Feb 10, 2018

Meet Dr Ashwini Chand, PhD

On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’d like to introduce you to Dr Ashwini Chand, PhD.

What is your role at the ONJCRI?

I am a Group Leader in the Cancer and Inflammation Program, where the research focus is on studying the role of inflammation and how that might be contributing to cancer development. The lab is interested in gastrointestinal cancer models, which I have worked on since I started in the lab three years ago. I also work on breast cancer models and our focus here is on advanced cancers and, in particular, metastasis.

What are the specific challenges that you have faced as a woman in science?

I think that the most recent one would be having children and trying to balance my family life as a mother and keep my career progressing.

What’s it like juggling motherhood with a presumably very busy career in science?

I’m time-poor and I find that everything runs to a tight schedule. If anything goes off-kilter, it becomes difficult, but science requires very long hours and if you have children, you can’t stay in the lab until 10pm, so I have to make sure that everything fits well. I guess that other challenges related to having kids would be a) having to take time off work when you have them initially and then b) not being able to go to all the international conferences that you may have otherwise gone to. Maybe it’s just the nature of being a mum. Your kids are, at least in their younger years, dependent on you, so I’d say that’s the biggest challenge facing a woman in science, in not being able to spend the time to promote your science in order to gain recognition for your work. Another challenge would be that there are inherent unconscious biases that occur in science and, I’m sure, in other workplaces as well. For example, there are studies that show that students, if asked to vote for a choice of professor, will tend to choose a male, so it’s sort of there, but I think that those inherent attitudes are going to change with time. They’re already beginning to change.

On that note, what positive changes have you seen for women in the industry since you started your career in science?

A lot. It’s just been great. I’ve been very lucky to have good mentors who’ve all been supportive through my biggest challenge, which has been motherhood, and I’ve had a very flexible workplace arrangement, which has been great.

What needs to be done to make it easier for women to have more opportunities in science?

There needs to be continuous development in supporting women who return to work after having children; providing more opportunities for leadership; and also recognising that women interact with and drive things in a different fashion to men. A lot of leadership qualities are defined from male leaders, so shifting that idea and stating that, for example, collaboration and discussion to arrive at a solution are also signs of leadership, is important. So too is acknowledging the different types of leader. This would make for the emergence of more female leaders, more role models.

Do you have any advice for young women thinking of starting a career in science?

Teachers should be really encouraging. It’s hard to say without being cheesy, but for girls, it’s really looking to be confident and never doubting yourself. Girls tend to doubt themselves much more than boys, so don’t doubt yourself and know that you can do anything you want. There are many good role models for girls these days.

Are your kids showing an interest in science yet?

One is! He just turned five and for his birthday he asked me for a microscope. I was like ‘what?!’

Did he get it?

Yes, he did, and he loves it! I give them more information about science than other people do, so they’re really into it, but science is all around and I think that the public these days is more aware of it. It influences their decision-making.

What are you working on right now?

My interest is in identifying what drugs are already being used in the clinics and then repurposing them as therapeutics for cancer. My work has identified a drug that was developed for the treatment of osteoporosis and we’ve shown that it’s actually beneficial in reducing tumour growth in the gastrointestinal cancer models that we have.

Will that treatment be utilised in cancer patients soon?

Yes. I want to use drugs that are already in use in patients so, while it’s approved and given to women with osteoporosis, which mainly occurs post-menopause, it hasn’t been used as an anti-cancer agent per say yet. Drug repurposing doesn’t mean that it’s just going to go into the clinic straight away either. You need to do a trial with cancer patients as well. So, I would say that it’s still an experimental therapeutic but it’s a step closer than, say, discovering a drug from the start.

How would this differ from the more traditional therapies that cancer patients receive?

We know that chemotherapy works and we know that, at least for breast cancer, endocrine therapies work as well. So, any new treatment is going to complement existing ones and anything that alleviates the current side-effects of treatments would ultimately be beneficial.

Read more about Ashwini's research here.