Dr Sarah Hancock using a mass spectrometer in the Institute's Innovation Centre

Star Scientist - Dr Sarah Hancock

Balancing a career and the arrival of a new baby is hard for any parent. When you’re a scientist, it’s not just as simple as picking up where you left off when you return to work.

24 October 2023

For people like the Institute’s Dr Sarah Hancock, an extended period away from the lab often means starting from scratch in several areas of your project, which can have long-term impacts on your career.

That’s why support is crucial – particularly for women in STEM. Thankfully that support is out there, and Dr Hancock has experienced first-hand the benefits that come with funding grants and having the right leadership.

You recently received a CVRN Career Advancement Grant – congratulations! What does it mean to you to receive this grant?

Thank you! These sorts of grants are really special because they are designed to support early-mid career researchers like me who are returning to research after a significant career break. In my case, that was time off having my second child. I've got two kids; one is three and the other one is one – two pandemic babies is quite an experience! [laughs]. I took six months off when I had my first child and another six months off with my second – and then my husband did six months off after that.

Dr Sarah Hancock reading 'Bin Chicken!' to her daughters

That’s where these types of awards are great because after those career breaks you’ve got to get the momentum going again. You've got to get in the lab, get the procedures going; if you're working with animals, you've got to get the ethics approval again - there's so many parts to it that I think are just not factored in when you say, “well they had six months off and now they're back at work”.

Not only that, coming back after six months, my baby still wasn't sleeping through the night - so you're heavily affected by that. You’re sleep deprived, you're trying to write grants, you're trying to do research, you're trying to get everything going again while you're not sleeping - it's intense. So this grant and the acknowledgement that we do need a little bit of help to get back into it is just fantastic.

You work in the Institute’s Cellular Bioenergetics Lab, what does that research entail?

I study a group of compounds called lipids, which are also known as fats. When you say the word fat many people probably think of things like obesity or adiposity - the kind of fat deposition on your body. But fats make up many different parts of our anatomy and cellular structure. They make up the membranes that surround our cells; they are signalling molecules so they can signal from one cell to the other the state of the cell or the state of the organism; and they also play a role in storing energy in the body.

Fats are quite complex and have lots of different functions in the body. What my group and I are doing is studying lipids across a range of different problems in the body – including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Within the world of lipids, what is the focus of your current research?

We are studying a class of lipids called ceramides. Ceramides have been shown to have an involvement in diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease – though the specific pathways are not yet fully understood. So we've long been interested in whether we can regulate the types of ceramides that are present within the body to get favourable outcomes for metabolic diseases.

Dr Hancock looking at a sample in the Innovation Centre

We have one particular compound that we’re testing, along with different variations of it, and this compound has been found to be anti-obesogenic - which means it can reduce the incidence of obesity – but we’re also hoping to be able to modify it to give positive outcomes for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well. This compound regulates ceramides in the body, not by changing the total amount of ceramides present, but by changing the ratio of long-chain ceramides to very long-chain ceramides. This is important because we know that long-chain ceramides can be harmful in high levels, whereas very long chain ceramides tend to be more beneficial. So we're trying to change the balance of these ceramides either by reducing the long chain or elevating the very long chain.

These anti-obesogenic compounds are related to drugs currently on the market that can lower ceramide in the body. For example there’s Fingolimod, which is a multiple sclerosis drug, and another drug called myriocin, which is what I'm working on at the moment. The problem with these drugs is that they're used to treat other conditions – but if you want to get them to lower ceramides, you have to give a high dose which can cause serious side effects. So my work and the group's larger work is also focused on how we can target these drugs to hit the organs of interest. We’re doing this with a peptide drug conjugate, which is a little peptide sequence attached to the drug that will target specific organs. In theory, that means when we put it into an organism, it should only affect ceramides in that organ, for example the heart.

How will the CVRN grant support your research?

I'm using the funding to support a research assistant so we can divide and conquer. They're going to do a lot of the day-to-day stuff that prevents me from really focusing on the mass spectrometry work that I do. They'll take part of the workload off me and that'll help me get back up to speed and running again. We're going to be using this money specifically to fund the ceramide-lowering medication project we’re working on.

What other support have you received with balancing career life and family life?

I am lucky to work with supportive people, like Professor Nigel Turner, who is the Head of our lab. Not only is he a brilliant researcher, but he's also so supportive of people with families. He himself is one of the most involved dads I've ever come across in science. He always says his family is first for him - and not only does he say it, but he also acts on it. For example, he will let us know that he is working from home because his kid has an award ceremony on that afternoon at school. Saying that out loud, for men in leadership positions in particular, is such a massive thing - it normalises and opens it up for everyone else to do the same. Not only is he a scientific mentor for me, but he's also a mentor for what it means to be a good parent.

Dr Hancock with her lab head, Professor Nigel Turner

What originally got you interested in a career in science?

Being a scientist was never on my radar growing up - I didn’t do science at school and no one in my immediate family had finished high school. My father was a glazier and I spent a lot of time on job sites with him growing up. I would play around with tools, build things, and mostly just get in his way [laughs]. I think that's where it really started - having that freedom as a kid to build, play with tools, and then later on it was learning how to look after cars and tinker with things. I've always been fascinated with how things work and how I can get them to work when something goes wrong. But I didn’t make the connection between that interest and being a scientist until I was in my 20s. After training as a veterinary nurse and then travelling around Australia, I couldn't get a job as a vet nurse in my hometown of Nowra, so I started driving as a courier for a pathology company. I became friendly with one of the scientists there and I always had a million questions for her about why the doctor would order certain tests and things like that. One day she said to me, “you ask all these questions, have you ever thought about studying science?”. So at 23 that’s what I did.

And outside of the world of science, what are your hobbies and interests?

Pre-kids or post-kids? [laughs]

Pre-kids, my husband and I liked to travel - he's really into astrophotography, so a lot of our holidays were out west where the skies are clear so he could do his photography at night and I could tour vineyards and other local sites during the day.

But now it is really our kids that are our number one focus - you kind of get lost in parenthood in the early years. I do enjoy working with textiles - knitting, sewing, and crocheting - so it’s nice when I have some rare time to myself to now be able to make things for my daughters.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years