Immunologist

    Rebecca Abbott

    Immunologist - Rebecca Abbott
    Rebecca Abbott, immunologist. Image: WEHI

    Rebecca Abbott is on a mission to find treatments and cures for brain cancer.

    When immunologist Rebecca decided to study Biomedical Science at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) without even seeing the campus, she couldn’t have imagined where it would take her. Now in the second year of a PhD trying to find a new treatment for brain cancer, she realises it was the best decision she could have made.

    “I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to study biomedical science, or more opportunities than I had at ACU,” she says.

    Small class sizes and great support meant Rebecca felt like “more than just a number”. Chances to take on responsibilities, like being a lab facilitator for students in the years below, allowed her to learn practical skills and gain experience in communicating science. And unique opportunities to gain independence and learn outside ACU were grabbed with both hands.

    As part of her ACU course, Rebecca completed six immunology elective units at Monash University over two years. She also signed up to a two-week intensive healthcare ethics course in Rome. “I loved it so much that I signed up for another two-week course in Italy that year!”

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    Kicking life goals

    The same year, she took on a job as a student research assistant at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, providing crucial real-world experience and learning opportunities. As someone whose family had been touched by cancer, one of Rebecca’s life goals had been to work at an institute dedicated to cancer research. Today, Rebecca is trying to re-engineer a subset of a patient’s own immune cells to fight brain cancer. Brain cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any type of cancer – only 22% of brain cancer patients survive at least five years after diagnosis, according to the Australian Government National Cancer Control Indicators. “This is what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning,” Rebecca says.

    For her PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), Rebecca takes blood from patients, and isolates a special type of white blood cell. She then engineers this blood cell by giving it the specific ‘key’ that it needs to be able to fit the ‘lock’ on the brain tumour cell. This enables the immune cell to recognise and kill the cancer cell. “I hope what I’m working on will one day make a real-world difference to a patient diagnosed with brain cancer and their family,” Rebecca says.

    Rebecca’s study and career pathway to becoming an immunologist

    • Bachelor of Biomedical Science, Australian Catholic University
    • Honours (Science),  University of Melbourne/WEHI
    • PhD (Immunology), Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI)
    Ben Skuse

    Author: Ben Skuse

    Ben Skuse is a UK-based former mathematician turned professional science writer, who has written for the Careers with STEM magazines for over 5 years. You can follow him on Twitter @BenSkuseSciComm.

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