Meet a Researcher – Associate Professor Hilda Pickett

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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.

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