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Close Up Award-Winning Scientist Dr Serena Nik-Zainal On Breaking The Glass Ceiling

Award-Winning Scientist Dr Serena Nik-Zainal On Breaking The Glass Ceiling

Stephan Rohr, Co-Director of the Institute for Physiology and president of the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Foundation’s board presenting Dr Serena Nik-Zainal with her award
Stephan Rohr, Co-Director of the Institute for Physiology and president of the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Foundation’s board presenting Dr Serena Nik-Zainal with her award
By Jessica Liew
December 11, 2019
The Cambridge-based scientist, who received the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize 2019 for medical discovery in cancer genomics, describes the pinnacle moments of her career and her personal achievement

With numerous headlines waxing lyrical about Dr Serena Nik-Zainal’s groundbreaking medical discovery with cancer genomics, this Cambridge-based scientist certainly needs no introduction. Her bittersweet journey in getting here, however, deserves to be told.

Prior to receiving the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize 2019 for her holistic work in the field of cancer genome interpretation, Serena hails from a number of UK’s prestigious institutions.

At her alma mater, the University of Cambridge, she achieved first class honours in Medical and Veterinary Science Tripos in 1998 and subsequently a Clinical Medicine degree in 2000, before being awarded a CRUK Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship in 2017.

She also worked at the Wellcome Sanger Institute from 2013 to 2017, after earning a PhD in Cancer Genomics there in 2012.

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British Ambassador to Switzerland, Jane Owen, Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and Stephan Rohr, Co-Director of the Institute for Physiology and president of the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Foundation’s board
British Ambassador to Switzerland, Jane Owen, Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and Stephan Rohr, Co-Director of the Institute for Physiology and president of the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Foundation’s board

As the principal investigator of the Cambridge University’s department of Medical Genetics, Serena’s dedication to science and curative medicine flows like a reservoir. Now that she and her team have cinched world recognition for cancer research, Serena’s next step is to make her work useful by translating it to clinical applications. Through it all, the mother of two children takes it all in her stride as she keeps up with a stream of well-wishers.

Amidst her demanding schedule and travels, she took some time out to share with us how she found her calling when she least expected it, her thoughts on breaking the glass ceiling as an Asian female scientist, and what makes her work exceptionally meaningful. 

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The beginning

“A lot of people kind of had an idea of the specialist they wanted to be but I really didn’t,” Serena describes her younger self. “I tried so many different things and I enjoyed a lot of things… but it was all just ok. And then someone introduced me to clinical genetics.”

And so in August 2009, Serena delved into the world of genetic study, starting mainly with children born with disabilities. The work required her to understand the patient as a whole, which gave meaning to her and her colleagues. It was an unusual speciality at the time, and she became fascinated with a new genetic technology called next generation sequencing, which has the ability to read human genome at an accelerated speed. Using that technology, Dr Serena began to study the thousands of mutations and genetic changes that cause cancer.

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 “The human genome changes a lot,” Serena explains. “The mutations that we see can tell us something about why a tumour develops. Our research approach gives us a complete picture. It’s like having a very clear map of a cancer to streamline directions to more effective treatments.”

The work was extremely rewarding and eye-opening for Dr Serena; it was even considered groundbreaking in the western science field. She happily recalls the moment her research made the coveted cover of the scientific journal, Cell, for identifying a shower of mutation called Kataegis.

“Every day there is a new discovery. Sometimes about science, sometimes about people, sometimes about myself,” she opines. “I think of it as perpetual learning and discovery.” 

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Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and British Ambassador to Switzerland, Jane Owen
Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and British Ambassador to Switzerland, Jane Owen

On personal values and speaking up

Like all roads to success, Serena concedes there were many challenges, describing them as “torturous moments with some delightful ones" in the lead up to the final presentation. These highs and lows didn’t just test Serena’s intellect and capabilities; they also shed light on the discrimination within the science and technology industry.

“Even though I have done relatively well in science and medicine, it wasn’t easy. And that’s important for people to see,” she states frankly, before relaying an experience that prompted her to call out the perpetrators and call for a Code of Conduct in the UK, along with two other female colleagues.

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Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and her family
Dr Serena Nik-Zainal and her family

In 2018, Serena wrote an article entitled The Duty To Speak Up for scientific journal, Nature Cell Biology. It spoke honestly about the discrimination she experienced under a former employer. Her story elicited strong reactions from around the world. “I suppose there are many people who experienced or are experiencing such issues but rarely talk about them because it is deemed as something of a failure. But I'm not ashamed to tell the truth nor do I feel weaker for doing so."

She adds: “I also felt that I could have been helped had the few people who witnessed me being bullied, picked on or discriminated against just stood up for me. But I understand why they felt that they could not speak up. I don’t begrudge them.”

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When the minor biases turned into major ones, she decided it was time to stand up for herself. “I wasn’t valued for who I was. I was only valued as long as I toed the line and stayed in my box,” she relates.  

Her decision to address the elephant in the room speaks volumes of the petite scientist’s courage. She didn’t hold back from describing that moment “when I thought I had lost everything. The day I resigned and walked out, I did not have a job to go to.” Instead, she turned to the blessings of health, home, family and friends, and she knew she would be ok.

“Now, I am fearless,” Serena declares.

The dream team and their principal investigator leader, Dr Serena
The dream team (@SerenaNikZainal / Twitter)

Squad goals

Serena’s flair for leadership was evident from the start. Besides expressing her love for clinical work as a doctor, gaining invaluable perspective with patients, her scientific research is much more enjoyable now since having her own team to share findings with.

“I get to see new discoveries and hear my team members make happy noises when they make new discoveries,” she enthuses. “It is such a joy to hear them. I am having an incredible journey.”

It may seem like it's only one breakthrough research but in truth, the team has been working hard on multiple ideas and projects, each idea building on the last one.

“We've been involved in many scientific threads, sometimes on our own, sometimes in collaboration other scientists around the world,” she says. “Whether the scientific matter is dealt with using computers, or experiments, or through a study on patients, I think it is important to stress that it hasn’t just been one project.”

The impression one leaves behind is just as great a legacy, if not more, than material achievement. The impression that Serena leaves us is one of grace and humility. “That they enjoyed working with me and that they opened their minds when they were with me. That they felt inspired to go further, to do more,” she ponders on what is possibly her greatest personal achievement of all. 

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