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Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

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women in science

"You can only be really good at something you are passionate about"

Growing up in a family of Neurologists, it would seem Dr Inken Martin was destined to follow in their footsteps. But after just one year of treating patients with heart disease, it became clear she could make a bigger difference in Cardiology and the greatest impact in heart research. 

Dr Inken Martin (right) with Prof Diane Fatkin

What’s been your proudest moment in your career so far?

Being awarded the Ralph Reader Prize for Basic Science at the 2017 Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand Annual Scientific Meeting. This was a great reward for a part-time working scientist who has tried very hard to make science and motherhood work!

How have you made this juggle work?

With none of the grandparents in town, and my husband’s long hours, we’ve had to rely on nannies and Au Pairs, and of course on working extra hours at night. At times, it seemed silly to go to work only to spend all the money earned on child support, but on the other hand, staying connected and contributing to something larger than stinky nappies made it worthwhile!

Dr Inken Martin and family

Why did you move to Adelaide from Germany and what made you decide to stay in Australia?

I moved during my final year of medical school at the University of Freiburg in Germany to do an elective in surgery at the Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide. I did not expect that I would meet my future husband on my second day on the hospital ward. Very Grey’s Anatomy! We then moved between Germany and Australia for a few years before eventually getting married and permanently re-locating to Sydney where my husband runs a busy Upper GI surgical practice.

You also studied at the University of California, Berkeley? What was that like? 

As part of my German Medical Doctorate degree, I spent over a year at Berkeley in the laboratory of Professor Jeremy Thorner in the Dept of Molecular and Cell Biology, studying the interaction of two proteins involved in the Golgi-to-plasma membrane secretory pathway in yeast! What sounds like a very long way from medicine and medical research did in fact introduce me to scientific thinking and taught me molecular biology and protein biochemistry basics that I have used in every job since. My fellow PhD students were all geniuses and every Friday afternoon we got treated to a campus-wide lecture series where almost every speaker was a Nobel laureate! So inspiring!

What does your latest research focus on?

I am really interested in the genetic factors that contribute to inherited forms of heart disease. What particularly fascinates me is the interplay of the genetic predisposition we inherit from our parents and the environment we are exposed to, which both contribute to the development of heart disease. To understand these gene-environment interactions, we use zebrafish models with heart disease. It’s absolutely mind-boggling how similar the electric and contractile properties of a fish and human heart are – despite a 50,000-fold size difference and an evolutionary distance of 400 million years! And who would have thought that 96% of faulty humans genes that cause heart disease have a zebrafish counterpart?

Dr Inken Martin working with zebrafish

 Your father is also a scientist, what’s the best advice he gave you?

That you can only be really good at something you are passionate about. For me, I’ve always been fascinated by the heart and brain, the body’s most vital organs. My dad is a neurobiologist and my brother a neurologist, so cardiology was the area where I could leave my own mark!

 Would you encourage your daughters to pursue a career in science?

Being a medical doctor and scientist is a wonderful combination: it keeps your research focused on patient benefits, and your medical practice evidence based. While my eldest daughter is considering a career in her parents’ footsteps, both professions have some way to go with regards to gender equity – specialty training in medicine is often still impossible part-time and, in cardiology and surgery in particular, there is a huge gender imbalance at the consultant level; medical science is more family friendly but road blocks due to career disruptions still exist and there is an underrepresentation of women at the faculty level. So women in the biomedical field have to be strategic to succeed. Nonetheless being a medical scientist is meaningful, intellectually challenging work that can be hugely rewarding! Regardless of their chosen field of work, I’d love my daughters to want to make a difference some way or another!

 ** Dr Inken Martin is a senior member of the Inherited Heart Disease Laboratory

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