Please tell us about yourself

Most people have heard about proteins in the context of food or “protein shakes” but many are unaware that in a biological context, proteins are like molecular robots that perform important tasks for our everyday survival. Every protein has a unique shape and visualising it offers a way to understand how it performs its biological tasks. A faulty protein can lead to many pathological diseases including cancer. Today her research has the potential to generate a cure for many cancers including breasts. She is investigating how proteins work inside human bodies and based on the information will design novel therapeutics for cancer.

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Dr Onisha Patel, a structural biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), visualises proteins that are important in cancer progression. Onisha uses cutting-edge techniques including the Australian Synchrotron facility to see details inside protein molecules to enable the design of novel therapeutics for cancer treatments. Onisha has held an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, published in high impact journals, secured competitive funding and holds a patent.

Onisha grew up in India and moved to Australia on an international scholarship for postgraduate education and to pursue a career as a scientist. She is a strong supporter of equality and inclusion in STEM and regularly mentors at outreach programs. Additionally, she is deeply passionate about using art as a medium for science communication and education. She has communicated her research to a diverse audience through school visits, art exhibitions, WEHI discovery tours and Open House Melbourne events.

Tell us about your interest in Science and research and why you wanted to become a scientist? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

As a kid I was curious and creative and I enjoyed both science and art. My dad first told me about Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and that she went to Australia in the 1970s to study brewing which was a very non-traditional career path for women and her journey inspired me at the time. I moved to Australia for further education and this is when I first heard about structural biology. I’m a visual learner and I felt drawn towards structural biology because it allows you to see the architecture of biological molecules in three dimensions and helps in understanding how they function in our bodies.

What did you study?

I did my BS ( Biochemistry and Biotechnology ) from St xavier’s college, Ahmedabad, India followed by PhD in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at RMIT University.

Enlighten us more about your research work and its applicability?

My job as a structural biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research is to study the architecture of tiny biological molecules, called proteins, which are building blocks of all living things. Most people have heard about ‘proteins’ in the context of food but many are unaware that in a biological context, proteins are like molecular machines that perform important tasks in our bodies for our everyday survival. Sometimes a faulty protein can lead to many pathological conditions including cancer. I’m studying the architecture and function of these protein molecules, to enable the design and development of new and improved cancer treatments.

What’s the most interesting and exciting thing about your research work?

The most interesting and exciting thing about my research is that it allows me to use cutting edge techniques to see molecules that are invisible to us. These molecules, which are building blocks of life are very tiny, close to a billionth of meter in size! The fact that technology now allows us to see these molecules in so much detail and understand how they can become faulty is mind blowing. Through my work I also get a chance to mentor and supervise students and it is exciting to see them develop their own ideas and grow as future researchers. I also like to communicate my work to a larger audience as most people are curious and constantly seeking information. I communicate my work using art as a medium through art of science exhibitions, social media, school visits and discovery tours.

We do not see many women takers for STEM (especially in India). What do you think is the reason behind this skewed interest and how can we improve the same?

Statistics for women in STEM can vary depending on individual STEM discipline and countries. In Australia, in some fields of science gender distribution is close to equal however Engineering is male dominated. Also in some fields of science there is almost equal representation of women at undergraduate or junior academic levels, however women are underrepresented at many senior roles (Science in Australia Gender Equity, Additionally, according to The Global Media Monitoring Project (2015), women in media, including television, radio news and the newspaper are underrepresented at 24% of all media.

There are many reasons for fewer women in STEM, including gender stereotypes, implicit and explicit bias, lack of visible role models, lack of equality, lack of encouragement from family, discrimination and harassment at workplace, societal and cultural issues and many more.

To promote and retain women in STEM, requires initiatives that are implemented at an individual, organisational, cultural and societal levels. These include but are not limited to, understanding of your own conscious and unconscious bias; creating a positive, inclusive and a diverse workplace culture; increasing visibility of women role models at different career levels who are from diverse cultural and social background; providing mentorship and sponsorship; extra support for those with caring responsibility; supporting paternity and maternity leave; flexible working arrangements and eliminating gender stereotyping at a societal and cultural level.

What has been your inspiration all these years?

I’m usually inspired by people who find a way to lift themselves and thrive despite adversity and are not afraid to follow a path less travelled. I am inspired by many women that I have connected with through my work, networking events, conferences and social media who are passionate about supporting each other. I’m also very inspired by artists, the way they think, create and express their work. Sometimes you only have to meet one person in your life who can spark an interest you didn’t know you had!-I hope I can be that for someone through my STEM journey.

How do you look at Indo-Aussie relationship in the field of science and research?

Last 10 years has seen rise in collaborative initiatives between the two governments and also exchange programs between universities in both countries and this should continue to progress.  It is great to see support in STEM through the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund scheme, grant programs supported by Australia-India Council and the Australian Endeavour scholarships and fellowships schemes. Also initiatives undertaken by the Australia-India institute and the Australia India Youth Dialogue are valuable to support collaboration between India and Australia. Additionally, recognition of these strong ties through celebration and promotion of successful stories via the Dynamic Mix series by the Australia-India Council and the India Australia Business & Community Awards (IABCA) will help increase visibility of STEM role models between the two countries.

Which moment of your life would you call as the turning point?

Moving to Australia on my first ever plane trip and experiencing living away from home, was a turning point. I’m grateful to my parents and grandparents who were very encouraging for my education overseas despite many telling them what is a point in investing efforts in girls education.

Has there been any obstacle or challenge that you faced in your work?

I think most people will face obstacles and challenges at some point in their career. I usually look out for support, take a step back, reflect and work on my resilience to move forward. Within the STEM sector, we still have a long way to go to address lack of diversity and inclusivity in senior leadership position. Major challenges for women include what I mentioned earlier.

How do you look at- ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’?

I think they are perceptions defined by us and we tend to stereotype success and failure. Success doesn’t mean good and failing doesn’t mean bad, it is more about what we learn through those experiences.

What is it that you like to do when you are not working?

When I’m not working, I’m either pursuing my artistic endeavours or doing yoga.

Your message for young and aspiring brains:

Life is short, so find passion in what you do and when it is not enjoyable find something else. Keep working on your inner curiosity and creativity, because learning, discovering and new experiences are way more enjoyable when you look back one day!

Your message for all women who look up to you as an inspiration?

It is really important to find mentors, role models, positive allies, friends who will support you during difficult times. Believe in yourself more, especially when you are about to give up. Having an ambition is important so that you have a reason to wake up every morning. Also ‘pay it forward’ by helping others who need your help. I highly recommend reading the book, ‘Inferior’ written by a British science journalist, Angela Saini. This book is a great read for women empowerment and knowing reasons for women being stereotyped in the society.