Growing up in a small country village in Hertfordshire, north of London, Associate Professor Hilda Pickett has always had a fascination with genetics and understanding DNA. After school, she turned that passion into a career; undertaking a degree in Biological Sciences (Genetics) at the University of Birmingham, before doing her PhD at the University of Leicester.
“It’s incredibly addictive. I’m constantly learning things, it’s constantly challenging; you have to be on top of the literature and you have to look at the bigger picture, but it’s really interesting,” Hilda says.
After a three-year stint working at the University of Leeds in cancer research, Hilda moved to Australia in 2005, having accepted a role with Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) as a Post-Doc in Professor Roger Reddel’s lab. In 2012, Hilda was running her own lab, the Telomere Length Regulation Group. The ultimate goal of her work is understanding the Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT) pathway of telomere maintenance, and how it becomes activated in cancer cells. Right now, she is working on telomere sequence dynamics, how telomere variant repeats contribute to structural aberrations at ALT telomeres, and the molecular mechanisms responsible for telomere-telomere associations and recombination-directed replication.
“I want to understand in great detail various aspects of telomere molecular biology, with the aim to use these to develop cancer therapies. We’ve identified a number of mutations that predispose people to cancer and we’re trying to understand how that happens,” Hilda said.
Hilda says the downside of research is the difficulty in obtaining funding, which leads to low job security. “I spend a lot of time writing grants, so that I can continue to fund my lab.”
But Hilda says the rewards in return make it worth it. “You can get a bit jaded when things don’t work, but when they do, it’s just awesome,” she says. “It doesn’t matter the scale of the success, when you find something, it’s exciting and addictive.”
When Hilda isn’t in the lab, you can find her doing something outdoors. But what takes up most of her time is her home life. Seven weeks after giving birth to her, now 8-month-old daughter, Aurora, she was back in the lab. “Juggling work and home life can be difficult; research is definitely not a nine to five job. I’m lucky I have a supportive family!”
Hilda wants to spend the next several years publishing influential studies, eventually become more internationally recognised for her work, and becoming more involved in national research programs.
“I want to do really high quality research, using cutting-edge techniques and technology, to answer questions that are important and answer them well.”
With an estimated 350 million people being affected by rare diseases worldwide, 80% of which are caused by faulty genes, the need to fund & support research aimed at increasing our understanding of genetics is the only way we can successfully seek to develop cures & treatment programmes for these rare conditions. Although in recent years we have been able to make significant breakthroughs in our understating of genetic diseases there is still a lag in our ability to develop effective treatments.
Just last week we were thrilled to host the Hon. Pru Goward MP (Minister for Medical Research) who officially opened our latest facility the Vector and Genome Engineering Facility (VGEF).
Under the leadership of Dr Leszek Lisowski (who has joined us from the world renowned Salk Institute in the United States) we look forward to the increased research capability that VGEF will provide to the research teams here at Children’s Medical Research Institute, as well as our paediatric research partners, the Westmead Research Hub, the University of Sydney, and beyond.
In addition to speeding up the gene-related laboratory research that we do on a daily basis, VGEF will boost our efforts to treat children with serious inherited diseases.
The vectors that VGEF develops are microscopic tools for delivering a healthy copy of a gene to the correct tissues and organs inside patients. This technology can speed up research and has the potential to treat and even cure a huge range of genetic diseases.
The immediate benefit of the VGEF is the provision of cutting-edge tools needed by other researchers and clinicians in Australia to progress their work.
To find out more on Vector and Genome Engineering Facility here.
For more info on how you can support the institute click here.
What inspired you to become a researcher?
I was inspired to be a medical researcher to be part of a combined international effort to discover new ways of treating cancer that are both more effective and with fewer side effect.
Describe a day in the life of a researcher?
A typical day begins with checking emails and seeing what new data has been published over a cup of coffee. I will then start my experiments, which can range from knocking out proteins in cancer cells and seeing if they survive, or determining how DNA folded using biophysical techniques. Depending on the day I may have a lab meeting or student society event as well. I finish by updating my lab book with my data and preparing for tomorrow’s experiments.
What’s the best & worst thing about life in the lab?
The best thing about my job is unravelling how cancer cells work, which may potentially identify targets for new anti-cancer drugs with fewer side effects. Working with other brilliant scientists and administrative staff is another amazing part of my job.
The worst thing, by far, is funding instability, which diverts the scientist’s attention away from trying to discover new breakthroughs to being concerned about keeping the lab financially afloat and constant grant writing.
What’s the most interesting thing you have discovered as a researcher?
In some early work I showed that a single mutation in a protein called telomerase significantly reduced its ability to bind DNA. This is important because telomerase binding to DNA allows cells to become immortal, a characteristic of cancer. This specific region may be a potential target for drugs targeting telomerase.
If you hadn’t become a researcher, what would you like to be doing?
I would have been a lawyer.