This March, to celebrate International Women’s Day, Sydney Vital is highlighting women at every stage of their careers, from PhD students to professors, and asking them to share their experiences and successes with us. 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.
Ussha Pillai is the Senior Tumour Bank Officer at the Kolling Institute Tumour Bank, where she leads the Tumour Bank team and manages its operations. The Tumour Bank represents an invaluable resource for researchers in the Sydney Vital network and beyond, storing collections of endocrine, breast, colorectal, gynaecological, neurological and upper gastrointestinal tumour samples. Since its inception, more than 50 PhDs and other higher degrees have been completed using the samples, making the Tumour Bank an integral part of the research environment at the Kolling, RNSH and the region as a whole.
Ussha has been with the Tumour Bank since 2006, when she joined as a Tumour Bank Officer, and has since helped to transform it from the inside out, with the implementation of a new, searchable database as well as new consenting guidelines and protocols, making the samples more accessible and streamlining the process of collecting new ones.
Sydney Vital: When did you decide you wanted to go into science and what inspired the decision?
Ussha Pillai: It very much felt like a natural path. Both my parents are scientists, and when I was a child, our dad would let us look down the microscope at blood films. My love for science just evolved from there – when I was picking subjects in school, it was all based on being able to get into a science degree.
SV: And how did you ultimately get into cancer research and tumour banking?
UP: My degree was in biological sciences, but when it came to finding jobs, it turned out to be easier to get a job in pathology, which is where I started out. So, in my first job out of uni, I worked in specimen reception, which is often a starting place for young biomedical scientists who are not looking towards a PhD. That’s where I was when I saw the advertisement for the Tumour Bank and thought it looked interesting, which is how I came to be here.
SV: What has been the most exciting milestone or achievement in your career thus far?
UP: I’d say I’ve grown along with the tumour bank, and a lot of the most important work I’ve done along with others has been to streamline and optimize and grow the whole undertaking. When I started here, it was a one-person operation, all the databases were in Excel spreadsheets, and the clinicians were doing the consenting themselves. I think one of the early achievements was taking the Excel spreadsheets and getting them into a format that was searchable. Ultimately, this led us to the database that we’re still using to this day, which allows us to search and find specimens when researchers request them.
Another standout project was the standardising of consent protocols for biobanks throughout New South Wales together with the CINSW biospecimen stakeholder network, which then became the basis of our current consent forms and what was used for the NSW Health consent toolkit. Along the same lines, the whole process of bringing together the original four biobanks, which involved bringing four ethical protocols into one, was another huge undertaking and has made a crucial difference from an administrative point of view.
In your experience, are there any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in cancer research? Has the situation changed over time?
UP: When I first started out here, I think it would have made no difference whether I was a man or a woman. The big difference really came along when I had a child, but I was actually very lucky, because I was given a lot of flexibility with my maternity leave and when I was returning to work. I think that is hugely important, the flexibility to not just come back straight to full time work and to ease back in. Additionally, I also really value being able to do a little bit of work at home still whenever I need to.
Do you have any role models in cancer research who you particularly admire?
UP: When I started working here, Dindy Benn and Debbie Marsh both took me under their wing and taught me everything about biobanking. Debbie was the academic leader of the Biobank for a long time, and I came in under her, so she’s been my mentor for years. Dindy has been involved in biobanking since its inception at the Kolling, she was running around collecting samples on this campus in the nineties. Having role models like Debbie and Dindy has been fantastic. They’re both very knowledgeable, and I’d say anyone who’s worked with them would say how fantastic they are as mentors.
Do you have any advice for young women who are wanting to go into cancer research?
UP: Of course I’d say go for it! Depending on what point they’re at I think it’s a fantastic idea to get some work experience. We’ve had a few Year 10 students come through and it gave them the opportunity to see what the possibilities are, so I’d definitely recommend that.
SV: What do you think does the future hold for biobanking?
UP: There’s a lot going on in the biobanking world at the moment, so stay tuned. I’m particularly looking forward to the Australasian Biospecimen Network Association Conference, which had to be cancelled last year.
SV: Thank you so much for your time. Any last words?
UP: Tumour banking is an invaluable resource, with a wealth of data and metadata collected and at the disposal of researchers. So much of their work is enriched by having this access, it’s just such a great resource to have right here in the Kolling