Dr Laura Edgington-Mitchell wins inaugural Fabienne Mackay Award

Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology pioneer receives $100,000 grant to maintain research momentum following the birth of her second child.

Dr Edgington-Mitchell is on a mission to validate proteases as therapeutic targets in cancer and inflammation. She hopes to develop new approaches to diagnose and treat diseases – and, ultimately, improve patient outcomes.

In recent years, she has opened her laboratory at the University’s Bio21 Institute, built her team, developed the research program, expanded local and international collaborations, written her first independent manuscripts, applied for numerous grants and engaged in undergraduate teaching.

During this time, Dr Edgington-Mitchell and her husband Daniel, a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Monash University, also welcomed Alexander and  Zachary into the world after many years of fertility challenges.

“While it has been extremely difficult to balance the personal and professional aspects of my life, I am proud of my achievements in both areas,” she says.

“Initiatives like the Fabienne Mackay Award seek to redress imbalance by providing mechanisms to help carers maintain momentum during parental leave.

“I plan to use this award as an opportunity to expand the chemical biology aspects of my research program, which will hopefully lead to high-impact publications and additional funding opportunities that support the sustainability of my laboratory.”

Dr Edgington-Mitchell describes Prof Mackay – an internationally recognised biomedical scientist, whose discoveries led to new treatments for the autoimmune disease lupus –  as an inspirational and transformative leader.

“She has undoubtedly blazed a trail for female researchers. Obstacles that she once faced are no longer obstacles thanks to the tremendous perseverance of leaders like Fabienne. I am thus extremely grateful for her efforts to champion for this this award.”

A new way for women in science

Committed to increasing gender diversity in biomedical research, the School launched the annual $100,000 Fabienne Mackay Award in March 2021 to help one or more high performing, independent researchers to maintain research momentum following the birth or adoption of a child.

Current Head of School, Professor Jenny Wilkinson-Berka congratulated Dr Edgington-Mitchell. “We look forward to supporting Laura’s return to the lab and seeing how her already extraordinary research progresses in the future.”

Dr Edgington-Mitchell has drawn inspiration from Prof Wilkinson-Berka and other “mothers in science, who have gracefully navigated this path”.

“My work-life balance was previously skewed toward work and the thought of having children was worrying because I knew that it would impact my research and career trajectory.

“Being able to discuss these fears with Jenny, my postdoctoral supervisor Belinda Parker at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Diana Stojanovski at Bio21 and Haley Newton at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health has given me the confidence that it is possible to do both successfully.”

“It has been inspiring to see that you can navigate having a family while running a ground-breaking research program and maintaining upward career trajectory.”

Proteases and prospects

Dr Edgington-Mitchell was raised on a dairy goat farm in rural Kentucky in the United States. She is the oldest of five and the first in her family to attend university.

After her undergraduate studies at Transylvania University in Kentucky, majoring in Biology and Chemistry, she pursued graduate studies at Stanford University in California and started her foray into protease research.

Meeting Daniel at Stanford in a Salsa dancing class led to relocating to Melbourne and completing two postdocs – the first at La Trobe University on the function of proteases in breast cancer metastasis and the second at Monash University on the role of proteases in inflammatory bowel disease.

In 2018, Dr Edgington-Mitchell joined the Department Biochemistry and Pharmacology at the University of Melbourne and Bio21 Institute.

“I was fortunate to be awarded the Grimwade Research Fellowship supported by the Miegunyah Fund, which has allowed me to establish my own laboratory and continue my exciting work on proteases.

The Edgington-Mitchell Laboratory uses a multidisciplinary approach to study proteases – enzymes that cut proteins. These enzymes are important for digestion and degradation of unneeded proteins, but they also participate in cell signalling pathways that govern diverse cellular processes.

Alterations in protease activity – either too much or too little – is a hallmark of many diseases, making them attractive biomarkers and drug targets. Dr Edgington-Mitchell pioneered new methods to detect protease activity by non-invasive optical imaging.

“My research aims to develop chemical tools that can measure the activity of specific proteases. We then apply these tools to study protease function in diverse pathophysiological settings, including the contribution of proteases to cancer pain and metastasis, inflammatory bowel diseases, host-pathogen interactions and immune cell function.”

After maternity leave, Dr Edgington-Mitchell looks forward to returning to her research with the support of Daniel’s reduced workload and backing from his Head of Department, Professor Chris Davies – also an advocate of shared caring.

“Redressing the balance will not be possible without the support of all stakeholders – the pursuit of equity is everyone’s responsibility,” she concludes.

Find out more about Dr Edgington-Mitchell