Dr Fern Koay receives 2022 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship
Dr Hui-Fern Koay, Research Fellow in the Dept of Microbiology & Immunology at the Doherty Institute, has been named a 2022 Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) Program.
From a curious child to a leading scientist
Hailing from Malaysia, Dr Koay has always been very curious to understand how things work and naturally found herself in the academic science stream in high school.
She moved to Australia and completed a Bachelor of Biomedicine at the University of Melbourne followed by Honours at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Her PhD in the Godfrey Laboratory at the Doherty Institute investigated the development and function of unconventional T cells.
“At the time a collaborative group of labs at University of Melbourne and Monash University uncovered a breakthrough finding on an elusive population called MAIT cells, which allowed us to investigate how they develop within our immune system...I took on the project and have been working on unconventional T cells since," said Dr Koay.
Immunotherapy including cell-based therapy has revolutionised treatment in cancers, but still give very low success rates in many types of cancer.
Dr Koay lost her grandfather and a number of relatives to cancer, and knows the difficulty of finding out treatments available may not actually work. She is hoping her work may contribute to change that.
“The training and mentorship that I am fortunate to receive in immunology propelled me to venture into the under-studied realms of unconventional T cells, where they could be striking candidates as immunotherapy tools and targets,” she added.
Since 2015, Dr Koay has been at the forefront of research into unconventional T cells, where her research papers have contributed towards understanding how unconventional T cells are generated and controlled in the immune system. Dr Koay’s work has been recognised with many prestigious awards like the L’Oréal-UNESCO FWIS Fellowship, an American Association of Immunologists Trainee Achievement Award, and a 2022 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA).
Reflecting on her journey to become a researcher in Melbourne, a city she has come to love, Dr Koay says that it was not an obvious path.
“My parents, who are first-generation Malaysians, probably never imagined that I could migrate and pursue science as a viable career, let alone such a rewarding one.”
“There is vast untapped potential for research in Malaysia,” she said.
Apart from her parents’ unwavering support, she credits her mentors for guiding her to where she is now.
“Representation of lecturers and senior leaders in Australia is not reflective of the diversity of the student pool or the younger generation, but I had a few extraordinary women to look up to within my group of mentors,” she said.
So, the unattainable ivory tower that was very high for a woman looks a little shorter in this day and age, but this is not without concerted effort and support from our respective communities - the lab, institute, university, and initiatives like this L’Oréal-UNESCO FWIS Fellowship.
Inspiring the next generation to pursue science
As an emerging scientific leader, Dr Koay is passionate about communicating science, to inspire the younger generation to follow in her footsteps, while championing diversity.
“I am lucky to have met some trailblazing Malaysian scientists here, while travelling for work, and back home. This has inspired me to step up and promote representation for the younger generation,” she said.
Dr Koay has been involved in the Day of Immunology and National Science Week, and looks forward to taking part in the Girls in Science program facilitated by L’Oréal.
I want young girls to know that it is possible to be a successful scientist, to have a fulfilling career, as a woman, with a multicultural background.
"Females are currently underrepresented within the senior and leadership positions within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM), irrespective that they contribute to half of our PhD graduates and early career researchers (Higher Education Research Data, 2014)," L’Oréal said on their website.
“We are losing our female researchers and half of the world’s brightest thinkers, as the enormous potential of women’s contribution to STEMM are not being exploited fully. Combating this gender inequality is both a national and global priority of the For Women in Science program, and we are always striving to develop the program in order to provide more tools and resources to help women become our future leaders, as part of a larger cultural change.”
This article was originally published by the Doherty Institute on 7 November 2022.
This story also featured in the following media outlets:
- Fern was interviewed by Marie Claire and speaks about hope, being the minority in the room - and using her achievements to help and inspire other women to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences.