February 11, 2019  Print

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we spoke with Dr Monica Miranda Saksena, Group Leader of our Herpes Neuropathogenesis Research Group and WIMR Honours Coordinator about her experiences in research, and as a mentor for young people considering a career in science.

Growing up in South America, Dr Saksena developed an interest in treating and preventing infectious diseases, particularly the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1).

“I’ve always had an interest in medicine and infectious diseases,” she said.

“I grew up in Colombia, where there is a high incidence of infectious diseases, like malaria, dengue and hepatitis A. 

“But, seeing how the herpes simplex virus affected people with low immunity, such as people on chemotherapy, and older individuals really influenced me to research the herpes virus.”

In many healthy adults, HSV-1 may cause no or mild symptoms such as cold sores. However, in at-risk populations, the virus can cause severe complications.

“This can give the impression that it’s not a serious virus. But, that’s not always the case.

“HSV-1 is really common – World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 billion people worldwide –approximately 67 percent of the world’s population – are infected with HSV-1,” she said.

 “HSV-1 is the leading cause of infectious blindness and endemic encephalitis worldwide.

“The virus is extremely contagious, and there is currently no cure or vaccines available, so research is crucial.”

HSV-1 infects and spreads in the peripheral nervous system. Dr Saksena and her team aim to understand how the virus travels and exits sensory nerves to spread to the skin or mucosa, causing recurrent herpes infections.

As a research group leader and an honours coordinator, Dr Saksena takes many students under her wing, and helps them develop skills for research and, more broadly, a career in science.

“I train my students, particularly my honours students, to think scientifically,” Dr Saksena said.

“I help them develop fundamental skills in research, like the techniques needed to take on a research project, organisational and presentation skills, and how to write scientific papers and theses.

“I also help them understand where they want their career to go. While it’s fantastic that they’re getting involved with herpes research, it’s far from the only option for them moving forward.

“Research can build a solid foundation of skills, such as critical thinking and communication, that can be applied in a lot of ways. There are a lot of opportunities in science, and I want our students to have the greatest chance of entering a field they feel interested so they are more likely to pursue their goals and succeed.”

Looking back, Dr Saksena noted that she has mentored far more women than men – purely by happenstance.

“Science is becoming a lot more balanced, and I’m seeing that in our cohorts of honours students. It just so happens that, in the past few years, I’ve had more women than men joining our lab” she said.
“It is still important to provide information and opportunities for young women in schools to encourage them to pursue a career in science or STEM related fields.”

Dr Saksena credits having a supportive environment as one reason she has been able to stay in science, even after becoming a mother.

“I’ve been very lucky. I fell into the right lab, with the right mentor,” she said.

“Without the flexibility that I’ve been granted in science, it would be difficult to juggle being a mum and full-time work,” she said.

“I’m able to work from home or on the weekends so I don’t miss out on important events with my kids. It’s been a really positive experience for me.”

Dr Saksena highlights the opportunities that come with science to a young audience. Once a month, she meets with Year 11 and 12 students at her daughter’s school to help them understand what pursuing a career in science is like.

“I try to help to give them a realistic idea of what working in a lab is like, what subjects they should choose in their senior years, and where they can go after studying science,” she said.

Dr Saksena said mentoring young people is one of the highlights of her career, and that she enjoys encouraging the future generation of researchers.

“I’m happy to support and mentor school, undergraduate and post-graduate students and give them a taste of the wonderful scientific environment that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.

“Science isn’t for everyone, but it’s encouraging to see so many young people engaging in science, and getting curious about what they can do in the future.”