This month we’re introducing Dr Jessamy Tiffen, head of the Melanoma Epigenetics Lab at the Centenary Institute in Sydney.
Here, Jessamy tells us a little about her career journey, her research and herself–enjoy!
What brought you to the world of melanoma and epigenetics? How did it all begin for you?
Ironically, it began for me in the United Kingdom where the sun never shines. I did a postdoc at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge with an Australian scientist and wonderful mentor by the name of Dave Adams. His team was using whole genome sequencing to look for melanoma predisposition gene mutations in families who were prone to the disease and identified a new tumour suppressor, known as POT1, that is now routinely screened for in patients. It was an enormously exciting project to be involved in and I became hooked on cancer genetics! Epigenetics was a natural progression once I realised how much epigenetic deregulation can influence multiple aspects of melanoma development and treatment resistance. They also have great potential as therapeutic drug targets.
In your career to date, of what are you most proud?
Establishing my own independent research lab. I feel like it’s never been more difficult in this current research funding climate and especially challenging for women to reach levels of senior leadership.
Can you tell us about a couple of things happening in your lab right now that you’re excited about?
We are trying to determine why men are more than twice as likely to die from cancers such as melanoma compared to women. We are exploring a new theory related to epigenetic tumour suppressors that are located on the X chromosome and fail to undergo inactivation of the second gene copy in females. This essentially gives women double the protection from cancer compared to men but we need to define the precise mechanisms of how this might occur.
Would you like to tell us a little about the Centenary Institute?
I started as a Research Assistant at Centenary in 2005 and it has served as a wonderful training ground in my scientific career progression. Its small size is conducive to collaborations and we punch above our weight in terms of research excellence. We enjoy less administrative burdens, discounted core-facilities and problems get resolved quickly compared to some bigger organisations. It’s a great place to do science.
If funding and time were unlimited, what dream project or idea would you like to develop?
Our current project on defining biological sex differences in melanoma survival is an absolute dream project with enormous potential. With unlimited funding and time, we could extend these findings not only to other cancers but other diseases such as COVID-19 and cardiovascular conditions that also show striking sex differences. Understanding these fundamental biological processes will lead to improved outcomes for both men and women.
Outside your own lab, what research or technology developments in the field are you excited about?
I think single cell technologies could be a real game changer in terms of addressing the tumour heterogeneity problem in melanoma. Especially in the context of treatment resistance where melanoma cells are incredibly plastic in phenotype and able to evade whatever we throw at it. I’m also pleased to see more attention on understanding host responses to eliminating melanoma (immune system, tumour microenvironment etc). For too long we’ve focused on the intrinsic properties of cancer cells and that’s clearly only one side of the story.
How important has collaboration or international travel been to your research and career?
So important! I always come away from international meetings having learnt something, feeling so inspired and have spoken to half a dozen potential new collaborators.
Can you give us one piece of advice for early career biomedical researchers?
When the impostor syndrome starts to creep in, I like to share this quote about empowerment from my favourite women in STEM, Mae Jemison: You have the right to be involved. You have something important to contribute, and you have to take the risk to contribute it.
Outside of work, what do you like to do?
I love all things food related. Scouring recipe books, cooking and most of all eating. When I’m not studying the abstract books at international conferences, I’m researching the menus of the best local restaurants.