Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

Celebrating women in science - Celine Santiago

"Don’t be afraid to put your hat in the ring and be vocal about your goals."

18 December 2020

Celine Santiago, the 2020 recipient of the prestigious Ralph Reader Young Investigator Prize, is a passionate researcher who has big dreams here and abroad.

Dr Celine Santiago and microscope

Congratulations on winning the 2020 Ralph Reader Young Investigator Prize, tell us more about this achievement

Thank you! The Ralph Reader Prize is awarded by the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand. It was named after Dr Ralph Reader who, amongst other things, was a big advocate for young investigators and their work in cardiovascular research.

The prize is quite competitive, any young investigator from Australia or New Zealand can apply, including undergraduate students, medical students, nurses, and all the way up to post-doctoral researchers within 6 years of finishing their PhD. It’s a rigorous process - I applied back in March which involved sending a detailed letter from my supervisor and a 5,000 word manuscript which should be your ‘single best work’. If you’re lucky, you become one of three finalists chosen to actually present this work at the annual scientific meeting where a panel of judges assesses the quality of your science, your critical thinking and your presentation.

What project did you submit?

The project I chose was investigating whether a genetic predisposition would interact with alcohol. Alcohol is a well-known risk factor for lots of heart diseases but in particular dilated cardiomyopathy, which was the focus of this investigation. The interaction between the two is something I feel is quite understudied so far. In fact, at the moment, some studies say that lower doses of alcohol can even be beneficial, in some ways, to your heart

The key thing that came out of my work was that if you have a genetic predisposition to dilated cardiomyopathy, specifically a genetic variant in the TTN gene, even lower doses of alcohol could trigger your heart disease. I showed this using a zebrafish model.

Celine Santiago holding Ralph Reader Young Investigator Prize

How did it feel to be chosen as the winner?

It’s a huge honour and it feels very special that world-renowned experts feel that my work deserves recognition on a national stage. I thought that the work of the other two finalists was really excellent, so to have been chosen as the winner amongst such tough competition is incredible, and I’m very grateful.

You were the only female finalist, how did you feel about that?

I felt a bit of pressure when I found out I was the only female, and it made me want to do well not just for my team but for other young female investigators too, especially any who had applied for the prize but hadn’t been selected, as well as those just starting out in their research careers. I genuinely believe that the selection committee chose who they thought was best, but I definitely would have liked to see another female finalist out there.

What would you say to other female scientists to inspire them?

It can be tough, but don’t give up! Keep trying, don’t be afraid to put your hat in the ring and be vocal about your goals. Rest assured that so many people want you to succeed, and if you put yourself out there you might be surprised at how many people will try and help you. A lot of opportunities I’ve had have come out of me just talking to people about what I do and who I am, and these people have then thought of me in the future and said ‘I think you should apply for this’ or ‘I think you’d be interested in this’.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard, which I’m definitely taking to heart, is to seek out a mentor who you can be really open with about what you’d like to achieve both professionally and personally. Having someone with more experience than you who can help you strategise and who help you create a more structured plan for how you can reach the next level - that support is invaluable. If you don’t have that I think it’s definitely something to seek out.

You just finished your PhD, which is linked to the work you did for the Ralph Reader prize, tell us about that

For my PhD I was looking at gene-environment interactions in dilated cardiomyopathy, which is a common heart muscle disorder. My thesis was really focused on finding out whether environmental stressors can interact with a genetic mutation, and if they do, why and what happens to the heart – how might they affect disease severity? Again, using zebrafish, I looked at what happened to the heart when you combined a genetic variant that we knew caused dilated cardiomyopathy with two different stresses that happen often in the real world, alcohol exposure and chemotherapy, both of which we know on their own are likely to cause heart problems.

Dr Celine Santiago and Zebrafish

I submitted my thesis in September. It was four years of work. It was a really emotional time, and by the end it was really a mixture of exhaustion and adrenaline. I remember not being able to sleep the night before I submitted, and I ended up just getting up and continuing work in the end because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I finally hit the submit button, I just started crying – I couldn’t believe that was it! It took about a week for me to feel relief! You spend so much time working on it, it’s just you and your work and it’s so close to your heart. Now I can look back and feel happy and relieved but at the time I found it quite difficult to process.

What was the hardest part for you? Was there anything in particular that got you through?

The hardest part was writing my thesis. Even though I’d written up a few things earlier on, I still ended up trawling through years of work and trying to figure out how to put it together into one document that’s only supposed to be 100 or so pages long. Trying to pick out how the story fits from four years of work, what it all means, and how to show that in a way that’s representative of what you really think – it’s tricky to figure that out.

On top of that, we had the pandemic starting right when I’d just started wrapping everything up. Obviously, I can’t say how I would have done without the COVID pandemic on top of everything, but I definitely don’t think it helped. It made me feel so much more isolated, being in your own mind for long periods, it’s not always productive. I would have benefitted from being around people in the lab and being able to chat quickly with my supervisor in person when I felt stuck or a bit lost with the work. It definitely impacted how efficient I felt I was being and how quickly I was writing.

My partner was really instrumental in getting me through. He was really supportive, he’s not in science but he knows how hard I work. He was really good at taking care of small things like taking care of the house and making us dinner, just helpful things that helped take that mental load off. He was working from home too during lockdown so his presence made things more bearable and we would go for a walk together during lunchtime or before the day started which helped break up the day and keep my mind fresh.

I have a really good support network, and skyping with friends and family was really vital in getting me through as well. I started a ‘writing club’ with one of my friends who is also a PhD student, where we would skype every week and discuss any issues we were having with our thesis or what we were working on and then just work together virtually for a few hours. I don’t think I would’ve gotten through without it.

Celine with her partner

What does your life look like when you aren’t working?

Work is such a huge part of my life, but when I’m not working it’s all about quality time with loved ones for me. I try and call my parents and my siblings every Saturday, and if I do, my partner knows I’ll spend half the day catching up with them. I’m one of three kids, my sister lives in Canada, which has been really hard with COVID going on, especially because she was supposed to come and visit us this year after three years of not being back in Australia. My brother is in Brisbane. I’m so proud of him, he just had his first paper published recently and it’s a joy to see my younger brother coming up in science. He’s a marine biologist, so a different field to me, but it’s very cool to share that journey with him.

Family is a huge priority for me, we’re very close, but my partner is obviously a huge priority as well. We’ve been together a long time, we actually just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. At the weekend we like to try travel somewhere, around Sydney or sometimes interstate. We like to explore new places, go on walks at a national park, or we might travel to see family and friends.

I have a few different hobbies, bouldering with friends, knitting, yoga, baking. Whatever takes my fancy! I love learning new things.

What’s next for you in your career?

I’m staying here at the Institute while I prepare to publish the work from my PhD. The plan is to publish some good quality papers before I try and find a postdoc position either in Australia or overseas. I would really like to move to the UK or Europe - that’s been a dream of mine for a long time, and for my partner as well. Eventually, I’d like to return to Australia and continue my research career here, but funding for post-docs, and science in general, in Australia is a bit tricky right now so I’ll have to see how that goes.

Celine Santiago holding Rising Star Award

I really want to thank my supervisors, Professor Diane Fatkin and Dr Inken Martin, as well as my lab. They have supported me both personally and professionally for a long time, and they continue to do so - I wouldn’t be here without them. I, of course, want to thank my family and friends for being there for me despite the distance, and I also wanted to thank the Simon Lee Foundation for supporting me financially throughout my PhD.

** Celine Santiago is a member of the Inherited Diseases Lab

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