IMB’s fearless women in STEM

4 June 2021

Handling lethal cone snails and tackling deadly viruses and bacteria is all in a day’s work for four fearless IMB researchers working tirelessly to fast-track healthcare and medicines.

Drs Larisa Labzin, Zeinab Khalil, Himaya Siddhihalu Wickrama Hewage and Chloe Yap are each a force to behold and have entered the Queensland Women in STEM competition this year to showcase their world-class research.

Boldly tackling COVID-19

Dr Larisa Labzin studies how the immune system works and boldly works in a laboratory purpose-built for working with dangerous viruses like SARS coronavirus 2, which causes COVID-19.

“In order to safely work with the virus, I have to suit up into full-body personal protective equipment, but all the preparation is worth it because I get to see the virus under the microscope, and how it moves around in cells.”

“I entered Queensland Women in STEM competition because I want to raise awareness and recognition of fundamental research that I and other researchers do to solve problems like COVID-19.

“Our research to understand how the immune system recognises and responds to viruses is how we identify drug targets, and this is how we find new drugs.”

A year-and-a half ago, Dr Larisa Labzin would never have believed that she was soon to be a regular on national and international TV and radio—a reliable go-to expert for the media.

“After the pandemic started, I got heavily involved in public outreach, using my knowledge and my expertise to help the public understand how much of a threat COVID-19 is to us, why it's important to take the vaccines,” Larisa said.

“It has been so rewarding, and I like to think that young women can look at me and see me explaining these fascinating areas of virology and immunology and realise how important it is to study these fields in times like these.”

Hunting for new antibiotics

Finding the next antibiotic has been a passion for Dr Zeinab Khalil since she was a child.

“At a young age, spending time at the hospital with my parents who are doctors, I realised that some patients were dying from drug-resistant infections and I was determined to pursue my studies in pharmacy and find new treatments for bacterial infections.”

Zeinab studies bacteria found in soil, striving to find molecules that bacteria use for defence, and turn these against other bacteria in our bodies to fight infection.

“More than half the antibiotics and medicines that we use today have been found in soil, so it makes sense to look there for the next generation of antibiotics,” Zeinab said.

In an effort to speed up the process, Zeinab is not going it alone—she has recently been involved in setting up Soils for Science–a citizen science project which asks Queenslanders to help by sending in soil samples from their backyard.

Zeinab hopes to get over 100,000 soil samples sent in from Queensland’s biodiverse 1.7 million square kilometres.

“Queensland is a huge untapped source of potential antibiotic leads, and with the help of Queenslanders, we can fast-track the hunt for new antibiotics.”

Handling deadly cone snail venom

A tiny drop of cone snail venom can kill a human, but Dr Himaya Siddhihalu Wickrama Hewage bravely handles these deadly creatures every day in her research to develop better painkillers.

“3.4 million Australians live with chronic pain and there is a critical need for new pain killers which are potent and have less side effects than those we currently have on the market,” said Himaya.

“Venom has evolved over millions of years with exquisite specificity and selectivity for its targets and I am looking to harness that in my research.”

Venom molecules from cone snails have already been found to be more effective than morphine in relieving pain with less side effects.

Himaya is working her way through this molecular treasure trove of venom molecules from cone snails, of which less than 0.1 per cent have been investigated so far.

“I’m developing new methods, using state of the art technologies that we have here at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience to study these venom molecules and find new painkillers.”

Entering the Queensland Women in STEM competition is important to Himaya as she is passionate about inspiring and mentoring young girls, especially ones from ethnic backgrounds.

“I never had a role model, especially one with an ethnic background to look up to when I was growing up, but now I am raising awareness about female leadership in STEM fields, pursuing my passion in science and being that role model for others that I never had.”

Rising to the clinician-scientist challenge

Chloe Yap works on autism and her fearlessness has led her not only to pursue a challenging career as a clinician-scientist but also to encourage others to do the same.

“Translating science rapidly into new treatments needs both clinicians and scientists, but the critical bridge is people who are trained in both: clinician-scientists,” Chloe said.

“In Australia, there is a major shortage and only a quarter are women—it’s 20 years of training, juggling two jobs with limited support.

“When I first started, I didn’t know any female clinician-scientists and I wondered if this career was out of my reach?”

Not put off by the challenge, Chloe was motivated to be part of Australia’s healthcare future and is passionate about building the workforce of clinician-scientists in Queensland—organising and talking at student events, creating research opportunities and always ensuring equal female representation.

Chloe is also passionate about her research—using big data to investigate autism with the goal of understanding genetic pathways to speed up the exhausting diagnosic odyssey and bring certainty to families.

“Growing up, my most treasured possession was my book ‘Bulging Brains’ [from the Horrible Science series] and my fascination with understanding what’s going on in the brain has never stopped.”

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