2018 marks 10 years since the foundation of Ovarian Cancer Action and we’ve been working with them since the start. That’s over 10 years of donations. Paperchase has so far raised over 60K for this amazing cause through our charity Mother’s Day cards.
We donate 25p from each of the cards sold, so you can celebrate Mum with a card that’s not only fun, but also shows your support for this fantastic charity! Shop cards here.
This year, we’re allllll about fierce females and we met up with Mara Artibani a scientist for Ovarian Cancer Action and listen, you cannot get fiercer than trying to fight cancer.
Mara works in the lab they fund at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, so let find out some more about her & what she does.
Where are you from?
I was born in Livorno (Italy), but my family moved around quite often because of my dad’s job. We lived in several Italian cities and then settled in Rome when I was 14.
My dad is a chemical engineer. He is now retired, but used to work for ENI (Italy’s biggest oil company): he first spent many years in different refineries, then became senior vice president of the health, safety, environment and quality for the refining and marketing division.
Please can you tell us about the research projects you’re currently involved with?
The main project I am currently working on investigates why ovarian cancer patients respond differently to chemotherapy and how we can stop the tumour from coming back. Unfortunately, 70% of the women will have a relapse within a year after treatment: we believe that this is due to a tiny population of resistant cells, which are too small to be detected during surgery but are then able to grow into a tumour recurrence.
I’m responsible for….
I’m responsible for the project, which basically means that I have to decide and plan what needs to be done together with Professor Ahmed and then do most of the lab work.
The tumours that respond well to chemo and those that do not may appear exactly the same at the macroscopic level, but we believe that they are actually extremely different at the cellular level, in particular in their DNA and RNA. The DNA contains our genetic information and all the instructions on how to run a cell: the genes in the DNA are first copied in a messenger (the RNA) and this is then used to produce proteins (such as antibodies, haemoglobin, melanin, …).
Patients may have different mutations in their DNA, which means that their cells are run in slightly different ways; also, the tumours of these patients may make different levels of the messenger RNA, which then translates into different amounts of proteins being produced – and both these differences could have a drastic effect on the response to chemotherapy.
My role is to identify and analyse these differences: we want to decipher what it is that makes a tumour cell sensitive or resistant to chemotherapy, so that we can develop more effective therapies for ovarian cancer.
What time does your alarm go off? What’s your morning routine?
I usually get up at around 8 o’clock (unless it’s a yoga day – in that case the alarm goes off at 6am!) I have breakfast while reading the news, pack my lunch, then get ready for work. It’s a nice half an hour walk to the lab, which I spend listening to my favourite music or chatting on the phone with my friends and family.
Describe a typical day at work. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at the lab?
I first check my schedule and see what we have planned for the day; if I am supervising students, I meet with them and make sure they know what they have to do. Then, it’s experiments, experiments, and some more experiments! I need to plan, perform and analyse them very carefully, then I discuss the results with my boss and other colleagues.
What do you do after work?
I have dinner with my husband and we watch some comedy shows together.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
Understanding that failure is part of the game and that each negative result can actually bring us closer to a great discovery.
What’s the best part of your job?
Everything else, I guess! No two days are the same in the lab, I keep learning new and exciting things and I’m surrounded by awesome people from all around the world.
What are the most memorable moments at work?
When after months of optimisation and troubleshooting an experiment finally works! Or when we discover something new and we realise that we have just created a small piece of knowledge that simply did not exist before our hard work.
What’s the best thing you’ve learnt in your career so far?
That no scientist is an island. We do not thrive if we are isolated from our colleagues or from the general public: we are dealing with no easy tasks and we need all the help we can get, therefore collaborations and public engagement are essential in this line of work.
What do you need to be a successful scientist?
Drive and passion. I think you really need to love what you do and have strong, clear motivations in your head because this is what will keep you going in the long run.
Who’s your inspiration?
My family is my best inspiration, as I grew up admiring my dad’s work ethic and my mum’s kindness and curiosity. I am also very lucky to have the best little sister and a very supportive husband.
Tell us a little about how you became interested in science, and more specifically cancer research.
As a kid I was always very keen in scientific subjects, I could not draw to save my life so I would rather solve a math problem! Then, in high school I had the most amazing biology teacher and after her genetics class I was totally sold on it. I had seen my mum and grandma struggle with cancer when I was very young so, when I had to choose what to specialise in, cancer research seemed the perfect topic to combine my love for science and my commitment to improve the life of cancer patients.
You’ve studied in Italy, Edinburgh and Oxford. What drew you to the UK? And how did you come to be in your current role?
After finishing my masters in Rome I wanted to gain some international experience and the UK seemed the perfect place for that. I spent 5 amazing years in Edinburgh, then started looking for a postdoc and came across the advertisement for my current position. I immediately thought it was an exciting project that could really make a difference for ovarian cancer patients, so I applied and got the job!
Do you have any advice for women who are aspiring to have a career in scientific research?
I would encourage them to follow their dreams and stand up for their self. We tend to be more shy and soft-spoken than men, but this must not prevent us from becoming successful scientists.
What’s your Plan B and why?
Plan B is to one day open my own lab and combine cancer research with teaching. Should I not be able to do that, I will probably keep working in research in someone else’s lab and try to spend as much time as possible supervising students, as I believe nurturing the next generation of scientists should be a priority.
The theme of our campaign is Stolen Moments – far too many families lose out on precious moments because of ovarian cancer. In light of this, what are your hopes for the future of ovarian cancer research?
My hope is that 15 years from now we won’t have so many stolen moments because ovarian cancer patients will have much better survival expectations.
What’s your favourite….
Book: Pride and Prejudice
Film: La vita e’ bella (Life Is Beautiful)
Food: Gnocchi with gorgonzola
Song: Demons by Imagine Dragons