New territory for Vanessa Vaughan

Research news
23 October 2012
If only all PhD students were as motivated, says Dr Paul Lewandowski.

Nobody could ever accuse Vanessa Vaughan of being afraid to make the first move - or the big one.

She came to Deakin from Alice Springs in Central Australia, never having been to Victoria before.

“I was largely drawn to Deakin to undertake a Bachelor of Forensic Science due to the research calibre of the lecturers in that course,” she said.

“In 2007, I transferred into Bachelor of Science, Forensic Biology, to focus more on molecular biology and physiology.

“Paul Lewandowski was one of our lecturers for Molecular Biology Techniques in my third year.

“He mentioned a number of interesting projects he had going.

“These caught my interest as I was starting to look at honours options.

“With his support I undertook a Victorian Cancer Council Summer Studentship in his lab group, becoming familiar with the various techniques, and the project he was running looking at cancer cachexia.

“I became very passionate about the project, and joined the Lewandowski group as an honours student in 2009.”
Cancer cachexia is the loss of body mass often associated with cancer sufferers, particularly towards the end of the lives.

Despite gaining first –class honours for her project “The role of free radical production in skeletal muscle degeneration in cancer-induced cachexia”, Vanessa missed out on a scholarship to do her PhD.

But the passion still burned.

So she got a full-time job “in hospitality”, that euphemism well known to many students for long, hard hours of slog in bars and restaurants, and began doing the research work anyway on a new project that looked at the use of a purified form of fish oil, Eicosapentaenoic Acid or EPA, and oxypurinol, a enzyme inhibitor used to treat gout, in the treatment of cancer cachexia.

“EPA has been previously shown to reduce inflammation, increase antioxidant function, and decrease the damage caused by free radicals in patients with cachexia,” she said.

“It has also been shown to have beneficial effects during chemotherapy, and additional bonus to patients with cancer.

“Oxypurinol works specifically on an enzyme called xanthine oxdioreductase (XOR), which we had previously discovered to be higher in cancer cachexia than in healthy patients.

“XOR creates free radicals as a byproduct of another reaction, the main product of which may also be contributing to the inflammation seen in cachexia.

“By combining these two treatments, we hope to create a viable treatment option, in addition to current therapies, that will help improve quality of life for patients with cachexia.”

In her spare time, such as it was, she went about filling in grant applications and eventually won a Victorian Cancer Council Scholarship, one that comfortably attracts the prized academic epithet of prestigious.

“I really enjoyed doing research as part of my honours and I was really determined to keep working towards a PhD,” Vanessa said.

“I worked five days in hospitality, and then spent the other two days on my research.

“Yes it was tough, and there were times when I felt like chucking it all in, particularly if I didn’t get funding, but I guess I am a pretty determined person.”

The combination of her excellent research and single-minded determination has not been lost of the person who first introduced her to the world of research, and who is now her supervisor, Dr Paul Lewandowski, from Deakin’s Medical School.

“Vanessa joined my research group as an ambitious but easy going summer scholarship student at the end of her third year,” he said.

“Despite a less than ideal experience over the summer with lab methods that did not work most of the time, she stuck with my group’s work into cancer cachexia and completed a successful honours year achieving a first class honours mark.

“Unfortunately Vanessa did not receive a PhD scholarship, but to her credit made the bold decision to start her PhD on a part-time basis while working long hours in hospitality to support herself.

“Over the course of her first year as a PhD student she still managed to carry out a substantial series of animal experiments that have not only contributed to her PhD but have provided tissues for analysis used by another PhD student and three honours students.

“However, it was when she won the VCA scholarship and had the ability to work full time on her project that I really saw the lights come and Vanessa really hit her stride.

“She had a well thought out plan on how she was going to finish her PhD and lead into a postdoctoral position.”
With around 15 months to go before she completes her PhD, Vanessa has achieved much, including attending three international conferences and four national conferences presenting her cancer cachexia research.

True to form, she successfully obtained external funding to get to five of those conferences.

With “hospitality” no longer a part of her life, Vanessa makes good use of her spare time “demystifying science” particularly for teenagers.

She was involved in the recent “I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!” program.  

This is an Australian Idol meets X-Factor-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges and where many of the stereotypes and misgivings about science are broken down.

“Science in Australia is often referred to be being ‘under attack’, not only because of the pressures of finding funding and establishing a career, but because there are so many issues where people don't understand the science behind a particular problem,” Vanessa said.

“Science is a mystery to most people. Perhaps that is because it is never explained in terms that are easily understandable, because people have never learnt how to think scientifically, or because science in something that only super smart, lab-coated scientists do, a job as cloaked in secrets, mystery and bafflement as that of wizards or solicitors.

“Science never makes the headlines unless it is controversial, dangerous, or about to cure us of a disease.

“Of course, once you read past the headline, the message is usually less spectacular than first claimed, but people often don't know how much to believe, and take stories at face value.

“We can tell people that our work is important, but this means nothing if they do not understand how that work is important.

“I strongly believe that we need people that can reach out and fill that gap, retrieving science from complex, jargon-filled journals and hyperbolic news articles, and presenting it in a way that is accurate and easy to understand for everyone.

“We need to demystify the science.

“We need to take science to the people.

Hardly surprising, given some of the obstacles she has met, Vanessa has also become active in the politics of science, participating in a number of student and early career researcher forums hosted by groups including the Australian Society for Medical Research  and the Australian Academy of Science.

Her focus there has been on improved career opportunities for junior scientists and women in science.

Dr Lewandowski watches all this with great pride.

“I have been fortunate that Vanessa chose to join my research group,” he said.

“If only all PhD students were as motivated and productive as her.

“All of us in the Deakin Medical School look forward to seeing where the upward trajectory she is on takes her.”

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