Alumna and PhD student Alicia Didsbury talked about the revolutionary changes in cancer treatment occurring worldwide at the University’s Celebration of Giving event on 17 June. Guests – all donors to University - were fascinated to hear about the success this treatment is having with delivering long-lasting remissions for patients. They were interested to hear how Alicia’s work fits into this bigger picture and were moved by her personal story and the motivation behind her work.
Alicia is a student at the School of Biological Sciences, in the laboratory of Professor Rod Dunbar, the Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery. She describes these new treatments as a “revolution” in cancer therapy because rather than targeting the cancer, these new therapies are harnessing the immune system. Alicia’s work focuses on the cells of the immune system that are responsible for targeting and killing the cancer.
Alicia went on to tell the audience why it is so important for her, personally, to be working where she is. She says she loved science at school, and enrolled at the University but struggled to find a focus. In her second semester she became pregnant and thought that that was the end of her academic career.
A couple of years later she received the devastating news that her father was terminally ill with cancer. She took extended leave from her job and helped her mother to nurse him. Eight months later he passed away, aged 48.
Her father’s untimely death raised a lot of questions for her around how our bodies work and why they succumb to disease, and led her back to study. Her second foray into academic life has been lasting. She considers herself very fortunate to have been the recipient of a Master’s scholarship, book scholarships, and more recently a University of Auckland Doctoral scholarship, and a place in Professor Rod Dunbar’s laboratory. She is motivated by being not just a person receiving knowledge but a person who is able to contribute.
“The thought that the work I’m doing is going to be translated into the clinic is an incredible feeling,” she says. “I’ve gone from dropping out to being part of the revolution in cancer therapy - 15 years ago I couldn’t even have dreamed of being in this place. The research that I’m doing is contributing to the body of knowledge that will help to fight cancer.”
Alicia and Professor Rod Dunbar were the guest speakers at the Celebration of Giving event, which was hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon, with the Director of Alumni Relations and Development, Mark Bentley. Guests were alumni and friends who have supported activities at the University, many of them as donors to the Alumni Scholarships Fund, which helps exceptional students who are experiencing significant financial hardship.
“The research that Rod and Alicia are carrying out is has the potential to transform the lives of many,” Mark told guests. “And donors such as you, by supporting the Rods and Alicias of our world, show you believe in the importance of education to change the world for the better. Just as importantly, you are by example encouraging and growing the culture of giving within our society. This is an important legacy that will influence and benefit future generations.”
Pictured above: Alicia Didsbury and Professor Rod Dunbar