Getting to the molecular level of science to inspire other women

Photo credit: University of Wollongong

Dr Amy Wyatt

Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong 

2016 | $461,496 (Project Grant)

2011 | $352,663 (ECF)

To solve the great health challenges that are facing us today, we need to retain and support all of our most talented researchers. NHMRC is committed to encouraging women researchers like Dr Amy Wyatt who is delving into how one of the fundamental systems in our body works.

Dr Wyatt, from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, is investigating how the body functions at the molecular level. Her current Project Grant explores the relationship between proteins that become toxic when they are damaged (referred to as ‘misfolded’ by researchers), and chemicals such as hypochlorite that are produced by the body during inflammation.

‘Our central idea is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle,’ she explained. ‘Inflammation causes proteins to misfold and in turn, misfolded proteins promote inflammation .’

The build-up of misfolded proteins and inflammation are underlying features of a wide variety of diseases including Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

‘The grant that I was awarded from the NHMRC focuses on testing our model using the amyloid beta peptide protein, which is the major part of the plaques found in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease,’ she said.

‘In learning about the relationship between protein misfolding and inflammation and the molecular mechanisms that control it, we will be better armed to design novel therapeutic strategies that can target these processes.’

To help her achieve her research goals, Dr Wyatt has been supported by NHMRC through both an Early Career Fellowship—taking her to the University of Cambridge in the UK—and a current Project Grant to help her further develop her career and to eventually find a cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dr Wyatt wants to encourage other young women into a career in scientific research.

‘It definitely comes with many challenges. If it is something you really want to do, go and talk to people, find out about decisions they have made in their own careers that have enabled them to become independent researchers,’ she suggested.

‘And working at a regional university can actually help. There’s less time spent travelling to and from work and it makes having a family more compatible.

‘There can be a tendency to think that the greatest research will happen in the biggest institutes in the major cities. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can still have fantastic ideas wherever you are—science is a global thing—you can form collaborations anywhere,’ she added.

NHMRC  along with its Women in Health Science Working Committee, is committed to encouraging and supporting women, like Dr Wyatt, to pursue a career in scientific research.

Professor Rosalie Viney, Chair of the Women in Health Science Working Committee, believes it is essential to overcome the barriers women in science face in their research careers,

‘For the NHMRC it’s about recognising there are some really definite barriers for women in terms of achieving grant success,’ she said.

‘First of all don’t give up—take opportunities. Be really clear and explicit about your track record relative to opportunity, and be explicit about things like career disruption but also don’t be afraid of putting yourself forward.

‘NHMRC now has unconscious bias training available for grant reviewers, a gender equity policy for administering institutions, and workshops bringing together senior men and women with early and mid-career researchers who are concerned about progression of women in science to identify possible strategies that can help to address those balances,’ she added.

Dr Wyatt is currently expanding her research program into new areas including the study of protein misfolding in pre-eclampsia, a disorder of pregnancy. Excited by the prospect of bright young minds joining her team, she hopes that sharing her experiences will inspire the next generation of female scientists.

NHMRC encourages female researchers to apply for grant funding and is continuing to work with the Women in Health Science Working Committee to identify strategies that promote the advancement of women in health and medical research.