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Women in Science Victor Chang Institute

Celebrating
women in science

"Don’t stand on the back foot. Go for it with the belief that being a woman doesn’t make a difference."

Dr Sarah Scheuer has always had a passion for discovery. Here, Sarah discusses her research and shares some advice for women considering doing a PhD and pursuing a career in science. 


Sarah, you're not the typical PhD student are you? 

I’m usually a Cardiothoracic Surgical trainee at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, but I've actually taken the last three years off full time doctoring to complete a PhD in the laboratory at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. My PhD although still linked to my surgical training, is really focused on the basic science around how we can better preserve donor hearts for transplantation.

What are some of the challenges you faced as you embarked on your PhD?

Transitioning from full time clinical work to being in a laboratory was a significant challenge. In the clinical environment we strive to minimize error, to be perfect in what we do, but in the lab, it is a very different process. It’s trial and error, experiments often don’t have the outcomes you expect or want, and you find yourself constantly repeating or modifying protocols and experiments to understand why and what needs to be investigated further. It’s a challenging environment, the laboratory world can be full of failures, but failures are how we make some of our greatest discoveries. 

Would you recommend doing a PhD?

Absolutely. It’s not for everyone but if you are interested in science and discovery then a PHD is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in understanding more about a topic you are passionate about. In the clinical world you conduct research into how to improve outcomes, make less mistakes and reduce complications but a PhD offers a real chance to be at the forefront- right on the edge of scientific discovery, doing things that haven’t been done before, but still growing understanding in a way that could dramatically change the way we understand and manage many diseases and conditions. 

You recently received several awards, including the Avant Doctor in Training Research Scholarship, as well as the Sir Roy McCaughey Surgical Research Fellowship from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS). That's in addition to winning the award for Best Student "Paul Korner" Presentation at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI), what does recognition like this mean to you? 

Receiving any recognition from your peers is always very rewarding, and I’ve been extremely grateful to have been supported by both Avant and RACS over the last two years of my PhD. However, being awarded for the Best Student Paul Korner presentation last year was probably the most meaningful of all. I can’t speak on behalf of all physicians and surgeons who have delved into basic science research, but I know for me a certain part of you always feels like a bit of a fraud. That people think of you as a doctor or a surgeon first and a researcher or scientist second, so receiving that kind of recognition from such an extremely talented and renowned group of researchers at the VCCRI was absolutely one of my proudest professional moments. 

Who has been your greatest source of inspiration?

I’ve been privileged to have had two influential mentors in my early career. Professor Peter Macdonald, a man who has devoted himself to science and is a testament to the impact true translational research can have on patients. And secondly, Dr Emily Granger, who has shown me how to keep the focus on surgical skill, clinical acumen and patient outcomes when people so often want it to be about your gender. 

What advice do you have for other women in science and medicine? 

I have a 6-year-old niece and we often discuss what she wants to do when she grows up. I always tell her that she can do absolutely whatever she wants, and she seems to see her future in that light. For me, that is the ultimate aim, that women feel free and supported to take on or not take on, any career they wish. And I think that support needs to come from both the greater scientific community, but also from the women within it. I think as women we often find ourselves comparing or competing with other women in our fields, like there’s some kind of maximum allotted number of successful females. The less we do that and the more we support one another, the faster those barriers, both real and perceived, disappear. 

What's your secret to success? 

Get out there and do it, be proactive, speak to other women and get support from other women, but don’t approach it with a preformed idea that you will be disadvantaged because of your gender. Standing on the back foot won’t get you there. You have to go for it and attack it with the belief, which is gradually becoming a reality, that being a woman doesn’t make a difference.

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