10 Aug 2017

CCS PhD student profile: Amy Wilson

Amy Wilson at the 2017 CCS 3MT heat. She was runner up.
by Matt Jane

Amy Wilson is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology and Pathology supervised by Professor Magdalena Plebanski. Amy completed a Bachelor of Science (Medical Bioscience) at Monash University. Amy has also completed an Honours degree looking at ovarian cancer biomarkers at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research.

What is your research about?

I work on a particular type of ovarian cancer, called high-grade serous ovarian cancer. It’s the most common form of ovarian cancer and it’s also the most deadly. One reason it is most deadly is because women initially respond to chemotherapy but most women relapse within 18 months and then they’re resistant to the chemotherapy and there is no other treatment for them. So unfortunately, only 20% of these women will survive past five years from time of diagnosis.

I’m looking at using a new drug called Sitagliptin, currently being used for type 2 diabetes. It’s really great that it’s already clinically approved, so it wouldn’t have to go through all the FDA approvals that you usually have to when working with a new drug.

There is a mechanism within the ovary in which chemokines, which are molecules of the immune system, are expressed in this tumor environment and usually help the body get rid of the tumor. However, in a lot of these high-grade serious ovarian cancer patients there is an alternate form of this chemokine. This stops the immune system getting into the ovarian tumor. Therefore it’s unable to get rid of the tumor making it resistant to the therapies. Our drug can restore the normal form of this chemokine, helping the immune system to get into the tumor environment. This drug can be used in combination with other drugs such as chemotherapy to restore its activity.

What made you choose this topic for your PhD?

I came from the Gippsland campus where I studied medical bioscience. Cancer was something I was really interested in. I had chosen a variety of subjects and cancer was what I found most interesting. I contacted a few labs and then did an honours research project at the Hudson institute with an ovarian cancer lab. I was really fortunate because when I applied to do a PhD my supervisor at the Hudson said there was a collaboration between the Hudson lab I was working in, and the lab at CCS that I currently work in.

What I like about my work now is that I know my research will help people soon. It’s good that this has the potential to translate into the clinic.

What have you enjoyed thus far in your research?

I’ve really enjoyed working with my team and supervisors. I think most important thing about a lab is the people you have to support you throughout your work. Even though I love my project, I like my lab members more. So I think having a good support network has made a massive difference in my PhD.

You recently were the runner up of the CCS Three Minute Thesis competition. What were the difficulties and the benefits of participating in this competition?
Although I’m not the most comfortable public speaker I really enjoy putting myself out of my comfort zone and trying new things.

The three minute thesis is a really good opportunity to talk about your research in layman's terms. The competition has helped me to understand my own research on a deeper level. It’s a really great summary and makes it far easier to understand. It has allowed me to be able to talk about it in a way that those who aren’t scientists would understand.

I think that scientific communication is really important. 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I really enjoy playing music. I actually used to do opera singing, so I enjoy doing that from time to time. I also like to paint. I’m not very good at it but I enjoy it.

You’ve done a bit of travelling throughout your studies. What have been your favourite places?

My time in Malaysia was amazing. It was just an entire semester where I’d spend the week at university working and then on the weekend I’d just travel to some random island. I’ve also travelled to Thailand, Borneo and Indonesia.

I also recently came back from Europe where I visited Italy, France and Croatia.

Did you always want to study medicine? How have you ended up where you are today?

I actually fell into medical research. I had started a music degree and then I transferred to medicine when I realized I didn’t want to pursue music anymore. I am very happy where I am now but I’m also glad that I tried music out and discovered it wasn’t for me.

Do you have any plans post PhD?

At the moment in my head I want to go overseas when I finish to work. The PhD will hopefully allow me to work somewhere. I was interested in somewhere sunny in Europe but have been looking at photos of Canada recently and would really like to go there.

What advice do you have for others considering or just starting a PhD?

If you know you want to do a PhD, just go ahead and do it. In saying that, make sure you’re organised and stay on top of everything. Lastly, pick your supervisor over your project, as the people you work with are extremely important.

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