The cancer researcher

Interview with Dr Misty Jenkins Cancer researcher.

“You decide the kind of person you want to be and the legacy you want to leave and how you want to live your life, you go out and make that happen.

I love what I do; I love the joy of discovery, of the research science I think it’s fascinating and certainly that passion I like to share.” Dr Misty Jenkins.


Associate professor Misty Jenkins is laboratory head at the Walter + Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Her team investigates the biology of white blood cells called cytotoxic lymphocytes.

These cells are the serial killers of the immune system, and it’s their job to seek and destroy cancerous and virus infected cells.

By studying the cell biology behind how to activate and manipulate killer lymphocytes researchers can tailor immune responses to kill cancer.

Their work is generating genetically engineered killer T cells for use as therapy against brain cancer.

Cancer researcher Dr Jenkins holds a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and has worked with Nobel Laureates.

Really enjoyed catching up with her and learning more about her journey.


Martine Harte: Engaging Women likes to focus on women like yourself and try to get to the bottom of their dedication and desire to make a difference in the world, what would you say it is about you that drives you in that respect?


Dr Misty Jenkins: I’ve always wanted to make a difference, it sounds very cheesy doesn’t it? But I guess I’ve always just been driven by this incredibly innate passion for knowledge and every time I decided to throw myself in the deep end, the experience was so rewarding that each time just became so much easier, so I just kept putting myself out there! I’m certainly a big believer in that you don’t find yourself  you create yourself.

You decide the kind of person you want to be and the legacy you want to leave and how you want to live your life, you go out and make that happen.

I love what I do; I love the joy of discovery, of the research science I think it’s fascinating and certainly that passion I like to share with other people particularly students.

I do a lot of work with high school students and indigenous students and I encourage them to stay at school. Education has given me opportunities money can’t buy; to sit at Oxford university where they filmed Harry Potter – it has completely transformed my life and that is a passion I want to share with others.


Misty there’s great concern about the steep decline in girls studying science, what would you say to young girls or mums in relation to a career in science? 


Dr Misty Jenkins: I would just tell the students how exciting it is to be on the cutting edge! I mean we are writing the text books, we are discovering things that will go into text books that the next generation will learn in due course in their science classes and how exciting it is to be one of a handful of the people in this world to have this knowledge and you’re working on the cutting edge.


It is amazing. I don’t ask women how they balance work and family life, I prefer to start from a point of assuming things go pear-shaped, as they just do with kids. You have a little girl, how has combining your roles been?


Dr Misty Jenkins: It has been very difficult at times actually…. I ended up having one year maternity leave but my little girl has been very sick. She currently has osteomyelitis, a bacteria that’s been eating a hole in her ankle bone, so we’ve been in and out of the Royal Children’s hospital all year. I think the key is to surround yourself with a really strong supportive base who will give you the flexibility.

My work has still ticked over but I had to write my grant up beside a hospital bed and had to do a lot of work at home – in the middle of the night and things just to keep up – that pressure is hard as a scientist with funding deadlines and having to get papers out. We really need to start looking at the funding system and make more opportunities available for women.

No matter what you do there needs to be some flexibility in all working environments to allow people to be able to work remotely from home if necessary. If they have to work from home with a sick child because the wheels fall off all the time, the difference is how you sort of get back on the horse, you either let it get you down or think tomorrow is another day. Keep positive and don’t beat yourself up about it, I think as mothers and as women we feel guilty all the ti


Your mum really emphasised the value of education, I’m just wondering how she impressed that upon you?


Dr Misty Jenkins: The old thing, “if you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas,” but she turned that into a really positive thing and said, “go out and surround yourself with really amazing positive people you aspire to be like and it will rub off.”  She taught me to throw myself in the deep end and to have the confidence … to not be afraid, to ask a question that I might think might be silly and people might judge me, to just put myself out there. I’m just a girl from Ballarat, nobody from my family had even been to university. So after I did my Bachelor of Science I wrote a letter to Professor Peter Doherty. (Professor Peter Doherty is a Nobel Prize winning doctor)

I just put myself out there, at the time he was the only living Nobel prize winner in the southern hemisphere for medicine, so I thought I’ll aim high, what’s the worst thing that can happen? He’ll just say no, or he won’t respond to my emails and that’s ok, and that’s what I expected to happen.

I sent the email and two hours later the phone rang and he said, “hello Misty, this is Peter Doherty” and I nearly fell off my chair! He took me under his wing for the next 4 years and it was the most amazing thing ever so what I tell my students is, “you go out and you create these opportunities for yourself they don’t just fall into your lap. That’s the way you find amazing mentors and people who inspire you to be the best person you can be.”


That’s such gold advice… Do you ever worry if people don’t like you, a lot of women naturally become anxious if they are not approved of all the time, do you have a view on that?


Dr Misty Jenkins: Yeah I can understand why people feel that way, but I don’t really give a rats to be honest (laughs).


So if we were to catch up in 10 years, where would Dr Jenkins be and who would she be with?


Dr Misty Jenkins: Oh, in 10 yrs time, ideally I will have surrounded myself with scientists people who really want to discover more cool things about the immune system and hopefully I’ll be running a strong research team with peer review funding, hopefully we will be publishing well and I’ll be running a developmental research group. I’ll have a beautiful early teenage daughter by then so she’ll be keeping me entertained I’m sure!

I’m madly in love with my wonderful husband who supports me in every way, I couldn’t do half the things I do without his support.

Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia