Women and girls in STEM: Sherene Loi

Professor Sherene Loi is a medical oncologist specialising in breast cancer treatment. She is also a clinician scientist with expertise in genomics, immunology and drug development.

Professor Sherene Loi is a medical oncologist specialising in breast cancer treatment. She is also a clinician scientist with expertise in genomics, immunology and drug development.

Sherene’s work has led to important new insights in breast cancer immunology. Her ability to translate scientific findings into innovative treatments has improved survival of breast cancer patients in Australia and around the world.

After completing medical oncology specialist clinical training in Melbourne, Sherene completed a PhD and postdoctoral studies at the Institut Jules Bordet in Belgium.

Sherene returned to Australia in 2013 and now heads the Translational Breast Cancer Genomics and Therapeutics Laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. She also co-chairs the International Breast Cancer Study Group and is the Endowed Chair of the National Breast Cancer Foundation of Australia.

Sherene’s work is influential all over the world. Since 2018, she has published over 260 peer-reviewed research articles and is ranked in the top 1% of researchers cited worldwide.

In 2021 she received the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, one of the seven prestigious Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. Sherene was recognised for her significant contribution to the first worldwide approval of immunotherapy for patients with the most aggressive form of breast cancer.

Photo of Sherene Loi

What inspired you to pursue a career in your chosen field? What excites you about the future in this field?

Pursuing a career in medicine was a way to achieve what I wanted in life. I wanted to travel, do meaningful science, play with technology, have the flexibility to work part time or full time, have time off, and have an impact on people’s lives. There were also a wide range of specialities so I felt that as a career there were many possible options to pursue. This remains true to this day, after over 20 years in the field.

Growing up I didn’t really see many career options for women, however I think it is different now. Medicine is still a great career choice as science is moving forward so quickly. It’s exciting, and we are going to make great gains for human health in the very near future.

How has the career progression of women in STEM changed since you started your career? What impacts have you seen in your field?

When I was in medical school there was pretty much parity in the male-to-female student ratio. However, as I moved into specialisation and consultant positions, I noticed more and more women moving to part-time work or moving out of academic medicine.

This was partly related to family commitments and the cultural and societal expectations that the mother shoulders the majority of the household and childcare duties. I always thought this was a pity, as many of these women were outstanding and had significant experience in their area of expertise.

However, I also saw many super-smart and talented female specialists apply for senior positions, only for a (usually less qualified) man to be given the position. That was when I began to realise there was definite gender bias in the system and culture of medicine and surgery. I believe this is still a problem today.

How do the opportunities and barriers for women in STEM differ between Australia and other countries?

I believe one of the key issues is Australian cultural expectations of the female role and child care. Working in France and Belgium, childcare was free or cheap and readily available. School would start at 8:30 am so I could be in the office by 9:00 am. Lunch was provided for the children so I didn’t have to worry about school lunches. After-school care was also cheap and readily available.

Women were expected to work after having children, with many returning to the office within 6 months. There was also an option to work 4 days in the first year if you were breastfeeding. Hours were more flexible. For me, this made it easier to work with 2 small toddlers.

Even back then I felt that there were more females in senior medical roles in Brussels compared to Australia. As my work was international, I felt that there were many outstanding females in senior breast cancer research positions,  which can help inspire other women to choose that career, because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

What can inspire more girls and women to choose STEM careers?

I think more intentional efforts to encourage girls to be interested in science and stay in STEM subjects in primary and high school is a start.

Role models are important. It frustrates me that Disney movies still involve princesses and gendered roles for girls. My 4-year-old niece just wants to be a ballet dancer and is obsessed with the movie Frozen which is hardly going to inspire little girls to do science!

Shows like Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, where the female protagonists are fighters and scientists and match it with the males, are the type of shows we need for young and teen girls.

What advice would you give girls and women who want to be part of the sector?

Go for it! Why not? Decide on a purpose for your life and pursue it.