A medical researcher’s own cancer diagnosis prompted a re-evaluation of her own career goals – and could lead to the “next big thing” in improving Australians’ health.
High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for death globally, as it leads to heart attacks, strokes, dementia and many other diseases. Unfortunately, too many people continue to have high blood pressure: in Australia, around 30% of adults have elevated blood pressure, with only one in five able to control it to safe levels.
I have always been fascinated by the potential for diet to prevent many types of diseases, but my own cancer diagnosis prompted me to investigate this connection with a focussed energy. For decades, we have known that a diet high in fibre is associated with lower blood pressure, but we didn’t understand why. I believe we have discovered the link: the bacteria that live in our gut (our microbiota).
Although our bodies cannot digest the fibre we eat, the fibre feeds certain types of gut bacteria which digest that fibre for us and, as a by-product, release substances that can influence our health. Since 2017, I’ve led studies that discovered that these substances lower blood pressure in animal models, and uncovered several of the mechanisms behind it.
Supported by the Heart Foundation, my team had the opportunity to test the use of these microbial substances in a randomised clinical trial, which we finished last year.
The next major step is to develop these into commercially available products, so we can test them in larger and more diverse groups, in the hope that they can help decrease high blood pressure in our community. This will represent the first use of microbial substances to treat high blood pressure. I am certain, however, there will be many more to come in the next decade, as microbiota studies are showing they have an enormous potential to treat many diseases.
I came to Australia from my home of Brazil in 2006 to have a gap year after completing a BSc, Honours and Masters in genetics and molecular biology. It has been a very long gap year! I fell in love with Australia straight away.
After finishing my PhD at the University of Sydney in 2012, I had to make a tough decision: to have the overseas post-doctoral experience that Australians value so much, or become an Australian. That was not an easy decision, but I love this country so much that I decided that my priority was to become an Australian. That drove my decision to accept a post-doctoral position at Federation University Australia, a small university in regional Victoria.
Some might say this wasn’t the best career move compared to going to a prestigious university or research institute. However, while I was there, I was able to secure my first research fellowship. I was also encouraged to take on supervisory and management roles that I would not have had the exposure to in larger universities. And my wonderful supervisors supported me to join various committees which gave me exposure to international colleagues without the need for that overseas post-doc.
I was also encouraged to develop new collaborations, which helped me to start my development as an independent scientist. This allowed me the opportunity to move to the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute a few years later, where I met some fantastic colleagues, and found my research passion. This was the foundation for securing my current position at Monash University in 2018.
What may look like a linear career progression was much less straightforward. English is my second language, and it is something I will always struggle with. I came from a middle-income country that does not value science. I had no family here, my parents were very ill during different times of my education, and I had to move cities three times and start a new life again each time. I am also a woman in STEMM, which comes with its own challenges.
To top it off, I was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer seven years ago, when I was about to start my job at the Baker Institute. My cancer diagnosis and treatment (two surgeries and five months of chemo while I worked) were incredibly tough. However, they became an incredible life-transforming opportunity to me. Suddenly, knowing I might have limited time, I had to decide what I wanted to achieve in my professional and personal lives.
My cancer diagnosis allowed me to reassess my priorities, values and passions in life, and act on them. It resulted in a shift in my mindset and research, as well as in my leadership style. Having the opportunity to lead others – be it my team or committees I serve – is an enormous privilege.
I have been very lucky to have amazing mentors who have had a genuine interest in my career development and well-being. They kept me going on many occasions I considered leaving science – and believe me, there were many. I am very happy now that I didn’t, and that they helped me to find the strength to keep going when all seemed lost.
This fake perception of what “success” looks like is what I call the “Instagram of academia” – I am yet to meet one researcher who did not face any personal or work-related struggles through their career. We all need to define what success is for each of us, which will be unique, and define our own goals to achieve it.
My vision is to empower and support others to become the best version of themselves. I now understand I can achieve this through my research, which may take years or decades, or by impacting the lives of those around me right now – by supporting my team members and mentees to become the best scientists they can become, to find careers they love, improve their health, and become their best selves. I believe this has given me the clarity to become a better researcher, mentor and teacher.
My motto has always been to work hard. But I now know that working hard is no longer enough – we need to work with purpose.
I know what I will be most proud of at the end of my life, and I can tell you it won’t be how many papers I published, grants or awards I received. I feel privileged and honoured to be passionate about my research and to work with a brilliant and energetic team to advance my mission.
Francine Marques is a molecular geneticist with the School of Biological Sciences, Monash University; a senior research fellow for the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation; and a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow and 2021 Australian Academy of Science Gottschalk Medallist.