erinna big
 Feb 10, 2018

Meet Dr Erinna Lee, PhD

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

What do you study at the ONJCRI?

Our lab is interested in understanding how a cell decides whether to live or die in times of stress or need. For example, when nutrients are temporarily low, our cells will trigger a cell survival program that essentially recycles its own components to generate the building blocks required for energy production. In contrast, when cells acquire genetic mutations, such as in many cancers, this would normally send a warning signal instructing the cell to kill itself before it does more damage to the whole organism. Many diseases arise when the ability to make these decisions go awry. These include cancer, neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases. We are trying to understand what creates these blocks in the decision-making process and develop drugs that will restore the ability of cells to employ the right life-death decision.

What are the specific challenges that you have faced as a woman in science, and what positive changes have you seen in the industry since you started your career?

It has been a long-standing statistic that while women make up around half of junior academics, only 20% are senior professors. I am very fortunate to be working in an era where fantastic initiatives are being implemented to ensure gender equity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I have witnessed and benefitted from many positive changes to encourage and help women in science continue both their journeys in life. For example, I have been involved in conference-organising committees where conscious decisions are made to ensure equal gender representation. Travel bursaries help women with young children attend international conferences so that they can share their exciting science around the world and cover the costs of childcare or having their children travel with them. In addition, programs such as ‘Superstars of STEM’ have been implemented, with the aim of creating role models for young women by increasing the public visibility of women in STEM.

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

These programs are making it easier for women to succeed in science as these initiatives are breaking down gender barriers and giving women opportunities to grow within their fields. Furthermore, moving up the career ladder tends to coincide with some of the most significant milestones in a woman’s life and such programs are making these transitions easier.

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

If you have a curious mind and love finding out about how things work or have a passion for helping people by finding cures for diseases, then a career in science may be something to consider. Tenacity is a key requirement and it is something that you must really love in order to pursue. Don’t be dissuaded if you stand out from the rest of the class and go against the status quo. The film Hidden Figures was particularly inspirational to me as it epitomised how women can make a difference to the world despite significant challenges and how actions speak louder than words in breaking down gender barriers.

I hear that you’ve amassed a massive following on Instagram under the handle @littleaquagirl, where you post photos of your own amigurumi pieces. Can you tell us a bit about amigurumi and why you like it so much?

Amigurumi is the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small, stuffed yarn creations! I instantly fell in love with the concept and am entirely self-taught. Thank goodness for YouTube! Perhaps it has to do with my day job as a scientist being very much based in the left brain and so requiring logical, analytical and objective thinking, whilst creating little amigurumi characters with stitches is more right-brained and allows me the freedom to translate my imagination into tangible creations. Having said that, there is a fair amount of math and systematic analysis required when creating amigurumi dolls! It is also a very rewarding feeling when someone else recreates a pattern that you designed. I think my citation record in amigurumi pattern design might be better than for my scientific publications!

What are you working on right now?

The lab is profiling different cancer types for the molecule that enables the survival of the cancer. Once identified, we can develop a drug that can disarm it and trigger death of the cancer cell. 

We have discovered that there is more than one pro-survival guardian in melanoma. This may explain why it has been tricky to cure but we now have insights into what it may take to treat this aggressive disease. Using this approach, we are working with scientists in the Translational Breast Cancer Program at ONJCRI to hopefully treat breast cancer that remains resistant to current treatments. Mesothelioma is another cancer that is essentially incurable, and we have now identified the specific combination of pro-survival proteins that need to be targeted to kill these tumour cells.

How do you see these studies being applied in the future?

This approach for treating cancer has already seen great success. In 2016, the very first drug that triggers death of a tumour cell by disarming the pro-survival guardian was approved and fast tracked by the Food and Drug Administration for use for the treatment of a blood cancer known as Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. Currently, an increasing number of such studies, including ours, are building on this momentum and hopefully we will see more cancer types being treated.

How will these help cancer patients?

There is realistic potential that cancers that are deemed untreatable by current medications, like mesothelioma, will benefit from this approach. As such drugs specifically target the survival factor of the cancer, we envisage that this will make for a more effective treatment strategy with reduced side effects.

Read more about the the Erinna's research here.