Dr. Hui-Fern Koay of the University of Melbourne, a researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute, has been named a 2022 Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) program.
From curious kid to top scientist
Originally from Malaysia, Dr. Koay has always been very curious to understand how things work and naturally ended up in the academic science stream in high school. She moved to Australia and completed a bachelor’s degree in biomedicine at the University of Melbourne.
She then did her honors at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center and undertook a PhD at the Godfrey Laboratory of the Doherty Institute, studying the development and function of unconventional T cells.
“At the time, a collaborative group of laboratories from the University of Melbourne and Monash University discovered a groundbreaking discovery about an elusive population called MAIT cells, which allowed us to study how they grow within our immune system,” said Dr. Koay.
“I took on this timely project and have since been working on unconventional T cells.”
“Immunotherapy, including cell therapy, has revolutionized the treatment of cancers, but still yields very low success rates in many types of cancer,” Dr. Koay said.
Dr. Koay lost her grandfather and a few relatives to cancer, so she’s no stranger to the nauseating feeling that currently available treatments that are supposed to give hope might not work in the end. She hopes her work will help change that.
“The training and mentorship I am fortunate to receive in immunology has pushed me to venture into understudied areas of unconventional T cells, where they could be striking candidates as tools and targets. immunotherapy,” she added.
Since 2015, Dr. Koay has been at the forefront of unconventional T cell research, where his research papers have provided insight into how unconventional T cells are generated and controlled in the immune system. Indeed, Dr. Koay’s work has been recognized with numerous prestigious awards such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO FWIS Fellowship, an American Association of Immunologists Trainee Achievement Award, and a 2022 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award ( DECRA).
Reflecting on her journey to becoming an international researcher in Melbourne, a city she has come to love, Dr Koay says it didn’t start out as an obvious path.
“My parents, who are first-generation Malaysians, probably never imagined that I could migrate and pursue a viable scientific career, let alone such a rewarding one.”
“There is vast untapped potential for research in Malaysia,” she said.
Along with the unwavering support of her parents, she credits her mentors for guiding her to where she is now.
“The representation of professors and senior leaders in Australia does not reflect the diversity of the student body or the younger generation, but I had some amazing women to look up to among my mentors,” she said.
“So the inaccessible ivory tower that used to be very tall for a woman seems a bit shorter these days, but it is not without a concerted effort and support from our respective villages encompassing the laboratory, institute, university and initiatives like this. Oréal-UNESCO FWIS Fellowship.
Inspire the next generation to pursue science
As an emerging science leader, Dr. Koay is passionate about science communication, inspiring the younger generation to follow in her footsteps, while championing diversity.
“I am fortunate to have met pioneering Malaysian scientists here, on a work trip and at home. It has inspired me to step up and promote the representation of the younger generation,” he said. she stated.
Dr. Koay has participated in Immunology Day and National Science Week, and looks forward to participating in the Girls in Science program hosted by L’Oréal.
“I want young girls to know that it is possible to be a successful scientist with a fulfilling career, as a young woman, with a multicultural background.”
“Women are currently underrepresented in leadership and leadership roles in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) fields, even though they contribute half of our PhD graduates and early career researchers (Higher Education Research Data, 2014),” L’Oréal said on their site.
“We are losing our female researchers and half of the world’s brightest thinkers because the enormous potential of women’s contribution to STEMM is not fully tapped. Addressing this gender inequality is both a national and global priority for the For Women in Science program, and we are always working to expand the program to provide more tools and resources to help women become our future leaders, as part of a larger cultural whole. change.”