This Friday, Type One Melbourne will be throwing a trivia night to support research into new combination treatments for Type One Diabetes. The research is led by Professor Helen Thomas, one of Australia's most distinguished T1D researchers, and one of our most senior female scientists to boot. Ahead of the fundraiser we took a few minutes to chat trivia categories and medical research with Helen, who'll be there in person to host a round.
First up: what is your favourite trivia category? I’m very bad at trivia, but like the high-brow questions and am quite good at questions about Western Australia (where I grew up). And your least favourite? I’m very bad at pop culture and politics.
What sparked your career in medical research? I come from a medical family. My dad was a plastic surgeon, my older sisters are a rheumatologist and an occupational therapist. When I finished uni I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I got a job in the US working on flu research and realized that I was quite good at experiments. Throughout my career I have seen how medical research changes the way diseases are treated and how some diagnoses are no longer as terrible as they once were because of research.
Can you tell us what your research is about? It’s about developing ways to prevent and cure type 1 diabetes. My focus is the beta cells. Healthy beta cells make insulin, but are killed by the immune system in T1 diabetics. I'm working closely with others to develop preventative therapies that both protect the beta cell and calm down the immune system. I'm also interested in beta cell replacement in people who already have T1D, and ways to protect those cells from also being destroyed by the immune system.
What are the developments in T1D research that you are most excited about? I am very excited about my research. We are learning so much about the immune system and how it kills beta cells. I have discovered a way to stop this from happening, which will be tested in a clinical trial [to be supported by funding raised at the trivia night]. There are many really exciting developments in T1D that could result in some really effective therapies, and maybe even prevention of the disease.
How have the opportunities for women in science changed (or not changed) during your career? I grew up in a family of 4 daughters. My parents were incredibly supportive and proud of our achievements and we were always told we could do anything. Now, my sisters and I are all leaders in our workplaces. There has been a lot of change in the way society recognizes the achievements of women, and I love that it is openly discussed now. But there is still a long way to go for women in science, with one of the biggest challenges being maintaining a productive career while raising a family. At SVI we have a very supportive environment for women, with three female associate directors all strongly advocating for female scientists.
If you could form a trivia team with three other people, living or dead, who would you pick? I’d take three of my best friends, and make sure red wine is involved.