Meet the Team - Rebecca

Meet the Team - Rebecca

Rebecca Simpson finished her Bachelor of Advanced Science with a major in Immunology and Biochemistry at the University of Sydney just last year. For most of 2019, she's been completing an Honours project in the Melanoma Translational Research Group lab at Charles Perkins Centre under her supervisor Dr Marcel Batten.

"I was pretty much always interested in science and medicine but doing Honours helped me realise that I was actually really interested in research,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca came to be an MIA Honours student after meeting with Dr Batten who, as an immuno-oncology postdoctoral researcher, looks at the microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that inhabit different systems like the skin and the gut – of melanoma patients.

"Marcel was so enthusiastic about the project and really sold it."

Coming straight from undergraduate study was a bit of a culture shock for Rebecca, as it can be for many students. 

"Honours is weird because they kind of throw you in at the deep end. You don't really know how to research but I came to really enjoy it.

“It's strange because the people who would have been your lecturers and your demonstrators are people you now have conversations with, and you sit in meetings with.

“And you really have to adjust to the way of communicating scientifically. It gets easier though."

“This lab is so interesting because it feels like there is a direct impact on clinical care. We’re lucky here because there are links to clinical trials and real people behind the samples.

“The translational aspect of the lab feeds back into the clinic and it's a really cool feeling to know that there are people who I can eventually help so directly.”

Rebecca is motivated by the esteemed women who round out the Melanoma Translational Research Group.

“Seeing all these amazing women in STEM in our lab, like (Co-Medical Director of MIA) Professor Georgina Long, Dr Ines Da Silva, and my supervisor Dr Marcel Batten, who are so intelligent and experienced and invaluable in their fields is really inspiring.” 

A short time into her Honours project, Marcel and Rebecca decided to make a change. Through the Biobank, they had access to stool samples which made work into the gut microbiome possible.

"My dad is a gastroenterologist, so I had some idea that the gut is really important,” Rebecca said.

"It's really fascinating to be doing this because we are starting to see just how important the gut is in terms of treatments and how there's a link to the immune system."

Rebecca spent the year looking at how the gut microbiome influences response to treatment and toxicity in melanoma patients, something that has the potential to make a difference in patient care.

When the opportunity came up to continue her research by undertaking a PhD, she jumped at the chance.

“This PhD is a great opportunity. Our research found the association between gut microbiome of melanoma patients and their response to treatment is there, but now I want to know how and why. I couldn’t leave things hanging and these questions unanswered. This project feels like it’s mine now!

“I'll get to look at this longitudinally and hopefully get to the point where we can look at microbial interventions to manipulate the gut microbiome to have an actual effect for patients.”

Rebecca will start her PhD in March 2020. She wants to use the time until then to get her proposal in and get organised to continue her research with Dr Batten.

Rebecca echoes familiar words from other students in MIA’s Translational Research Group.

“A good supervisor is so important - they become this person you can go to, to bounce things off and ask for advice. I’m so lucky to be working under Marcel.”

She looks forward to following similar paths to other MIA students, publishing papers and presenting at conferences. Rebecca’s advice for students?

“It's so important to take those opportunities presented to you and to get out of your comfort zone!”