.

Finally, from a supervisory point of view it’s about training and mentoring the next generation of staff and students to achieve their personal goals.

Q: You recently received a ‘Women in Leadership Award’ for your work, what does that mean to you?

A: It was great to be recognised by this award. We don’t do this job for recognition, but it is a tough road and the occasional bit of recognition for what we have achieved so far is a nice feeling. Any award also lets staff know that there are rewards along the way and that there are things to aspire to. Finally, it has allowed me to employ and kickstart the career one of my amazing female PhD students to work with me on a project that will (fingers crossed) generate new publications, new funding and her continued employment—that is also a great feeling!

Q: Would you ‘challenge’ South Australians to support cancer research by making a donation and supporting work like yours? Why? What difference does the support of the community make to researchers like you?

A: Research funding is incredibly tight and incredibly competitive. There is quite simply not enough to support our best researchers and research projects. It is a very, very tough environment for young researchers, with great talent and ideas. These researchers face a very tenuous future at the moment, and that is sad both for them, their teachers, advocates and mentors, but also for the field as a whole.

We need to support and build the next generation of researchers, otherwise the pipeline becomes very leaky, as does the future of Australian research. Philanthropy is critical to the medical research sector. It supports new projects to provide essential data that will underpin future funding in areas of critical need. It can support the generation of data that will lead directly to clinical translation. It can support our brightest new investigators to get on the road to stellar research careers.

Importantly, involvement of the community and an empowerment of the community to be involved, builds a positive ethos. In my experience, donors really enjoy having some personal involvement in cancer research, in helping to ‘make a difference’. Cancer Council SA is very good at bringing together researchers and donors at events, via newsletters and Daffodil Day call-outs. I have been involved in all of these at various times and they are a win-win for both researchers and donors.

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, visit the Beat Cancer Project Website.