Wendy Erber grew up on Sydney’s lower North Shore, attending Killara High School. One of three sisters born to WWII Austrian refugee parents, Erber chose to study medicine at Sydney University; graduating with first class honours.
While she was at university, her younger sister Jeannette, a first year science student, was diagnosed with leukaemia. Her death at just 18 years of age was a profound loss still felt by the family today, and which Professor Erber says may have ultimately influenced her interest in pathology and haematology.
After studying at the University of Sydney, a love of hockey assisted her application for a Rhodes Scholarship, where sporting excellence is one of the criteria for selection. Erber went on to win three blues at Oxford after starring in the varsity match against Cambridge.
She undertook her Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) at Oxford under the supervision and mentorship of the late Professor David Mason, a pioneer in the application of monoclonal antibodies to the diagnosis of cancer. “I got on extremely well with him and there’s a message in that for research students – your supervisor can be more important than your project,” she says.
Your [PhD] supervisor can be more important than your project
Post Oxford, her training brought her back to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, then consultant posts at Western Australia’s Royal Perth and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospitals. In Perth she met and married pathologist Professor Gary Hoffman. The couple relocated to Cambridge to take up appointments at the University hospital.
Returning to Perth in 2011, she took up a role at the University of Western Australia as Head of the School of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine. She was appointed to the position of Dean in 2015, a position she held for four years; and says teaching is still one of her greatest joys.
When I think of what medical students are doing today, much of it wasn’t even known when I graduated. It is wonderful to see.
What are your memories of your time at the University?
Surviving my first day at medical school. I remember feeling intimidated and anxious, which was not helped by the first lecture on the physics of pumps. I thought I was in the wrong venue and that it was a lecture for engineering students!
I also recall a particular day when I had to present for a supplementary exam having failed at the first attempt. I will never forget the support given by academics to ensure I understood the concepts to satisfy the examiners. I learnt more than the subject matter from this experience and now give feedback to students who find themselves in a similar situation.
The University of Sydney gave me the medical and scientific knowledge and platform on which I could build my career and deliver as a doctor, educator, researcher and leader.
What did you learn about yourself while you were here?
I learned how much I didn't know! That I needed to balance learning with other activities. I gained confidence in myself, and became more patient.
How did you find yourself in this particular area? Is there anywhere else you might have been?
I might have been a surgeon! But I made an appointment with Hugh McCredie (former Registrar at the University of Sydney) who oversaw applications for the NSW Rhodes Scholarship. He undertook an informal “virtual” interview before giving me the application forms. Clearly in his eyes I passed and he gave me the necessary paperwork!
Because of the Rhodes Scholarship, I studied with and was mentored by one of the world’s best and most inspirational leukaemia researchers at the University of Oxford.
What is the problem you’re trying to solve with your work?
My current research focuses on discovering the genetic basis of blood diseases, and, designing a world-first test that can be used to improve patient care with personalised medicines.
In 2018, my team and I won the Eureka Prize, the pre-eminent national science award, and UWA innovation award, for our ground-breaking invention to study blood cancer cells. This patented technique is highly original and we have achieved something others thought to be impossible. Regarded as the “holy grail” for leukaemia patients, it assesses many thousands of cells for abnormal cancer genes. The invention will increase the accuracy of testing and ensure patients receive the correct treatment.
This technique is a significant advance, giving unprecedented precision and sensitivity, three orders of magnitude greater than current tests. It has attracted significant interest from major international companies. These partnerships will hasten commercialisation and increase the speed with which the invention can be put into clinical practice. It is anticipated that there will be a marketable products within two years.
What is technically difficult about what you do? What are the main obstacles to progress?
The leukaemia test that we invented took 3 years to develop. This was extremely challenging and “achieved something thought to be impossible” as stated by the inventor of the instrument we use. He had tried to do what we had done, but failed and gave up after 10 years.
What is the most useful skill you have that's helped you do all the things you've done?
Getting the best education I could, working with the best people I could, taking all opportunities when they arose. Try! If you don’t, you’ll never know if you could have.