Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

Celebrating women in science -Dr Audrey Adji

"If you're doing something that you love, when you hit rock bottom, it's easier to get back up again"

14 August 2020

Dr Audrey Adji has been awarded a scholarship for women in health and medical research. After a demanding and stressful year, it couldn't have come at a better time. But despite the challenges Dr Adji remains positive. Her research, which involves patients with mechanical hearts, is a constant source of inspiration and a daily reminder of how precious life is.

Dr Audrey Adji

Congratulations on your scholarship from Franklin Women, can you tell me more about it?

I recently received a COVID Carer’s Support Scholarship. Franklin Women is an organisation dedicated to supporting women working in health and medical research. It aims to inspire women to pursue a career in health and medical research.

Franklin Women normally award an annual carer’s travel scholarship or grant to assist women who need to attend meetings or workshops overseas by funding the cost of additional caring responsibilities. The grants are often awarded to women who have children at home or who have carer responsibilities for family member with disability or chronic illness, as it can be logistically and financially challenging to attend international conferences.

As a result of travel restrictions in 2020, Franklin Women decided to repurpose that scholarship into something new - the COVID Carer’s Support Scholarship. They recognised that many women have had extra caring responsibilities to carry during this pandemic, like working from home, while bearing extra responsibilities with children and/or caring for elderly parents and relatives. Franklin Women want to help these women manage this additional load.

And it's been helpful?

Definitely, yes. Normally Franklin Women only offers one or two travel scholarships per year, but this time, when they read all of the applications, they decided to offer this support scholarship to every entrant. It’s been an amazing initiative. In my family situation, my eldest son is in his final year of school. It’s been stressful for us because at the beginning of the pandemic there’s been so much uncertainty.

Like many, we found it challenging not knowing how long the kids will need to be home schooled and ensuring we cover the whole syllabus to prepare for the HSC. About the same time, unfortunately one of my eldest son’s closest school friends committed suicide. It has been really tough for him. The school has been great and offered support, but I had grants due at the same time as all of this while trying to support our son.

Our family stress levels were at maximum and I had to forgo some of my working hours to support my family. Everyone only has 24 hours in a day and I had less and less time to dedicate to my research. I remember thinking when I applied for the Franklin Women Scholarship that I would be thankful for any support, big or small. The scholarship has been a great gesture for my family, it's very valuable and much appreciated.

It sounds like it has been a very hard year

It has. No one knows what life's going to throw at you. But I feel like because I work in heart research, it puts my personal challenges into perspective. There are really sick patients out there that would benefit from our research work.

How do you usually juggle your home life and your career in medical science?

It has its up and downs. I have to say, I've been very fortunate though. I've been in the field for about 20 years now. Throughout those 20 years, I completed my degree, then I started working in the research field. In the meantime, I had two children and we raised them while doing my PhD. I finally completed my PhD in January 2016, and since then, I have been able to start putting more effort and time into my research career. I've been fortunate with great mentors along the way, they have been very supportive. Having a strong support network and very good mentors makes a big difference in how you manage the ups and downs

What are some of the ups and what are some of the downs?

The ups - when I finally completed my PhD after eight long years. I chose to study part-time so I could be present with my young children. When I was finally awarded the certificate I was very relieved and I felt like I had proved to myself and other women that it is possible to balance life with work. Everyone has their own pace, don't let other people dictate what your pace should be because everyone has their own challenges. For me, even though it took me that long to finally reach my goal, it was my choice and I worked hard to get there. I feel like it was the right balance for me, of my family and my career life.

As for the downs, I didn't end up getting the final mark I expected and hoped for. The other thing I’ve found hard is all of the grant applications. It takes so long to complete each individual application. You pour your time, heart and soul into the work and in many cases you just get rejected with one email, a short paragraph saying your application did not make it, sorry. It hurts. It certainly requires resilience and persistence to survive a research career.

Audrey Adji in her office at the institute

What is your research currently focused on?

Together with Professor Christopher Hayward, we collected data from patients with advanced heart failure who are fitted with mechanical hearts. These pumps keep them alive while they wait for a heart transplant. These people are very, very sick, and they need to be managed thoroughly and carefully. My job is to periodically measure their blood pressure. Then we combine these numbers with other clinical measurements to get a bigger picture of the patient’s cardiac health, and to assess the long-term impact of having a mechanical heart on the human body.

It’s very important because if a patient has high blood pressure it can lead to adverse side effects such as stroke, bleeding and pump blockage. Taking their blood pressure sounds simple but it’s actually highly complex in this case. These patients do not have a pulse. The mechanical heart pushes blood throughout the body in a continuous flow.

Without a pulse from a beating heart, conventional methods of measuring blood pressure won’t work at all. But our MCS team at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute has discovered a new way of reliably measuring both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in these patients, using a machine (SphygmoCor Xcel) made by an Australian company called AtCor Medical. No one else has used this technology in this group of patients and we're trying to combine all the clinical information to build up a database. Our new method is non-invasive so it carries minimal risk on the patient.

Wow, that’s fascinating. It sounds like your research is really making a difference.

I hope so. Mechanical heart technology with continuous flow is still evolving and it’s relatively new. It takes a while to see the long-term effects of the non-pulsatility feature on the whole body.

And do you love what you do?

I do. Yes, I love my clinical research work. I think the thing I love most is the human interaction. Everyone has a different story, each individual has their own challenges and successes. And at the end when they finally receive the desired outcome, i.e. a heart transplant, I feel like our research played a role. Even though I only play a small part, we make things better for them in the long term, hopefully through better diagnosis, management and generally their quality of life.

You sound like an amazing role model for your children

I hope so. It’s important to me because we have two children and they need to know that every individual, men or women, deserve the same opportunities.

When did you come to Australia?

1999. Both my husband and I were born in Jakarta, Indonesia, but both of our children were born here. We now call Australia home.

Audrey Adji and family

And do you think your children will follow in your footsteps and pursue a career in medicine or science?

My eldest son wants to be a medical engineer or work in a medical-related field. My other son is still in Year 8, so he's still got time to decide, but he loves his science subjects. I just want our kids to be the best they can be, be a good citizen, be kind to each other. That's basically it.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I’d still like to continue what I'm doing. I feel like there's a lot of things relating to my research that we still don't know and I feel I can contribute more. I'd like to start becoming a more independent researcher. And hopefully in five years’ time, I can lead my own small group of researchers.

Do you have any advice for other women pursuing careers in STEM?

Advice? I guess the same advice as I give to my children and other younger colleagues out there; do what you love. I think, again, because you encounter ups and downs throughout your life, if you know you're doing something that you love, when you hit rock bottom, it's easier to get back up again. My other advice would be to go at your own pace. Don't let people dictate what you do. Take the positive and learn from the negative. Everyone's in a different boat. They all have their own personal challenges and successes, so go at your pace and not anybody else’s.

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