Anna has done such a brilliant job answering our curator questions, I don’t think you need much from our end, so firstly:
How and why did you end up in science?
I was always a curious child and I was extremely fortunate to have parents who nurtured and fostered that curiosity. I loved reading anything I could get my hands on. Ironically, I did not begin to love science until I studied it in University. As a child, I much preferred history and literature and wanted to study philosophy and have great discussions. I was at odds as to what to “become” when I was finishing high school and floated from being a teacher to perhaps study science, given that there appeared to be a lot of fluidity surrounding it and it didn’t seem quite so definite. I “dabbled” in science. I did at work placement at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), trying to identify the presence of methanogens, bacteria that produce methane gas, from cow stomach samples. The title of the poster I presented was “SAVE THE WORLD – STOP COWS FARTING!” Emissions from agricultural livestock account for a large proportion of the gases that contribute to climate change. I attended the Siemens Science Camp and participated in the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Titration Competition (although I hated chemistry!).
However, I never had grand plans to become a scientist. On the advice of my dad, I decided to pursue biochemistry as it was apparently the hot topic in science at the time (it wasn’t – I think he was confusing it with genomics, as the genome sequencing project was beginning to churn out results I was accepted into a Bachelor of Science program at the University of Western Australia – and fell in love.
Due to family reasons, I moved from Perth in Western Australia, to Brisbane in Queensland, on the East Coast of Australia and finished the majority of my Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland.
I was enthralled by the theoretical work, the sharp realization of what we do know … and the wide gap of what we do not understand. This gap only got wider the more I studied. I felt like my eyes had been flung open. But most of all, I fell in love with the people. Young, bright students like myself who loved nothing more than to sit around during lunch and argue about science and the world around them. I was okay at lab work and passed my classes – but the real spark came when I did an independent research project. I was fortunate enough to do several projects, one analysing mouse brain sections at the lab of Prof. Linda Richards at the Queensland Brain Institute and another, a computational project predicting locations of splicing along the BRCA2 gene with Prof. Melissa Brown. I joined Melissa’s lab as an undergraduate Honours student (a practical year between undergrad and PhD in Australia) and following a relatively successful year, started my PhD with Melissa.
During my PhD, I investigated potential molecular mechanisms by which Brca1 mutations could cause breast cancer. Mutations in the two breast cancer susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, were the two biggest genetic determinants of breast cancer risk. However, it is still relatively unknown as to why mutations in BRCA1 causes an increase in breast cancer risk. Using a mouse models that had a disruption in the Brca1 gene, that caused similar effects as seen in humans with BRCA1 mutations, I tried to identify genes that could co-operate and help Brca1 in turning cells in the mammary gland into ones that could form tumours.
At the conclusion of my PhD, I moved to Boston, USA to do post-doctoral research at Tufts University with Associate Professor Charlotte Kuperwasser, working in the field of breast cancer.
Why did you choose your current field, and what keeps you there?
I chose breast cancer because there is so much we still do not know about it and over 10% of females will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. What keeps me in this field is the dynamic nature – discoveries are constantly being made, forcing us to re-think previous hypotheses, there are still many gaps that we need to fill and a huge need to fill them. We are only really beginning to understand just how complex breast cancer as a disease is.
Tell us about your work, and why people should be interested in it?
I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University in Boston, MA, working on identifying the genetic cues that determine lineage commitment within the mammary gland and how that pertains to tumorigenesis. In particular, we have a focus on stem and progenitor cell populations and how that determines the type of breast cancer that occurs.
Over a decade ago, scientists profiled the expression of genes from a series of breast cancer samples and noticed they could use this information to separate them into a number of groups. These groups could also determine how lethal the tumour might be. The luminal and basal breast cancer subtypes expressed genes that are also expressed on normal luminal and basal cells found in the mammary gland. From this, it was hypothesised that perhaps luminal-type tumours could arise from luminal cells and basal tumours from basal cells. This was significant because the basal-type breast cancers are very aggressive, have a poor prognosis and cannot be treated with targeted drugs, like luminal-type tumours can.
However, experiments conducted by my current lab and others around the world several years ago, demonstrated that inducing tumours in basal cells didn’t create basal-type tumours, it caused the formation of rare forms tumours. In contrast, inducing tumours in luminal progenitor cells could form commonly found tumours, including ones that were basal in nature. This suggests that the cell population within the mammary gland that is disrupted and gives rise to mammary tumours may be the luminal progenitor cells.
Our lab is very interested in what factors could cause luminal progenitor cells to transform into tumour cells.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I am a member of the Tufts Postdoctoral Association, we are trying to revive the organization and organize social and career-orientated events to enrich the postdoctoral experience of postdocs at Tufts University.
I am also hoping to start teaching again. I was the head lab tutor for several undergraduate courses at the University of Queensland in Australia and I loved trying to spread the word of science!
I am hoping to also be able to work on my fledgling blog!
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I love cooking and experimenting with recipes. I tend to go through stages of different types of recipes and styles. My PhD lab appreciated the cheesecake phase that lasted over a year! I also love reading and use my time commuting to work to read everything from fantasy novels to non-fictional books about the economy (I highly recommend Flash Boys about high frequency trading!).
How would you describe your ideal day off?
Sleeping in, then making a delicious, fresh lunch followed by a walk and catching up with friends over a few drinks.
Please welcome Anna to RealScientists!