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Maria Petraki

“I would tell her to always believe in herself, to take risks, and grasp the chances when they come. And to always remember that if things get more difficult, it’s because your call is higher. “

PhD candidate, Australia

Introduce yourself in a few words

I was born in the beautiful Athens of Greece where I lived until my 16. I them moved into Melbourne where I completed my high school education. I then moved on to do a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Developmental Biology and Physiology at Monash University. I completed my Honours looking at an inflammasome inhibitor as a potential treatment for perinatal brain injury where I was exposed to a large number of techniques. I am now a PhD candidate at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Victoria. I am particularly interested in a specific sub population of ovarian cancer cells, called Leader Cells, which appear to enrich following chemotherapy in patients. I am trying to take advantage of these cells and assemble a clinically applicable marker panel in order to monitor disease in women. I am using techniques such as bioinformatics, real time PCR, flow cytometry, tissue culture, and patient sample processing (ascites from women undergoing surgery for diagnostic procedures).

What is the most exciting thing about your work? 

Ovarian cancer is such an understudied and underfunded area with women being left with the same treatment options and survival rates for decades. The most exciting part of my work is knowing that my research will create a change in this story and let those women monitor their disease so that they know their personalised response to a specific chemotherapy regime as well as predicting whether the cancer will return. Looking at the strength of the survivors every day is my inspiration for what I am doing.

What is your favourite science fact? 

I am particularly mesmerised by the bioluminescence abilities of marine animals and bacteria, I think it’s pretty cool. I also think it’s a reminder for us people to always shine our light to the world.

What inspired you to follow this career path? 

I was always curious about how things happen in nature. Towards the end of my bachelor degree, I developed a strong interest about research and cancer in particular. I joined the current lab I am in because I knew nothing about ovarian cancer and was shocked when I first met my supervisors and heard the harsh reality of what women have to go through. Learning that one woman is killed every 8 hours, that there is no early detection test, and that ovarian cancer is one of the hardest cancers to diagnose, monitor, and treat was my turning point which became my driving force. There is so much research being done in breast cancer but not enough in ovarian cancer. These women deserve better chances and to not be threatened by such a disease.

What is the biggest challenge that you faced in your career so far?

I think it was the transition from another country and language at that particular age. Despite that, I am proud that I have reached the point of working in an environment that native people work on and also of the person I have become.

What motivates your work? 

Knowing that one day the story of ovarian cancer will change and women will not be threatened anymore.

Do you have any role models?

My supervisors are my role models and all these women who continue to fight this horrible disease with a big smile on every day.

What kind of advice would you give to your younger self just starting out?

I would tell her to always believe in herself, to take risks, and grasp the chances when they come. And to always remember that if things get more difficult, it’s because your call is higher.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

I have been doing Bellydancing for five years which is something I really enjoy and helps me unwind. I also go for hiking, practising yoga and going for long walks at the beach.

What do you think we can do to close the gender gap and increase female visibility in STEM? 

Always showcase women and their careers as well as their journey and what they went through to become who they are today. I think that’s important because a lot of young girls view these women as geniouses and not someone approachable. It’s important to understand that these women were once girls with wild dreams who put in a lot of effort to make them a reality.

You can follow Maria @maria_petraki_

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