Post-doctoral Researcher (UQ)
Understanding the impact of sexually transmitted infections on reproductive health.
I am discovering the role of sexually transmitted infections, like Chlamydia and gonorrhoea, in infertility. Yearly, 129 and 82 million Chlamydia and gonorrhoea infections occur respectively worldwide. These incredibly common infections are difficult to treat. They predominantly don’t show symptoms, meaning people often must be actively screened or infections could be opportunistically detected during other medical procedures. Gonorrhoea also has widespread antibiotic resistance. These infections cause reproductive tract inflammation and scarring, which can cause damage to tissues and gametes, which is to say the eggs and sperm, causing infertility. Together with a talented team, I am creating methods to prevent this outcome, like vaccines, diagnostic tests, and improving antibiotic efficiency. Recently I developed the first laboratory model of therapeutic Chlamydia vaccination, and showed that vaccination can protect sperm health. I also work with local clinics to understand how infections grow within reproductive tracts, and how reproductive tract cells respond.
Advancing our understanding of Chlamydia and gonorrhoea benefits not only Queensland but also Australian and global communities. The individual health and monetary cost of Chlamydia and gonorrhoea is high. Gonorrhoeae causes 82 million new infections per year, with the greatest concerns being widespread antibiotic resistance (lifetime medical costs $271 million, estimated cost of combatting antibiotic resistant Neisseria $378.2 million every 10 years) and effects of untreated infections on fertility. Chlamydia causes 129 million new infections per year, making it the most common bacterial STI globally. Up to 25% of infertility cases may be attributed to Chlamydia and gonorrhoea, with assisted reproduction like in vitro fertilisation (IVF) having to be used to combat this. Assisted reproduction is expensive, costing up to $17,000 per treatment cycle depending on living location and demographic, and in Australia costing health care systems up to $182,794 per cycle depending on demographic. Financial burden aside, the psychological, emotional, and physical cost of infertility and assisted reproduction can be debilitating, with up to half also experiencing psychological distress like anxiety and depression and other health side effects. Development of strategies to prevent and treat the infections that cause these serious, long-term conditions is vital. My research attacks this health issue at the early infection stage. I work on developing new tests for the effective diagnosis of Chlamydia and gonorrhoea infections. Through my work, we will have more effective ways of treating infections with antibiotics and importantly, new ways of combatting antibiotic resistance. This will lead to the development of new preventative vaccinations which will benefit the approximately 1 in 1000 Queenslanders who get these infections each year.
Throughout my research career, I have engaged in scientific outreach eager to share my love of science and technology. I am always willing to host and supervise students at all stages of their scientific journey, from school-age, undergraduate, and postgraduate. Of the students I have supervised, approximately 50% were female including the three Honours students I supervised in 2022. I have also supervised students of diverse and non-binary gender, and neurodivergent identity. I have completed courses to upskill my supervisory techniques and abilities to help support the different needs of diverse groups of people. I am passionate about student and peer mentoring and began supervising and mentoring students as a PhD student. My students have successfully gone on to positions in industry (fertility clinic, pathology laboratories, sleep clinic) and research. My completed MPhil students received invitations to present their research on Chlamydia at QUTs annual eResearch Symposium (2022) and improving koala health at the annual Animal Science Conference (Perth, 2022), the latter winning the overall best student presentation.
Aside from official student supervision, I engage in mentoring, also with approximately 50% female mentees. I organised and chaired an infection and immunology monthly research symposium from 2019 - 2022 at Queensland University of Technology, while mentoring and advising 5 postgraduate students and one post-doctoral researcher in the administration of this activity. I successfully handed over the running of this series to two students and one mid-career researcher in 2023 to continue this well-established program. Myself and another female researcher have also co-organised an Australian first and Australia-wide Mucosal Immunology seminar series, which attracts international and Australia's internationally renowned expert speakers and up to 100 audience members per session, within the Australia and New Zealand Society for Immunology network.
Each task that I have undertaken in advancing science awareness, promoting STEM, and student mentoring and supervision is important to me and these types of activities are ones I will continue to participate in regardless of my career stage and not just part of my early career journey. Throughout my career I have developed strengths that make me a good role model and ones that I want to share with others. I can effectively communicate with people in a wide range of circumstances and can draw on my own experiences to help people problem-solve scientific and life setbacks. For example, during my PhD I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, so I have understanding of navigating health issues and can offer a sounding board, empathetic support, and advice if needed. In my career journey I have experienced many instances of uncertainty, e.g. deciding whether to stay in science due to lack of job opportunities, gaslighting, failed experiments, and making mistakes. I have learned valuable lessons from each situation and developed resilience. I pass on this wisdom, to students and peers, whenever I’m asked for advice and whenever I see an opportunity to mentor, help or support people.
I have gained, through competitive application, positions in the following community engagement programs:
• I actively advocate STEM in schools and in the community by participation in the Queensland Office of the Chief Scientist’s Wonder of Science program (2020-2022). This program focusses on engaging local, rural, and underprivileged areas in Queensland in science important to the community being visited, presented to them by expert scientists in those fields. These events are generally organised to coincide with National Science Week. I have visited several high schools for this purpose. During these visits, I share my love of science, my research journey and talk with school students about why a career in research is so important.
• I have given public lectures through the Australia and New Zealand Society of Immunology’s Day of Immunology (2016), and the international program Pint of Science (2022). Through the Pint of Science, I gave hour long lectures with question-and-answer sessions in pubs in Darwin and Brisbane to a combined audience of approximately 100 people. These events are attended by the general public, and I present on topics including sexually transmitted infections, reproductive health, and vaccination. I was successfully able to convey complex scientific ideas, research and techniques to a community audience. Exposure gained during the Pint of Science, where I presented at pubs in Darwin and Brisbane, resulted in the Queensland ABC radio seeking my expert opinion on male fertility. In November 2022, I completed a live interview to comment on the global trend of increasing male fertility.
• I engage with the wider scientific and public communities though UQCCRs Twitter Champions initiative. The research group I work within has an active Twitter profile run cooperatively by myself and another post-doctoral researcher, I also have an active Twitter profile. We have a combined reach of 416 followers. I actively mentor our ECR community in techniques to increase reach.
I also actively engage in programs designed to promote STEM in schools through The University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology by hosting students for laboratory tours and week-long research placements. During these tours, I share my experience of being a female scientist and my love for research. I always aim to promote women in STEM, with a conscious effort to ensure equity in the gender of students I take for placements and supervision being one aspect.