On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science,we’d like to introduce you to introduce you to Prof. Robin Anderson.
What is your role at the ONJCRI?
I lead the Breast Cancer Translational Research Program and I’m really interested in advanced metastatic disease that recurs in about 15-20% of the women who develop breast cancer. Metastasis is the major cause of death from breast cancer. We don’t have good therapies once the disease comes back. Initial treatment is really good - 80-85% of women who receive treatment go into long-term remission and are presumably cured, but there’s another 15-20% who develop metastatic disease and that’s usually fatal. So, we’re trying to understand why, how and when the cancer recurs, and how to treat it once is has returned.
What are the specific challenges that you have faced as a woman in science?
I haven’t really experienced a lot of challenges in that sense. The thing that I have experienced is the ‘Boy’s Club’. A lot of the senior people are men and don’t - or rather didn’t, as I think it’s changing now - seem interested in having a woman in senior leadership. I had an incident related to this growing awareness of there not being any women at the top. I was approached and told, “We’ve got an interview panel and we’ve just realised that we don’t have a woman on it.” I said, “I’m not going to be your panel’s token woman. If you’d wanted me on the panel, you would’ve asked me at the beginning, not only after realising that there wasn’t a woman there.” So, that was a case of discrimination. I think people are a much more conscious of gender discrimination nowadays.
You said that the ‘Boy’s Club’ mentality has been changing in recent years. What other positive changes have you seen for women in the industry since you started your career in science?
There are certainly some institutions around town where women receive positive discrimination. I’m only a fan of that up to a certain point. I think that you’ve really got to choose people based on their skills, expertise and suitability for the position. For example, some institutions now push for 50/50 male-female representation on every sitting panel or conference. To some extent I applaud that, so long as it’s not just for the sake of meeting a 50/50 ratio. It’s got to be judged on merits. There are simply fewer women than men who’ve reached the top echelon. That will change because the support that early-career women are getting now is tremendous. We had absolutely none of that when I was starting out in my career. So, I think that will change but it’s going to take another generation.
What needs to be done to make it easier for women to have better opportunities in science?
I think the drawbacks and difficulties for women are mainly to do with the balance of wanting a family and wanting a career. A lot of women postpone having a family to try to keep their career on track, so now there’s this whole generation of women who are having kids when they’re nudging 40, which is fine. But there needs to be more support for younger women while they’re having kids in their late 20s or 30s. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is a fantastic example. They are supporting young women by giving them research assistant support while they’re on maternity leave and putting a childcare centre in the building. They’re the sort of things that allow women to continue their research, along with the partner taking a greater share of the child-rearing. That’s also a big change from my generation - you now see a lot of fathers taking a year out to be the main child-carer. Just imagine that two generations ago - you would’ve never gotten a job again! I see it in my son. He does as much child-caring as his wife does. So that’s all very different and very positive. They’re the sort of changes in society that will help women sustain a good career. It just gets too hard otherwise. I went back to work when my kids were ten weeks old because if I hadn’t, I would’ve fallen behind, and so there was all this guilt about leaving them, as well as all the worry about keeping my research on track.
You’re the head of your own lab at the ONJCRI, the Metastasis Research Laboratory. What sort of responsibilities do you have over your team members?
I’m a very laid-back team leader. I think that the group leaders within the faculty and post-docs within the group need to be self-motivated, and if they can’t push themselves, then they’re not going to succeed in a career in science. I don’t stand over anyone and say, “You’re not working hard enough.” I might say, “If you want to continue your career in science, then you’d better pull your socks up.” But I’m not going to go any further than that because they’ve got to want to do it themselves, as there’s no point wielding a big stick. Just about everyone here is really motivated, however. It’s a unique profession and that’s what I love about it; the freedom to ask questions and explore things, money permitting! You go to work and you don’t have someone telling you, “After you’ve stacked all those shelves, go and count the bottles on the shelf.” You don’t have that. You come in, you say, “I thought about this experiment last night and I’m going to give it a go today.” I love that freedom. And if you don’t have that, then you won’t make it anyway. People must have a desire for discovery, and if they don’t have it, then they usually have to leave science and that’s probably for the best.
Do you ever miss being a junior scientist?
Oh, I’d love to do an experiment! Having said that, 10-15 years ago, I’d put on a lab coat and go out to the lab, do a little project, get it started and then all the paperwork and everything else would overwhelm me. And so, if anyone ever asked me what I was doing or expressed any interest, I’d tell them about what it was and the next thing you know, I’d dump it on that person to finish for me! After that, I realised that no one would ever ask me about what I was doing again! I’ve given up doing experiments now.
Do you have any advice for young women thinking of starting a career in science?
If it’s your passion, give it a go. Don’t worry about career at this stage; just stick your toe in the water and see if it’s something that you’re passionate about. You can’t worry about long-term careers anymore because careers come and go, with new ones being invented every week - things that we hadn’t heard about ten years ago. There’s always some sort of opportunity, even if it’s not at the bench doing research. I get summer students who think a life in the lab is for them, and by the end of the summer some of them say, “Well, thank you, but I’ve now realised that I hate lab work,” which is great! It’s important. You’ve really got to find out whether you like it or not. Some people do, some don’t. So just give it a go!
What are you working on right now?
A lot of things! We have a najor interest in identifying types of immunotherapy that might be effective in breast cancer. another major interest is in late recurrence of hormonally-responsive breast cancer, which makes up about 75% of all cases. If those women have a recurrence, it can be up to 20-25 years after their initial diagnosis. So, for that whole time, tumour cells have been lurking somewhere in the body, undetected, not impacting at all on the patient, but suddenly, for some unknown reason, they start expanding. This is one of the big unmet needs in this field. These women get their treatment, then go on endocrine therapy for five or ten years. They get to the end of ten years, there’s no sign of disease and they think they’re cured… and 90% of them are. But the incidence of recurrence of that disease keeps increasing. It’s still increasing even at 20 years or more after initial diagnosis. This is known as metastatic dormancy and we’re trying to model that in our pre-clinical research, so that we can understand this process and find a that keeps these tumour cells dormant.
Do you have a goal that you’re trying to achieve within that particular area of study?
The goal is to understand what it is that keeps the tumour cells dormant, and then apply a therapy to maintain them in that state and so prevent them from breaking out. We need to know how tumour cells hide in the body without growing; how they stay alive and why they start growing at some point in a person’s life. Endocrine therapies probably act to keep tumour cells dormant but when this therapy ends, there is still a risk of recurrence. Our goal is to develop a chronic therapy that will keep the cells dormant for the rest of the life of the person. Other people have talked about the opposite - using a therapy that will trigger them into growth and then using chemotherapy to kill them, but I find that a little bit scary. What if the chemotherapy doesn’t work?
How would this differ from the more traditional therapies that breast cancer patients receive?
Current methods are either targeted therapy - if you know that the tumour has an activating mutation in a kinase or some other oncogene - or sledgehammer chemotherapy, and so when these patients recur with metastatic disease, they tend to get the sledgehammer therapy. Occasionally, if the tumour is analysed with modern genomics, we might find that there’s a particular mutation for which there is a targeted therapy. Immunotherapies are now being tested in some breast cancer cases, but they’re not nearly as successful as with other types of cancer - probably because we don’t yet know how to use them properly in breast cancer. Most of the time the patients just get the sledgehammer chemotherapies that suppress the tumours for a while, but they will eventually develop resistance and take over.
Read more about Robin's research here.