Innovation and persistence drive drug-resistant cancer research
When 32-year-old Nicole Seebacher (BSc '09, BSc (Hons) '11, PhD '15 (Medicine), MD '20) enrolled at the University of Sydney, it was in a Bachelor of Science degree, with just eleven other students studying molecular biology and genetics.
It was her first taste of research, and the first time she felt she might be able to contribute something to the world.
She is now likely familiar with that feeling.
“The degree was largely cancer-focussed,” she said. “It really encouraged curiosity and discussion in a way I hadn’t experienced before. And the freedom we had, being a small cohort, was just fantastic. The teachers gave their time and energy so generously. It was the first time I really felt like I was on a path somewhere.”
Dr Seebacher won the University of Sydney's 2022 Outstanding Achievements of Young Alumni Award for her promising and pioneering cancer research work. Recently completing her studies at University of Oxford, Dr Seebacher’s research targets the most challenging, drug-resistant, cancers, the most challenging kinds. Her innovation and persistence have contributed to current clinical trials of a new drug for treating advanced cancer patients.
When I first began in research, a co-worker and friend died of melanoma. It was devastating to see someone so young die of a disease that really should be preventable by now.
Her passion for researching melanoma was sparked by the death of a young colleague.
“I think we have all had that personal experience with cancer,” she said. “I certainly have. I’ve had multiple family members with cancer, and when I first began in research, my co-worker and friend died of melanoma. It was devastating to see someone so young die of a disease that really should be preventable by now.”
Dr Seebacher currently works at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, in addition studying at Oxford, where she has just finished her Master of Science (Medicine).
Research, says Dr Seebacher, is both “incredibly exciting and exceedingly challenging”.
“It gets better with experience but it is hard to come up against brick walls all the time.” Still, she adds, it’s also the most rewarding thing, as a scientist.
“You have to have the most extraordinary amount of patience to keep going. But then you get a result that is just life-changing and you never want to do anything else.”
Dr Seebacher long harboured a notion of attending the University of Sydney, where she had visited with her father when she was growing up. Dr Peter Seebacher (MEng Sci '87, PhD (Engineering) '97) was a PhD candidate and an academic member of staff (both in Engineering and Physics) at the time and is still lecturing at the University.
“I just always loved it here,” she said. “I would come to work with Dad in the school holidays and loved the campus. All my university preferences in Year 12 were for University of Sydney courses.”
Still, she says, she was not always so sure of her vocational path. It seems preposterous, given the numerous accolades she has received including a place on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, 2017’s NSW Young Woman of the Year Award, a NSW finalist for the 2019 Young Australian of the Year. Her long list of credits also includes $120,000 in scholarships and prize money, more than 1000 citations and 22 research publications, but Dr Seebacher says that, at high school, she was at best, an “average student.“Actually, I was probably below average,” she said. “If you looked at my school reports, I was not that great.”
It’s an astonishing admission, but one Dr Seebacher stands behind, and one that has made her passionate about mentoring young people today, including through the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME).
To anyone who thinks they can’t achieve something simply because someone has told them they can’t, I’d say, give yourself some time. Sometimes that is all it takes.
“One thing that was very clear to me as soon as I started university was that marks don’t mean as much as you imagine. We all learn differently. High school was not the right environment for me; I thrived at university because the work was challenging and exciting.”
Though she does not have as much time for mentoring as she’d like right now, Dr Seebacher often tells her younger colleagues to take their time when it comes to their ultimate focus.
“To anyone who thinks they can’t achieve something simply because someone has told them they can’t, I’d say, ‘Give yourself some time. sometimes that is all it takes’.”
Indeed, she adds, “I just found out I came first at Oxford so I’m not questioning my academic standing anymore. But that would be my message to younger students.”
On the topic of time-a significant factor in cancer research, of course, Dr Seebacher is learning, still. “The hardest part of what I do is saying no [to some projects],” she said. She has developed a litmus test of sorts, asking herself if she really loves the idea, and if she can put her entire energy bank behind it.
“If I’m going to do something, I really have to love it, and give it my all,” she said. “And if I can do those things, then I will say yes.” She has become a skilled compartmentaliser, working weekdays at the hospital and researching on weekends.
As for the future, Dr Seebacher is hesitant to be too specific. “I’m grateful that I’m not singularly focused,” she said. “It’s meant that I’ve taken paths I never thought I’d take. I had no idea I’d go into drug development, or go to Oxford, but I am so happy to have been able to make the most of what’s been in front of me.” The next few years, she says, hold exciting developments for her research.
“The immunotherapy agents we will see in the next few years are incredible. You can literally see cancer melt away. It’s hard to explain and fathom but you see brain cancers literally destroyed in front of you. It is the coolest thing.”
Written by Lauren Sams, Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim