Professor Susan Ramus
University of New South Wales
20 April 2022

Professor Susan Ramus is Professor of Molecular Oncology in the School of Clinical Medicine at the University of New South Wales. She received the 2021 Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grants Award - Basic Science (Leadership) for her work improving the prognosis of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Like Elizabeth Blackburn, I had an interest in many aspects of science from an early age, inspired and encouraged by my parents. 

After my PhD at the University of Melbourne, it was also suggested that I work overseas, and I spent the next five years working at the University of Cambridge. I worked in Melbourne and London, and then I also moved to California. 

I began studying on ovarian cancer in early 1996, following the recent discovery of the breast and ovarian cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. I was excited to be working in Cambridge, with Sir Professor Bruce Ponder, on a project to study women who had a family history of ovarian cancer. I wanted to understand the genetic changes in the women who did not have mutations in these two known genes, which led me to perform larger and larger projects over the course of the next 25 years. During my time in Cambridge, I analysed the tumours from these women with and without changes in BRCA1 and BRCA2. Again, like Elizabeth Blackburn, I was fascinated by the chromosomes. Looking at chromosomal changes was my first tumour profiling project, and I have returned to this aspect in my current program.

As well as being scientifically interesting, my motivation to work on ovarian cancer has been driven by the many consumers I have worked with over the years. Women who have shared their story and their often-limited time, to improve the outcomes for future women diagnosed with this disease. I especially want to thank all of the thousands of women around the world, who have contributed to our projects, with samples and clinical data and completing questionnaires about lifestyle factors. It is because of these thousands of tumour samples and long-term clinical data that we will be able to develop tests to personalise treatments for patients. Large scale projects are required to validate preliminary results and make reproducible discoveries that will improve the survival for women with ovarian cancer.

Professor Ramus with consumers, Jean Richardson and Bronwyn Grout, on a hike in Zion Canyon, after the 2019 OTTA consortium meeting.

Since I started my career in science there has been a fundamental shift, from people in small groups competing with others, to everyone working together. This is vital to making a real difference for patients, and I am proud to be part of that change. We established the Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium in 2005 and the Ovarian Tumour Tissue Analysis (OTTA) consortium in 2009. The ethos of these consortia is to be as inclusive as possible, and everyone is warmly welcomed into the group and encouraged to lead new projects. These consortia have grown to include 70 to 100 international groups all working together. We are a true multi-disciplinary team of researchers, with a wide range of skills and interests. Our papers often have 50 to 300 authors. 

The constant interaction with brilliant clinicians, researchers and consumers has been the most enjoyable part of my research. My work was dependent on zoom and email, long before COVID19. The work to understand ovarian cancer proceeds night and day, as there is always someone in the consortium awake and working on projects. Co-ordinating the consortium, and the many different projects, has often been time consuming, but also deeply rewarding, with colleagues and friends in so many countries. We have not met in person for a long time, but we are all just an email away.

To all the early career researchers, I suggest collaborating with as many people as you can. Sharing data and ideas, to have the largest impact for patients and the most rewarding career. If you are offered the opportunity to lead a large project, take it with open arms.

I want to thank the NHMRC. I started my career with a Biomedical (Dora Lush) Postgraduate Research Scholarship in 1993 to do my PhD, which set me on this path, and now I am honoured to receive this award. I see this award as an acknowledgment of the importance of a consortia approach to medical research. Recognition of everyone who has participated, in many different ways, over the years.