Australian breast cancer researcher joins 360-year old science academy

Australian breast cancer researcher Jane Visvader joins 360-year old science academy

Past Fellows and foreign members have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking.

The world’s oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, has elected cancer researcher Professor Jane Visvader to join the ranks of their past Fellows and foreign members, which have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking. 

The Melbourne-based Australian Academy of Science Fellow has been leading Australian molecular and cellular biological research for decades. She has been recognised for her work interpreting breast development, the role of stem cell biology in breast cancer and the relationship between normal breast cells and cancer. Her teams have identified and isolated the stem cell that generates the entire breast and some of their treatment formulas are now in clinical trials.

Visvader’s research papers have been published in reputable scientific publications including Nature and Cancer Cell and notable papers include one from 2010, titled  Revealing which breast cells can – if faulty – go on to contribute to breast cancer, which explains why hormone exposure can elevate breast cancer risk. 

She is among three Australians newly elected to the Society and 62 individuals worldwide who have been recognised for their contributions to scientific understanding. Fellow Australians include Academy President John Shine and Professor John Endler.

Founded in 1660, The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of sciences and currently includes eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from or living and working in the UK and the Commonwealth.
President of the Royal Society Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, an Indian-British-American structural biologist, said now, more than ever, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer.

“Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity,” he said in a statement.

Fifty-two Fellows are elected each year from a pool of 700 candidates, including 10 Foreign Members. Candidates are elected on their basis of having made “a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science.”

Out of the 52 new Fellows, Visvader is among only 13 women elected this year, demonstrating the perennial gender inequalities in the sciences. Ten years ago however, the numbers were worse; only 6 females were elected in 2010.

What does it mean to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society?

“Discoveries made by Fellows of the Royal Society have played such a transformative role in society. It is truly humbling to be joining such an esteemed list of scientists, dating back to the 1600’s. It is wonderful to be recognised by scientific peers for my contributions in my own research area, which is aimed at delivering better outcomes for women with breast cancer. I hope that my election will provide some inspiration to early-career scientists, especially women. Election does come with a responsibility to help promote science and convey the importance of science to shaping a better society.”

Why does science matter, particularly at a time when we are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis?

“More than ever, this pandemic underscores how dependent our society is on basic and applied science. The biological sciences have always been pivotal to understanding the basis for disease and pinpointing effective therapies. The COVID-19 crisis reminds us how important the scientific method is for understanding the basis of diseases, climate change and the long list of issues that have global relevance.”

Are there any Fellows of the Royal Society who have been a particular source of inspiration for you?

“I’m a strong believer that scientific rewards come from hard work, perseverance and a passion for discovery. Mentors also play an important role. I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors over the years, most recently Jerry Adams and Suzanne Cory, both Fellows of the Royal Society, who have helped shape my career. In turn, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I have had the opportunity to supervise many talented scientists who have gone on to become successful independent researchers. The majority of these have been women.”

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