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CELEBRATING WOMEN IN CANCER RESEARCH: Dr Anna Renfrew

March 8th is International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the achievements of women all around the world. At Sydney Vital, we are immensely proud of the many female researchers we support and employ and whose work is essential in bringing better treatments to patients faster. This March, we’re highlighting women at every stage of their careers, from PhD students to professors, and asking them to share their experiences and successes with us.


First up is our very own Dr Anna Renfrew, who is the Research Development Officer at Sydney Vital as well as the Executive Officer of the Drug Discovery Initiative. Originally from Scotland, Anna’s career has taken her from there to Australia via France and Switzerland, where she studied and worked at EPFL, Universite Joseph Fourier and the Institut Laue-Langevin.

Sydney Vital: When did you decide you wanted to go into science and what inspired this decision?

Anna Renfrew: I’d say what really caught my eye from quite an early age were dinosaurs. When I was around five, I remember really wanting to be a palaeontologist and to discover new species of dinosaurs yet to be uncovered. As time went on, I realised that maybe that wasn’t such an easy career to get into! More generally speaking, I’ve always been interested in understanding how the world works, and why things are the way they are – my parents used to take us to the Edinburgh Science Festival and I always remember that as a great learning opportunity. Then, in my final years of school, I decided to go down the path of science and research.

SV: And how did you ultimately decide to specifically become involved in cancer research?

AR: I came into cancer research a bit later on, actually. I studied chemistry at university and was really interested in the inorganic side, especially using metal complexes in solar cells. Later, during my PhD, I began looking at using those kinds of compounds for cancer treatments, molecules that can respond to light or to changes in acidity or the redox environment and how they could be used to design smart cancer delivery systems.

SV: What has been the most exciting milestone or achievement in your career thus far?

AR: That’s a tricky one! (laughs) It’s very hard to pinpoint a single thing, since it’s always more of a series of steps that lead to a progression of design. If I had to name one thing it’d be my long-term project, which was designing molecules that could be activated by light with the aim of them being able to carry a cancer drug that is toxic, or maybe not very stable in the blood or serum, into the body. The idea is that the molecules protect the drug during its journey into the cell and then light could be applied to that molecule to release the active drug. Rather than a single breakthrough moment, though, that was more like five or six years of work in refining those models, trying to expand it to work with different drugs, and also to be more compatible in a cellular environment. My lab would be full of these different coloured lamps and we’d often have to have the lights off inside – it was good fun and exciting work.

SV: In your experience, are there any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in cancer research? Has the situation changed over time?

AR: I’d say as I came into the field, the majority of the leaders were male – not exclusively, of course, but that was certainly the norm. As I’ve stayed within cancer research, that’s certainly starting to change more and more, and we’re now seeing lots of inspirational young female researchers move into senior positions. I think that’s really important for the younger generation coming through to see that that’s possible and to have those kinds of role models. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s ever been a disadvantage or an advantage either way, but I’ve certainly made that experience of feeling as if you’re the only female in a group or a project, and that can be intimidating at times.

SV: Speaking of role models, did you have any (female) mentors throughout your studies and career who inspired and helped you?

AR: During my PhD and postdoc, I was mostly working with male senior figures, and they were all very inspiring and good mentors as well. At a later stage, as I became a Research Fellow, I did have some more senior female researchers who really made the effort to look out for me and gave me advice at the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney.

SV: And are there any women in STEM more broadly that have inspired you?

AR: I guess it’s a little bit cliché, but Marie Curie is certainly a very inspirational female scientist to me.

SV: If a young woman approached you about wanting to get into cancer research or maybe STEM more generally, what advice would you give them?

AR: I’d say go for it! Especially with something like a Bachelor of Science, if we’re talking about people at the very outset of their studies, it’s such a great opportunity for a wealth of different career paths. I think it’s a fantastic way to get started along the track, even if you’re not sure that you want to go into research. It’s a wonderful training, a way to think about research, project planning, and all different types of concepts.

SV: Thank you so much for your time.

AR: Thanks for having me!

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