Vote for IMB women tackling society's big problems

11 February 2020

Four IMB women will share how they are tackling big problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, stroke, spinal cord injuries and sheep parasites through the Queensland Women in STEM competition.

Three ‘spider-women’ – Dr Natalie Saez, Victoria Foster and Samantha Nixon – are researching molecules from spider venom to help human and animal health, while Dr Denuja Karunakaran is investigating the genetic factors that regulate fat tissue inflammation.

Vote for your favourite in Queensland Women in STEM competition 2020.

Dr Natalie Saez


“In Australia, someone experiences stroke every nine minutes, and this is set to rise to one every four minutes by 2050,” Dr Natalie Saez said.

“With the vast distances in Queensland, getting appropriate medical attention in time is a big problem.”

IMB’s Venoms lab has isolated a molecule called Hi1a from the venom of the Fraser Island funnel web spider.

Hi1a has been shown to prevent further brain damage when given up to 8 hours after an ischemic stroke.

“In my research I’ve figured out how to make large enough quantities of Hi1a to move to clinical trials,” Dr Saez said.

“Our aim is for paramedics to be able to give Hi1a on the spot if they suspect a stroke, and high-risk patients in regional Queensland could use Hi1a as a nasal spray at the first signs of stroke.”

“I hope my research inspires girls to dream big and pursue a career in STEM so that ultimately we can achieve gender equality at higher levels.”

>>Vote for Natalie

Victoria Foster

PhD student Victoria Foster is also working on Hi1a from the venom of the Fraser Island funnel web, to treat a different time-dependent health issue: spinal cord injury.

“In spinal cord injury, ‘time is spine’—current treatments such as reducing the pressure on the spinal cord become less effective as time goes on, worsening the outcome,”  Ms Foster said.

“After the initial injury, a process called secondary damage occurs. This is where cell death increases far beyond the original site, contributing to that paralysis and chronic pain.”

“Hi1a from the spider venom interferes with processes which we know triggers secondary damage.”

“Our hope is to eventually provide an injectable treatment that first responders could use as soon as they arrive.”

“A competition like Queensland Women in STEM is really good because it’s pushing some of us who may be a little bit more shy to start sharing our research, sharing our journeys,” Ms Foster said.

“It’s really important to have somebody that you can look up to and feel like what you want to do is possible.”

>>Vote for Victoria

Dr Denuja Karunakaran

Team leader Dr Denuja Karunakaran’s research focuses on how immune responses, otherwise known as inflammation, drive obesity and how that in turn drives cardiovascular diseases.

“Two-thirds of Queenslanders and Australians are either overweight or obese - obesity on its own is not life-threatening, however it is a huge risk factor for a number of fatal diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Dr Karunakaran is currently setting up a Twitter platform to encourage positive mentoring for female researchers whilst putting Queensland on the map for obesity and cardiovascular research.

 “I strongly believe in leading by example and have pursued my scientific research career as an inspiration and motivation for other young female scientists.”

“Now I'm in a position to mentor and support young female researchers to actively pursue their dreams in STEM, I’m encouraging this using #positive_mentor on Twitter.

>>Vote for Denuja

Samantha Nixon


PhD student Samantha Nixon regularly goes out to Queensland schools with her spiders to inspire the next generation of scientists. She talks about the benefits of her research and the exciting challenge of working towards solving big problems.

“Growing up I never imagined myself as a spider scientist because I was completely afraid of spiders but I also didn't have any women in science to look up to,” Ms Nixon said.

“Here in Australia, our sheep are being literally eaten alive by blood-sucking worms, which costs the Australian sheep industry over 450 million dollars each year, and these parasites have become resistant to all available drugs.”

“I found that a molecule from a Queensland funnel-web spider can kill these blood-sucking sheep wounds and I'm now applying my discoveries from sheep parasites to human parasites.”

>>Vote for Samantha

Supporting Women in STEM at IMB

To propel incredible female scientists through their careers, IMB is launching a new Women in Science & Technology Fund.

We are seeking to endow a fund that will provide $300,000 with outgoings of approximately $15,000 per annum to fund fellowships, salary top-ups and much more — levelling the playing field to empower and celebrate the outcomes of women in science into the next 20 years and beyond.

Donate now