Meet a trio of forensic scientists, and PhD candidates, who are forging careers in biomedical engineering and changing the way we diagnose and treat head and neck cancer.
I grew up in Bathurst, which is three hours away over the mountains. Coming from a rural background, and a town of around 37,000, to UTS in the centre of Sydney was a shock to the system. The amount of people and all the noise were hard to get used to.
I was lucky to start working with Dayna and Fiona recently, who are also from different parts of Australia and could share the experience. We work well collaboratively and it’s inspiring to be able to help each other with our respective research projects. We’re always sharing techniques and brainstorming ideas.
I’ve always enjoyed investigating and finding out how things work. I did physics, chemistry and biology in Years 11 and 12 and when I was choosing university courses, I really liked the look of forensics at UTS.
Throughout my forensics degree we had subjects in molecular biology and biochemistry, which I found fascinating. That drove me to continue in those areas, particularly in molecular biology. When I was doing my honours I came across the Tran Lab in the School of Biomedical Engineering, which Fiona, Dayna and I are all now a part of. The Tran Lab’s research focuses on microRNAs, and particularly their role in head and neck cancers. I chose to complete my PhD in the group as I wanted to further the research I had begun in my honours year.
My PhD is looking at head and neck cancers, which includes the mouth, lips, throat, larynx, nose and salivary glands. Head and neck cancer is the sixth most prevalent cancer in the world. It’s estimated that nearly 5000 people in Australia were diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2017 and more than 1000 died from the disease.
I’m specialising in a type of molecule, called microRNA, and how they interact with each other in the growth of head and neck cancer. Ultimately, if we can create a network of these molecules and the genes they regulate, we can better understand how these pathways contribute to the development of disease. What is really exciting is the possibility of using this research to eventually personalise treatment and improve survival of head and neck cancer.
Meredith and I actually met in 2014 during UTS orientation for the Bachelor of Forensic Science, so we have known each other from the beginning. We then met Fiona when we were all part of the UTS Forensic Science Club in our final year of undergrad. Even though we weren’t very close friends in undergrad we have become so through working together as a team in the lab. It’s been quite hard and stressful for all of us to move away from our families and friends to a different city (I come from the Blue Mountains), so to have such strong support and to meet people in the same situation has been a life saver.
Similar to Meredith, I really enjoyed molecular biology and wanted to experience working in a lab – investigating more practical applications of the theory within the forensics degree. When I was looking at honours projects I found the Tran Lab, which was molecular based and also involved cancer research. If I can help to stop people suffering from this disease, that would be amazing.
Over the past decade, there has been an increasing incidence of oropharyngeal carcinomas (OPC), a subtype of head and neck cancer where the cancer forms in the tissues of the throat. Recently, infection of the human papilloma virus (HPV) has emerged as a major risk factor for OPC, infecting 60 to 70 per cent of these carcinomas. My work now is looking at HPV in head and neck cancers and the effects of the virus on particular genes.
My family originally came from the Philippines, but moved to the Gold Coast when I was two. I finished my Bachelor of Forensic Science at Bond University and wanted to spend some time experiencing life and travelling before I went back to study.
I looked around at different courses and saw UTS offered a Master of Science in Forensic Science and thought that would be a perfect chance to move to Sydney. I graduated last year and was looking for some experience working in a lab. I came across the Tran Lab and their work really inspired me. I saw a really great opportunity, so I worked as a volunteer research associate with them for a year before pursuing a PhD and I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the Translational Cancer Research Network.
My PhD is in biomedical engineering and I’m looking at the biological and genetic expression of particular molecules within the saliva of head and neck cancer patients. My aim is to develop a cost-effective kit that uses a person’s saliva to diagnose what type of head and neck cancer they have and what stage they’re at. It will be a cheap kit that people can basically spit into and then it can be sent off for testing.
Despite advances in treatments, the five-year survival rate of head and neck cancer patients remains less than 50 per cent, with late diagnosis being attributed to the poor prognosis. The sooner we can diagnose head and neck cancers, the greater the chance of surviving this disease, so I’m really excited about the potential impact of my studies.
Meredith and Dayna are so easy to get along with and the perfect women to go through the highs and lows of a PhD with. I feel very lucky to be working with them. Since joining the lab, we’ve all got together to raise funds for the Cancer Council NSW Daffodil Day. In 2016, the lab raised $2292, which was a fantastic result! The money is so important to support cancer research and people affected by cancer – and to know we’re making a difference in our research as well as fundraising is a good feeling.