Meet Associate Professor Chamindie Punyadeera, real advocate for women in STEMM

Issued: 24 May 2019

Associate Professor Chamindie Punyadeera is a research leader in cancer and heart disease at QUT’s school of Biomedical Sciences and the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, she heads up a research team who use human saliva and blood as diagnostic fluids to detect a number of cancer types and heart diseases early. Chamindie is a champion of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM), an inventor of new technologies and most importantly a mother.

Associate Professor Chamindie Punyadeera gives her thoughts on gender equity, diversity and inclusion in academia.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,” are words that I live by. Spoken by Marie Curie, the Polish physicist and chemist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry, a pioneering researcher in radioactivity who conducted her study in appalling conditions.

For too long discriminatory stereotypes have prevented women and girls from having equal access to education in STEMM. As a researcher from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, who has lived and worked on multiple continents, these stereotypes deny women and girls the chance to realise their potential and deprive the world of their ingenuity and innovation.

Growing up in a culture where women are second to men, I recognised from a young age that I was treated differently to my brother by my community. I would often ask my mother “why” when told that I could not do the same things as him.

My academic career began just like a tree, with a seed of curiosity and love of science. The seed was fed with drive, resilience and passion. For without those, my career would have remained dormant, in the ground.

I obtained my PhD in the fields of type 2 diabetes and obesity, in South Africa during the apartheid era, when discrimination by skin colour was the accepted norm. I vividly remember walking into the lecture theatre and realising that I was the only woman of colour in my entire class.

I faced a lot of discrimination, from social exclusion to taking additional exams not required of other students.

There were times when I felt that the odds were stacked against me and thought about giving up. However, through the support of others and a willingness to prove my critics wrong, I graduated top of my class. I became a robust seedling, proving myself as worthy to attend this prestigious university.

After acquiring my PhD, I sent forth my first branch — emigrating to The Netherlands to join my husband and volunteering as a research assistant at the University of Leiden.

Associate Professor Chamindie Punyadeera is a research leader at QUT

There, I analysed pheromones in butterflies to identify their origins and mastered the technique of peacefully catching butterflies.

Although I enjoyed my work, I still felt that I was not reaching my full potential, and was afraid of withering before I could grow to full height.

I frantically applied for postdoctoral fellowships, and was awarded a four-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Netherlands.

I had found a purpose, and thrived in my new environment, investigating the molecular mechanisms leading to the development of endometriosis and gynaecological cancers.

I adored researching at the interface of academia and industry, and was keen to take a leap into industry.

After taking one year of maternity leave I was appointed as a senior scientist at Philips Electronics where I was responsible for the development and commercialisation of biosensor technology platforms — the butterfly chasing had paid off. During this time my career took an unexpected turn.

I am the only daughter in my family, and in my culture it is the daughter who looks after their parents. My retired parents lived in South Africa but wanted to make Australia their home. So I made the decision to put my career on-hold and to uproot my young family from the Netherlands, replant in Australia and bring my parents over, where I could care for them.

I took up a six-month contract at one of the leading universities in Queensland, as a postdoctoral fellow in breast cancer research.

Ten years ago, it was very difficult as a junior female postdoctoral fellow to scientifically disagree with your male professor. As a consequence of such a disagreement, I lost my position within four months of arriving in Australia.

It was a devastating blow, as my husband was unemployed at that time and my son was only three years old.

To keep to my mission of bringing my parents to Australia, I took up odd jobs as a research assistant for three months. I remember working in a lab on Christmas Day instead of spending time with my family. At that time I had to remind myself that this was only temporary and I was working towards a bigger vision.

My resilience, determination, and perseverance got me through those difficult times, and I kept my eyes on the future and the difference my work could make in people’s lives.

Applying for a fellowship in an un-nurturing environment was really hard.

I had to beg my then-director to put my fellowship application forward which he thought “had no legs to stand on”.

In fact, it resulted in a prestigious Smart State Fellowship in 2010, giving me the foundation to establish myself as a budding young tree.

The wisdom and experience that I have gained throughout my career, that I wish I could have told my younger self, I am now telling you:

1. There will be times in life when you want to give up. Don’t. Remember why you started.

2. Sometimes you will need resilience. Sometimes you will need to blaze your own trail, and don’t take no for an answer.

3. Build a support network. Finding a mentor is one of the most important things you can do for your career. I have two great mentors, Professor Ian Frazer and Professor Mandy Thomas.

4. Connect and collaborate with other women in your field. Strong women lift each other up.

5. Work life balance is vital. Although I need to practice what I preach. 
As a woman we wear many hats: we are wives, mothers, sisters, but we are also our own person. Remember that your career is important, but so is making time for the things in life that give you joy, like spending time with your family, your hobbies and your passions.

6. There will be events in life that will require you to put your career on hold, and that’s okay. You can put the brakes on for a while, but remember to accelerate when you’re ready.

Overall, I feel my life has followed the same cycle as a tree — starting as a seed and fighting for water and sunlight. It has taken a lot of dedication, hard work and perseverance.

My ultimate goal is to continue the cycle and produce more seeds to nurture more young women so we can produce a flourishing, fruitful, female forest in STEMM.

Associate Professor Punyadeera and her Saliva and Liquid Biopsy Translational Research Team

This is a transcript of the speech given during World Science Festival Brisbane at the 2019 Queensland Women in STEM Prize event. We thank Assoc Prof Punyadeera for permission to share this inspiring speech.