Celebrating MJ Gething Gender Equity Award recipients

2022 awardees met with award's donor, Prof Emeritus MaryJane Gething in December.

Image: Prof Andrew Brooks, awardees Drs Sapna Devi, Lynette Beattie and Magda  Montgomery meet with E/Professor Mary-Jane Gething [centre]  in December.

Congratulations to the latest recipients of the MJ Gething Gender Equity Award.

Laura Edgington-Mitchell (Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology), Sapna Devi (Department of Microbiology and Immunology), Helen Jiao and Grace Lidgerwood (Department of Anatomy and Physiology) are the latest early career researchers to have received the MJ Gething Gender Equity Award. This award aims to support young researchers in the biomedical sciences, in particular female scientists with significant caring responsibilities by providing grants of up to $5000 to help maintain research momentum and build their research profile.

Laura Edgington-Mitchell in the laboratory

Laura Edgington-Mitchell in the laboratory

Laura Edgington-Mitchell started her independent laboratory at the University of Melbourne in 2018, with her research focusing on validating proteases as drug targets for cancer, inflammation, and pain. While setting up her lab, Laura also had two children. As a result of her caring responsibilities and the global pandemic, Laura’s opportunities to travel and showcase the work of her lab were limited. In particular, when she was invited to speak at a prestigious Gordon Conference – an international forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier research in the biological, chemical, physical and engineering sciences - in Italy, she was unsure she would be able to attend.

Leaving my young family behind would have been tough, especially as I am still breastfeeding the baby. My husband, who is an admirably active advocate for gender equity and a huge supporter of my career, volunteered to take time off work so that we could all go to together.”

The MJ Gething Award allowed Laura and her family to attend the Gordon Conference.

Laura Edgington-Mitchell with her partner and children

Laura Edgington-Mitchell with her partner and children

Thanks to the support from this award, I was able to reap the benefits of attending this conference without compromising my responsibilities to my family and without facing significant financial burden … This will no doubt have implications on the trajectory of my research projects and my research output, including publications and funding opportunities.”

Laura also hopes that her family’s attendance at the conference will inspire others. “I met many young women that had begrudgingly left their children at home. I’m hopeful that seeing me there with my family was inspirational for them. I hope that seeing my husband look after the children in support of my career was motivating for the men/fathers/partners in attendance.”

Sapna Devi in the laboratory

Sapna Devi in the laboratory

Having recently returned from maternity leave, Sapna Devi is excited about being able to use her grant from the MJ Gething Award to boost her current research profile.

“I plan to use this award to attend and participate in the form of oral presentations in two high profile immunology conferences – one nationally and another international. My work was published at the same time I went on maternity leave losing the chance to disseminate my seminal findings”. Sapna is looking to use this opportunity to communicate her work, network and exchange ideas with well-known researchers in the field and find opportunities for feedback on her projects progress.

Sapna’s research uses innovative imaging technologies to understand how the two ‘supersystems’ of the body – the nervous and immune systems – communicate with each other to control immunity. Research that is fundamental for identifying therapeutic strategies to boost immune responses.

Having worked alongside other researchers who are also mothers, Sapna is optimistic about the future of the Biomedical Sciences, particularly for females aspiring to enter the field.

“We have so many leading female researchers to seek aspiration from and being in Biomedical Sciences allows you to make discoveries, contribute to new knowledge or even translate your work. We live in a time where there is now a change to advancing women and girls in STEM, and there are structures coming into place to help and support women scientists in their amazing work even if that means our roles change in the future. The MJ Gething Gender Equity Award is one such excellent example.”

Helen Jiao in the laboratory

Helen Jiao in the laboratory

Helen Jiao’s research in the Wilkinson-Berka laboratory looks at metabolic retinal diseases - such as diabetic retinopathy and hypertensive retinopathy - and strategies that may enhance inflammation resolution to reduce vision loss in diabetes and hypertension.

Helen applied for the MJ Gething Award to support her research profile development while caring for her young family. She has already used part of the funds to travel to the Australian Diabetes Congress in Brisbane and plans on attending the International Eye Research Meeting next year.

“Networking with peers and forming new collaborations with research leaders and experts is important and I will also be able to resume my engagement with the international outreach and advocacy committee in ophthalmology and vision science. These represent significant development opportunities and would not have been possible without this award.”

Helen believes that the having the courage to take first steps as well as building strong networks are key to balancing caring responsibilities with your career.

“To be honest once I embraced my new identity as a scientist and a mother, and was patient with my career progression, I began to enjoy the journey of finding the balance. Science can lead you to diverse career paths – academic research may sound daunting, but it is a great career for those who want to start a family and discover interesting things in the lab!”

Dr Grace Lidgerwood

Dr Lidgerwood is an Early Career Research Fellow in the Stem Cell Disease Modelling Unit. Her current research focusses on utilising human pluripotent stem cells from patients to create biologically relevant models of neurodegeneration.

Using cutting-edge technology such as single-cell RNA sequencing, large-scale proteomics analysis, high throughput imaging and drug screening, Dr Lidgerwood's research is focussed on understanding the genetic, molecular, and physiological basis of retinal homeostasis and how this might be perturbed in disease. She is particularly interested in understanding the causes of macular degeneration and genetic retinal dystrophies, as well as exploring retinal models of Alzheimer's Disease.

Dr Lidgerwood had her first child during the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – a time when widespread lockdowns were already in place, hampering critical progress in her work at the bench. The MJ Gething Award enabled her to return to work early to catch up on critical setbacks sustained during that period, covering the financial costs of childcare, and supporting her to spend solid time focussing on restoring research outputs. She plans to use this latest grant in a similar way, focussing on writing important fellowship applications to sustain her research career beyond 2023.

“The MJ Gething Equity Award is such a wonderful initiative – at a time when women are transitioning from 'career' scientists to becoming mothers, it provides financial assistance that eases the stresses of trying to maintain research momentum while also caring for a new baby," she said.

The MJ Gething Equity Award was launched in 2019 thanks to Professor Emeritus Mary-Jane H. Gething, the first female Head of Biochemistry at the University of Melbourne. Together with her late husband, Professor Joseph Sambrook, they created the Gething-Sambrook Family Trust which enabled the creation of this award. Mary-Jane is a passionate supporter of and advocate for young female researchers working in the biomedical sciences as is evidenced by her ongoing support of the award.

The MJ Gething Equity Award is open throughout the year with applications closing on November 30.