Our female researchers making a difference in women’s cancers

8 March 2019 | Cancer Council NSW

Today is International Women’s Day and we thought it would be a great opportunity to highlight a couple of our incredible female researchers, who are making their impact felt working on two of the most common women’s cancers.

Dr Megan Smith leads the high-income country work done by the Cervix/HPV group here at Cancer Council NSW. Her work focuses on optimising and successfully implementing cervical cancer prevention. She has contributed to a large number of reports to government, including several evaluations that have directly informed policy in Australia, New Zealand and England.

Carolyn Nickson is a Senior Research Fellow at Cancer Council NSW and the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. Her work specialises in the evaluation of breast cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment, with the ultimate goal of optimising screening.

We sat down and asked them a few questions about their work and International Women’s Day.

How did you get into cancer research?

Megan Smith: “I originally trained as an engineer and worked for a medical device company that was in the early cancer detection space. I had always been very interested in both work that had a practical impact in the real world (hence the engineering) and also in health. Over time, I became interested in epidemiology and the ways you could improve health by working at the level of systems and the population as a whole.”

Carolyn Nickson: “I was from a working-class family, the first to go to university. At that point, the idea that you would go to uni to become a mathematician was just bizarre. You went to uni to do something useful, like become a radiographer. So that’s what I did. In my late twenties, following teaching studies and a stint in the public service, I finally enrolled in a maths degree. Just maths – that was me having to assert myself. Working a side gig to get me through my studies led me to epidemiology. It at this side-gig that my boss told me – “we need more numbers people like you in public health” and proved his point by sending me to do postgraduate studies in epidemiology and biostatistics.”

Why do you enjoy working in research?

Carolyn Nickson: “I really enjoy working in multidisciplinary research. It means I get to work closely with clinicians and scientists to combine skills, ideas and knowledge to generate important research outcomes that make a real difference to policy, practice and the many people impacted by breast cancer around Australia every day.”

Megan Smith: “Cervical cancer is a particularly exciting field to work in as there is so much we can do to prevent this cancer. Having been fortunate enough to contribute to the evidence base supporting a number of policy changes in cervical cancer prevention, I am passionate about seeing these policies successfully implemented so they can achieve their full potential; reducing the burden of cancer in the community and improving equity in cervical cancer prevention. I would really like my research to continue to inform and support best-practice policy implementation in cancer prevention in Australia and beyond.”

What does Balance for Better mean to you?

Carolyn Nickson: “I have a four-year-old and I help care for my partner’s two boys, who are in their late teens. Balance for Better is about how I can manage my job against those family commitments, which are inherently unpredictable. I still play down those interruptions when they arise and feel a certain shame or failure about them. Most days I feel like I have to choose between letting down my job or my family, while at the same time feeling like I’m some sort of Wonder Woman.”

Megan Smith: “My 11-year old son finds it totally bizarre that people would be treated or viewed differently on the basis of gender – as did I at the same age! There is still a way to go, but I have benefited from generations of women before me advocating for a better balance and hope I can do the same for other women. Working with and alongside so many talented women in my field, and in particular at Cancer Council NSW, shows balance is very much achievable and can lead to powerful results.”