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Dr Samantha Oakes, the 2016 recipient of the State Custodians’ Young Garvan Edgy Ideas Award, tells us how winning the award is playing an important part in finding a cure for cancer.

On any given day Dr Samantha Oakes seems like any typical mum of two young kids, who also happens to love surfing and keeping fit. However, Samantha also has another vitally important role - as one of Australia’s leading cancer researchers.

Last year the 42-year-old scientist won the prestigious Young Garvan Edgy Ideas award, which is sponsored annually by State Custodians. Samantha, who works as a Group Leader at Sydney’s Garvan Institute for Medical Research, came up with an ingenious idea to trick cancer cells into thinking they’re infected with a virus so they send “kill me” signals to the immune system.

Samantha is one of the Garvan’s shining stars. She majored in anatomy at the University of New South Wales and also has a PhD in understanding the role of hormone prolactin – for which she won the Garvan’s Best Thesis Award.

The $25,000 award grant that Samantha won from State Custodians in 2016 is now helping to bring her important research into its next phase of development. We recently caught up with Samantha to learn more about it in the year since she won.

Your award for your research was very well-deserved. Can you tell us more about your discovery?

  • Sure, so the focus of my work over last 10 to 15 years has been understanding the roles of molecular cues or genes that are involved in breast development and lactation. The breast undergoes an incredible developmental cycle during one’s lifetime.

    The cues that regulate the breasts’ developmental stages during pregnancy are also surprisingly the cues that can go wrong during cancer. So we discovered a gene involved in that. When it was mutated, it resulted in the death of all milk secreting cells in the mammary gland. When this gene is activated it basically creates this state which “tricks” breast cells into thinking they are sick. I wanted to see if we could similarly trick breast cancer cells into thinking they’re sick to assist the body’s immune system to find and attack them.

What’s the next phase for the research?

  • We know we can trick cells on a baseline level, but we now need to create a drug which can do the same thing. In order to do that we need to fully understand the mechanisms involved with the cells before it reaches a clinical level.

Why is entering the State Custodians’ Young Garvan Edgy Ideas award a good opportunity for any young scientist?

  • Winning the award is a fantastic opportunity for any young scientist because not only does it give you a shot to try out a truly innovative piece of research that could fundamentally change the way we think about a problem, but it also gives you great exposure personally. It’s a chance to showcase yourself and your research, and also an opportunity to communicate your ideas to a wider audience.

What else does your scientific work focus on?

  • Aside from my work related to the State Custodians grant, my second focus is how we can switch off the survival signals inside cancer cells. Last year, my team and I discovered we can fix a life/death switch in cancer cells, by turning off a very special protein that helps cancer cells to survive.

    Surprisingly, this also prevented these cancer cells from invading through tissue, an effect that is important for preventing the most lethal forms of cancer. By turning off this protein, we can basically turbo-charge the actions of a drug that is now in clinical trials for breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. It’s a very exciting discovery.

Dr Sam Oaks

Why do you have a particular interest in cancer research?

  • Like so many, my family has been touched by cancer. My brother Steven was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was seven years old. Luckily, the tumour was benign, but he still had to go through two years of medical investigations and surgical treatments. Thankfully he now lives a normal life at the age of 40.

    Then, when I was nine my beloved Aunty Jean died of a very hideous form of breast cancer. We knew very little about breast cancer back then and I remember her therapy wasn’t very effective. She died a terrible death in extreme pain. It affected me because I just didn’t want anyone to go through what my family went through. That’s why I’m so focussed on saving lives.

So how does Australia perform with its scientific research?

  • We punch so well above our weight! Considering we don’t get a lot of funding, we have made huge advances in cancer research and scientific research in general. I’m so proud of all of the work that we do in Australia.

What is the most frustrating aspect of being a scientist?

  • The funding issue. We have to rely a lot on philanthropic funding such as the Edgy Award grant from State Custodians. We’re so grateful when companies give us grants because the amount of government funding we get – particularly if you’re a mid-career researcher like myself – is simply not enough. I find it extremely frustrating that I have to spend a large portion of my time writing grants, when my time could be better used conducting experiments and research, and helping students.

There’s been a lot of talk about getting kids and young people more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Why is this valuable for future generations?

  • Whenever I give school talks every young student I’ve ever met is fascinated by science. You can take a microscope into a school and there won’t be one student who doesn’t want to have a look. We need to really foster this natural interest kids have in science.

    A teacher once wrote on my report card: “Samantha is great student, but asks too many questions”. So what! If you have a child who’s interested in lots of stuff then they should be encouraged to get involved in a STEM subject and shouldn’t have that curiosity shut down. Being a scientist is very rewarding – we don’t read text books – we write them! I want young people to know that it’s an incredible feeling to realise you’ve made a difference in the world. True, you have to have rhinoceros skin and a dogged nature, but it’s really worth it.

Dr Sam Oaks

Do you think more girls and women should take an interest in STEM-related professions?

  • I think if you have a passion for STEM subjects you shouldn’t be afraid of the glass ceiling – women really can do anything. Things have really changed since I was a young student – I’ve since had many great female mentors.

    Personally, I think women make great scientists. They tend to be imaginative and scientists who have kids are very efficient because they know how to juggle and manage their time well! The Garvan is a great place to work as a female scientist as it’s flexible, fair and equitable. So, if you have a passion for science then go for it. Science is not an easy road, but then again Mother Nature doesn’t give up her secrets easily.

What is your career dream?

  • I now want to take what I’ve achieved so far with the State Custodians’ Edgy Ideas Award grant and see where the research leads in clinical trials. My best friend has also got metastatic breast cancer, so I’d really like to see what we’re doing make a difference in her life.

What else are your interests outside of science?

  • I like anything sporty and active – I play tennis, ride motorbikes and ski. However my all-time passion is surfing – I’m a total surf nut! I find that being out in the water clears my mind. I’ve even had meetings out there with other scientists who surf. Sometimes we come up with our best ideas out there!