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Changing challenges into opportunities – a true story of a female lead scientist

Authors:
Nimanie Hapuarachchi – Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, Griffith University
Arjun Ramke – MacGregor State High School
Tristan Bon – MacGregor State High School

Professor Chamindie Punyadeera is a classic example of perseverance. She is a leading researcher and innovator in cancer diagnostics at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery and Menzies Health Institute, Griffith University, and an advocate for women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). Her work looks to provide accessible, cost-effective diagnostic tests for the detection of early-stage cancer.

Professor Punyadeera was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Botswana in Africa. Her love for nature, curiosity, and passion for research led her to the field of science. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Botswana, Botswana, and Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Living in South Africa during the apartheid era has been one of the biggest challenges she has faced as a woman of colour and a female scientist. Her story is reflective of the barriers women and minority groups face in STEMM careers and across their lives more broadly, and an inspiration for those in similar positions.

“I was asked to sit for extra exams and my progress during my Master’s degree was monitored regularly with an objective of discontinuing my candidature if I was not performing according to the expectations of the University. This situation, as you can imagine, was very stressful and unequitable. But I had a great supervisor, Professor Pillay, who supported and encouraged me to focus on my goal. He once told me, when you are faced with great challenges, use them as opportunities and be focused,” said Professor Punyadeera.

After obtaining her PhD, Professor Punyadeera emigrated to the Netherlands, where she had the opportunity to work closely with industry partners such as Merck Pharmaceuticals and Philips Electronics. At Philips Electronics she worked as the lead scientist of the project team that developed and commercialised biosensor technology in cardiac disease detection. Around a decade ago, she moved to Australia, but that was not the end of her troubles. Four months into her new position in Australia, she lost her job. This was a great blow as she was her family’s sole breadwinner. She had to look for casual jobs to support her family and to pursue her objective of sponsoring her parents to move to Australia from Botswana. However, her resilience and passion for research overcame these hardships, and she was awarded the prestigious Smart State Fellowship in 2010, which provided stability for her to build her research team.

Professor Chamindie Punyadeera

Professor Punyadeera now leads the frontier in the early detection of throat cancer through a saliva-based screening technique. This non-invasive diagnostic tool detects throat cancer at early stages, including in asymptomatic people. This novel technique is more convenient, cost-effective, and non-invasive when compared with conventional hospital-based diagnostics.

Like pap smear tests in detecting cervical cancers at early stages, this saliva-based screening method detects throat cancers. Professor Punyadeera and her team have shown its preciseness by detecting small tumours of just 2 mm in size (size of a new crayon point), which cannot be detected using current biopsy methods. Furthermore, this technique can be used as a platform to detect other cancers such as head and lung cancers as well as heart diseases at early stages.

Professor Punyadeera has worked closely with industry partner Viome Life Sciences, Inc (www.viomelifesciences.com) to develop the salivary diagnostic tool. Their research on this salivary-based screening technique has reached clinical trials, and been designated as a breakthrough device by the United States Food and Drug Administration. This early cancer detection diagnostic tool will be commercialised and be available to everyone in the near future. The significance of this finding is that salivary testing could become a part of routine clinical management for oral and throat cancer patients. Excitingly, the platform technology used by the throat cancer diagnostic tool could also be used to develop tests for other cancers and diseases.

“The oral and throat cancer diagnostic is a first-of-a-kind proof of concept, the platform for which is being used to establish a repeatable method for rapidly developing and validating novel diagnostics and therapeutics. We are happy to make this cutting-edge platform available to the scientific community via grants (https://www.viomelifesciences.com/grants),” said Dr Guruduth Banavar, Chief Technology Officer, Viome Life Sciences, Inc.

Professor Punyadeera’s curiosity, vision and persistence have led to exceptional and valuable discoveries in cancer therapeutics. Professor Punyadeera’s story tells us that no matter the difficulties, her drive for discovery is stronger than the resistance she faced.

Professor Punyadeera said “I would like to end with a quote from one of my favourite women scientists – Dr Marie Curie. “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood”. This resonates with my career as to how I overcame challenges by changing them into opportunities.”

Judges’ Feedback

“I loved this article and  was left wanting to know more about Prof Punyadeera! What an excellent and well-told story of her life and the impact of her research. The article was detailed, flowed well and the language was compelling and of a high quality. A fascinating story.”

“A very interesting read – it made me think more about women in STEM, especially those from diverse backgrounds.”