In the genes

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja16.1605C1
Published online: 16 May 2016

Professor Melissa Southey is dedicated to uncovering why some families have such a history of breast cancer, and how to modify their risk

Professor Melissa Southey is a molecular geneticist. She runs a 28-strong team of researchers as head of the Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory (GEL) in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Pathology.

To quote her GEL profile page: “Her research programs are focused on characterising the genetic and epigenetic factors responsible for cancer predisposition and progression, including familial aggregation of cancers”.

Specifically, she studies the genetics of familial breast cancer, and has dedicated her professional life to puzzling out why some families have so much history with the disease, and, ultimately, how to reduce the risk to them.

Professor Southey puts in long hours chasing the answer to the breast cancer puzzle and, like other researchers in her field, it would be easy to stereotype her as she’s pictured here — white coat, bespectacled and, no doubt, with an expensive piece of equipment close at hand.

She has all the qualifications you’d expect — she completed her Bachelor of Science (Hons) from UoM in 1988, and followed that up with a PhD, again from UoM, in 1993.

It’s the non-scientific aspects of her resume that surprise.

First up is a graduate diploma, now known as a masters, in law, awarded in 1996.

“It’s focused on intellectual property law, particularly around patents and copyright law,” Professor Southey tells the MJA.

“If I wanted to I could go be a patent attorney, but I use it from a scientist’s point of view, knowing how to protect your own intellectual property. The whole space is quite detailed. It’s not just about the institution, it’s also about [the individual] having a voice.”

Go back a little further and Professor Southey’s career path has another surprising turn.

“Science was always a key thing in my life,” she says, “but I started university doing music at the Con. It didn’t take long to realise that music was my hobby not my career. Science sort of overran it.”

She plays piano and the oboe, but her major at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music was singing, specifically operatic singing, making the most of her soprano voice.

“[Music] was a nice therapy, I suppose,” she says. “And it financially sustained me through university — mostly choral, church music, weddings, that sort of thing.”

Although her days of singing professionally are over, music provides essential moments of stillness in Professor Southey’s life.

“I travel quite a bit and I always try to go and hear some music wherever I am,” she says. “It’s something I don’t have to think about, I guess. Almost mindful rather than thinking.”

An income wasn’t the only positive to come out of music.

“I met my husband, Andrew, when I was 13, in a school orchestra. He was blowing out his trumpet down the back of my shirt,” she says. They married in her honours year, and now have two daughters, aged 17 and 19. He is a psychologist.

“I didn’t do the classic postdoctoral thing overseas,” Professor Southey says. “We waited until both girls were in primary school and then went to France for a while.”

Like most working mothers, Professor Southey faces all the usual dilemmas around work–life balance.

“Andrew has been able to pull back a little, but it’s tough for a research scientist to do that,” she says, calculating that she logs about 70 hours a week in the lab.

“But I work with joy. It’s like being paid for doing your hobby. I have to pinch myself sometimes. I even feel a bit guilty, because it’s so amazing. I get to see a lot of the world and I’m stimulated most of the time.

“And I think — I hope — I’m setting a good example for my daughters.”

So, why cancer?

“Cancer always interested me as an undergraduate. You could clearly identify which cells were cancerous, but what really intrigued me was, why were they cancerous?

“Like most people, cancer had touched my family so that’s the direction I went in.”

A quarter of a century on from her undergraduate days, Professor Southey nominates three milestones in the field of “precision public health” that have changed the face of genetics.

“The first was polymerase chain reaction (PCR) becoming affordable in the 80s,” she says. PCR is a process used in molecular biology to amplify DNA sequences. “That was a huge boost. It gave us an amazing capacity to look at genetics in ways that were not possible before. It made genetic testing quicker, easier and cost-effective.”

The second milestone was the development of gene array technology in the middle to late 1990s; and the third was next-generation sequencing.

“In the late 80s we could look at 200 base pairs in a week,” Professor Southey says. “Now we can do a whole human genome in a day.”

Running a team of 28 researchers is like herding cats “but in a good way”, she says.

“It’s not like an accounting office. We encourage independent thought and action, so it’s a matter of herding them in constructive and supportive ways. It’s a delicate art.”

Mentors were vital to Professor Southey’s early career development, she says.

Professor Deon Venter, a consultant anatomical and molecular pathologist, was an early influence.

“He knew what molecular genetics could do for pathology,” she says. “He was leading the field, and he was right. He joined those two dots together for me.”

Professor John Hopper, Director (Research) of the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Population Global Health at The University of Melbourne, and Professor Graham Giles, Director of the Cancer Epidemiology Centre at Cancer Council Victoria, were mentors, as is Professor Ingrid Winship, chair of Adult Clinical Genetics at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Southey is doing some mentoring of her own, as students come through her department.

“By the time students have found me, they’ve already converted,” she laughs. “They’re focused, engaged, and they know that just having a degree is not all that unusual. They know they have to find a niche to be employable.

“It blows me over how bright they are.”

The National Breast Cancer Foundation has set the goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030. Does Professor Southey think that’s realistic?1

“I’m not sure,” she says. “Maybe I’m too [close to it]. There are so many families where we don’t understand why they have so much family history of breast cancer.

“But I’m not pessimistic either. We’re making huge strides in identifying those who are at risk before they develop breast cancer. The biggest way forward now is to modify the risk. How do we reduce the risk?

“In 5 years we’ve made a huge difference. In 10 years’ we could make an extraordinary difference.”

1. National Breast Cancer Foundation’s Project 2030
  • Cate Swannell



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