Women in Research: Kate Secombe From Australia

Kate participated in the competition “Falling Walls Lab” in Berlin. Photo/Credit: Kate Sacombe

Kate from Australia is a PhD student at University of Adelaide, Australia.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

She researches gastrointestinal toxicity (i.e. diarrhoea) following cancer treatment. This is a debilitating issue that occurs in up to 80 percent of people having chemotherapy. She is working on determining the specific gut microbiome compositions that may increase or decrease your risk of developing gastrointestinal toxicity, and how they can predict toxicity before it occurs.

Enjoy the interview with Kate and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I first decided that I wanted to study biology as I had a big interest in healthcare and how we develop new treatment for various diseases. As I progressed, I was overwhelmed at the complexity of the human body and how much we still don’t know, so I wanted to keep going and find out more.

Who are your role models?

Kate in the lab. Photo/Credit: Kate Sacombe

I have been honoured to have many scientific role models beginning from my high school chemistry teacher whose classes were so much fun. Of course also my parents who have encouraged my interest in science from a young age. In my current laboratory I am lucky to have so many amazing women to look up to. My supervisors, A/Prof Joanne Bowen, Prof Rachel Gibson and Dr Janet Coller somehow manage a million competing priorities while excelling in their scientific careers. Previous PhD students in my lab Dr Hannah Wardill and Dr Ysabella Van Sebille have also been incredibly generous in giving their time to help me learn so much from them and they have also acted as mentors and sponsors giving me many opportunities to work on new projects during my PhD.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I completed a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science) at the University of Adelaide, while also doing a Diploma of Languages (Japanese). Following this I completed a Bachelor of Health Science (Honours). During this year I was placed in A/Prof Joanne Bowen’s lab and was my first exposure to a research laboratory environment. Both professionally and personally I got a huge amount out of this year, and continued to work as a research assistant in Joanne and Rachel’s labs for the next 18 months. During that time, I learnt many new scientific techniques, as well all the work that goes into managing a busy laboratory! I think one of the most important things I gained during my employment was a confidence in myself to carry out projects independently. After a year overseas travelling and working (in a resort not a lab!), I returned to the University of Adelaide and the Cancer Treatment Toxicities Group to begin my PhD. It’s been the biggest learning experience of my life and I am so grateful to have supervisors that support my love of extracurricular activities (from communication to conferences and internships)!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

During my time as a research assistant and continuing into my PhD I have been able to work on a project in conjunction with a pharmaceutical company to further characterise and understand one of their new products. I have found it so interesting to see how my pre-clinical work is used by the company to develop new clinical trials and to eventually help patients.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

In 2019 I participated in Falling Walls Lab in Berlin. In this competition you have a short amount of time to pitch how your research or idea can help to ‘break down a wall’ and benefit humanity. Being able to meet so many different people and talk about my work was so exciting and really satisfying.

What is a “day in the life” of Kate like?

As I write this I am still working from home 90 percent of the time due to social distancing requirements and COVID-19, so my day in the life at the moment is a bit different to usual. At the moment I am working really hard on writing up papers and trying to get my thesis somewhat together.

Kate Sacombe. Photo/Credit: Michael Mullan

I’ve also been working on a systematic review, so LOTS of reading. I tutor beginner levelHuman Biology courses online, so I’ve been able to continue that while at home. When I’m in the lab it is a bit more varied: checking on any mouse experiments, cutting and staining tissues slices or analysing microbial sequencing data.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I’m still unsure of exactly what path I will take following my PhD. I know that I love writing about science, collating evidence and reviewing literature, and also thinking about how scientific evidence can be used to change our world for the better. I’d love for my career to encompass all of those aspects.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like to do some research-adjacent activities like writing for a range of cancer and science based blogs and teaching undergraduate biology. Usually I would say I love to travel, but while I’ve had a bit more time at home than usual lately, I’ve been working on perfecting my brownie and cookie recipes! Apart from that I’ve been getting into disc golf as well.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Get as much information as you can, as early as you can, about how scientific and academic careers work. I found that until I started my PhD, I really didn’t understand how it all worked, and I think it’s really useful information to have. In addition, having people you can chat/celebrate/commiserate to both in and out of science is good. My PhD student friends have been invaluable for complaining about experiments that won’t work, while my non-PhD friends can remind me there’s more to life than the lab!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

Good question – I think the gut microbiome is probably going to be involved, but in what way, I’m not so sure yet!

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Big question, and a difficult one. It really needs to be a systemic fix to the academic system. The Women in STEM Ambassador program in Australia is doing some great work on this. They’ve recently produced a resource to help evaluate the many, many STEM gender equity programs that are around. I don’t think I have all the answers to this problem, but one key thing that does need to be kept in mind is intersectionality, so we increase opportunities and promotions for all women, no matter their race, sexuality or disability.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.

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