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Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

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women in science

"You've got to have your own goals in place. You need to go at your own pace and build your career as you want it. For me, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon."

Dr Monique Bax has worked on a farm, in retail, at a law firm and as a construction manager. Now she's finally found her true calling working as a heart researcher, and her hard work is paying off.  Dr Bax has just been announced as a winner of the AMP's Tomorrow Fund, for her research into a deadly heart disease.  


Monique, congratulations on your recent success, please tell us more about it.

I'm one of 40 Australians to share in $1million in AMP Tomorrow Fund grants.  I received a phone call to tell me that I had been shortlisted right when COVID had us in full lockdown, so it was really happy news exactly when we needed it most.  I was so excited to hear that I’d actually won! It’s providing vital funds to help us continue with our research into spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. SCAD is a type of heart attack that predominantly affects women. The funding brings us a step closer to being able to help patients with SCAD and potentially find a suitable treatment for them. We have a big cohort of 400 patients with SCAD. Our team is looking at the cause of SCAD – studying the genetics, and using cellular models in the lab to understand what makes people vulnerable to having SCAD. This grant will make a massive difference especially when funding is so tight right now.

How much was the grant for? How will you use the funds?

It's $22,600. This funding will help us do new experiments and keep delving into the mechanisms of SCAD, which is how are we going to be able to create better therapeutics for sufferers. If you survive a SCAD, unfortunately the recurrence rate is around one in five people. It's a highly stressful situation to be in when you have no real therapeutic options to minimise that risk of another attack. I want to do the experiments as soon as possible. I'm using the funding to pay for the generation of blood vessel cells, and looking at how they are different in SCAD patients. I’m able to reprogram patients’ blood cells into stem cells, and using these, can grow blood vessel cells in a dish. We have maintenance costs as well as costs from running mass spectrometry experiments. We have a state-of-the-art facility within the Innovation Centre here at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and now we're able to pay for the costs of undertaking those experiments because they're expensive pieces of equipment to run.

How long have you been working in this space?

About a year and a half now. I love it. It's such an awesome environment to work in.

What do you love about it?

I love working at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. And I love being able to make a difference. My supervisor, Prof Bob Graham, is a cardiologist and he deals with patients directly. He's able to really connect with them so we can understand more about this disease. We're able to find out a lot of information about the people that we're making these cell lines from, which really helps us understand the disease.

Why did you want to be a scientist? Have you always wanted to be one?

No. I worked a lot of different jobs when I was younger, from working on the farm as a kid, retail for about 10 years too. I've worked at law firms, and thought I wanted to be a lawyer for a little while. I was also a construction manager. But I did science and it never, ever felt like a job. You're going to work, but it doesn’t feel like a chore. And it's nice to be able to do something that hopefully is making the world a better place.


How long have you been in science for?

I started my PhD down at the University of Wollongong in 2013.

What were some of the benefits of doing your PhD?

I made awesome friends and learned a lot. And I think I learned a lot about resilience and my ability to learn things. The skills that you gain from a PhD are what really primes you to be able to do anything.

What was your PhD topic focused on?

It was actually in neuroscience, I researched motor neuron disease. Associate Professor Lezanne Ooi at the University of Wollongong was my primary supervisor, and then Professor Justin Yerbury was my secondary. Justin actually has motor neuron disease.

Gosh. Did that make your research more inspiring or challenging?

It was intense.

In what way?

I didn't know he had MND when I first started with him, it was really devastating to watch the symptoms onset. Motor neuron disease is normally 27 months from symptom presentation to being fatal. It's heartbreaking. But I think Justin has a rarer form, which is a little bit slower to progress. But he definitely had big declines during my PhD. So that was pretty rough. But I think it really brought everyone to together down at the University. It's a really proteomics, protein based, institute. So that's where I get my love of the proteomics side of things, that I'm now able to apply now to SCAD.

So how did you become involved in heart research specifically?

I saw Dr James Hudson from the University of Queensland lecturing at a conference. He showed us a video of some cardiomyocytes beating in a dish. Those are the heart muscle cells and they beat on their own in rhythm, and I thought that was the coolest thing I've ever seen! From that moment I was always keen to look at cardiovascular research.


What's it like being a woman in science?

I think we're definitely now in a unique position that older generations weren't in. I think we have a lot of privilege now that wasn't allowed to  previous generations. I saw the Nobel Prize in chemistry was recently awarded to two women doing CRISPR, which is something we want to do in our lab soon. So that showcases that we've tipped over the point where we're actually not held back by our sex, generally speaking. In saying that, I think there's still a lot of work to be done. I think it's set up really nicely for women coming into the field, but keeping women in science is the hard part now. And I think we get a lot of survival bias that vex us. You could say, "Well, it's possible, because these one or two women did it," which can be motivating, but when you see the gender ratios in higher up roles, it's still not quite where it should be.

What would you say to other women out there who are thinking about pursuing a career in science?

Go for it! Have your own goals. My PhD supervisor, Lezanne Ooi, taught me that. She was amazing, and she smashed through and had her own lab by her early thirties. She was a super high achiever. And I always looked at her and I thought, "That's too much. I can't do that," and so it’s common to feel self doubt. But I also learnt from her that you've got to have your own goals in place. You can go at your own pace and build it up as you want. For me, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.

And how's the marathon going for you?

It's going well, I think. I love it.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

I'd love to be starting my own lab. I'd be really happy if I was in a position where I had the funding to be able to do that. But I think I have some things to learn along the way, and I'm definitely learning a lot being in Professor Bob Graham’s lab.

What would you say to yourself as you started out your career, with the benefit of hindsight?

It'd be, just be more confident. Back yourself. It's still what I try to tell myself now. It's hard to back yourself. But that'd be it.

What do you do when you're not in the laboratory?

I spend a lot of time at the beach with my dog, and I'm also building my own house. It's a shipping container house down in Wollongong. That takes up my weekends, usually. It's three bedrooms. Two bathrooms. And it's got a nice big garden. I quite like gardening. I think, I gained the confidence to take on such a big project from my PhD actually. I was very much, "Okay, you can do this!"

How far into the project are you?

Almost done. It should be done in the next 12 months. But it's been like six or seven years now, so it's been a while. It needs a driveway. At the moment there's a big moat where the driveway should be! I just finished the veranda, which is cantilevered (pictured above). It's nice now to be able to actually sit on the veranda, that you've personally built, with friends. So that's pretty rewarding. It has a nice little look out, so I love it.

 ** Dr Monique Bax is a senior member of the Molecular Cardiology Laboratory

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