Dr Amy L. Heffernan
The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health
DESCRIBE your research (i.e. what disease are you hoping to treat/cure?)
As an analytical chemist and early career researcher, I am poised at the exciting interface of cutting-edge technology and applied health research. I have 10 years’ specialist training in advanced mass spectrometry assay development and application across epidemiology, public health and environmental science disciplines. My early research developed techniques for environmental and health monitoring. This involved designing sampling, modelling and data analysis strategies to measure exposure to common chemicals including pesticides, plasticisers and flame retardants in the Australian population. Much of this research has been used to inform policy at the national level, including by the Australian Department of Environment. I later specialised in non-target screening and unknown applications - so called ‘omics’ studies (e.g. exposomics, metabolomics), which rely on sophisticated software and statistical workflows to process data. With the award of a prestigious NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship in 2015, I moved to the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health to expand my ‘omics’ repertoire to the field of proteomics. My new research investigates metal-binding proteins in a model system of ageing for therapeutic application in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Where are you hoping your research will take you?
Coming from a technical background (analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry) gives me a somewhat unique perspective on medical research. I was always fascinated by how things work, optimising protocols and validating assays to get the best possible results. Early in my research career a colleague said to me that even the most amazing technical tool is only valuable if there is an interesting question to apply it to. Mass spectrometry is an invaluable tool for biological research, but is currently under-utilised due to perceived technical barriers. This has become my motivation: to integrate complex technology into applied health research to fuel discoveries to advance human health.
What do you need, as a female scientist, to keep doing your research?
There is a dire need for equal representation of females in senior (research) positions. The so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) means that despite equal, or even majority representation at the undergraduate and graduate level, the number of female scientists reaching the professoriate is disproportionately low. The decision to leave academia may be through choice, bias, or a myriad of other factors, but the end result is that for those of us who remain, only 1 in 10 of the professors we look to for guidance are female. These senior female scientists are needed as role models for the next wave of female leaders. They serve as beacons of hope, and can help early career researchers, like me, build resilience in an often-oppressive environment, and help navigate the landscape of unique challenges that face women in leadership and positions of power.
Do you have a role model who has inspired you? If so, tell us about them and how they have influenced your career.
I don’t have one particular role model. I am inspired in general by strong women who find a way to thrive in their unique circumstances - the friend who battles mental illness but is one of the strongest, most creative people I know; the friend who is a tireless champion for social justice and inspires me to be a better person; the stranger on the internet (Emily Temple-Wood) who turns vile, anonymous online abuse into an opportunity to catalogue the work of female scientists on Wikipedia; or the outspoken public figures – feminist Clementine Ford, who refuses to retreat or remain silent about the flight of women everywhere in the face of a daily torrent of abuse; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, survivor, activist, and champion of free speech in a conservative climate. I was fortunate to be raised by a strong, independent woman who taught me how to have a voice, and how to use it; that there is no difference between boys and girls in the classroom, and who sacrificed her own happiness so that I would have every opportunity to thrive. As such, it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, follow a particular path, and here I am today.
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