Onisha Patel

Scientist, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research


You would be surprised how many strangers would offer you help if you just asked.

What do you do?

I’m a structural biologist, a scientist who studies the architecture of biological molecules such as proteins. I use Nobel prize winning techniques like cryo-electronmicroscopy and X-ray crystallography to understand how certain proteins can cause some aggressive cancers to grow and spread. Protein molecules are very small, almost a billionth of a meter in size and not visible to our naked eye. These techniques help in generating high resolution images of proteins at an atomic level detail, so we can understand their function and use this information for a targeted drug discovery approach in cancer.

Why did you choose this field?

I would say I found structural biology. I grew up in India and was always interested in science and art. I never heard about structural biology at school or University. When I came to Australia for my postgraduate education, this is when I came to know what structural biology is about. I was drawn to it because it is a very visually oriented field of research where you are looking at shapes and structures in three dimensions. In a way this also fulfills part of my artistic interest.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

In my research career I have had the opportunity to work on some really interesting projects that have led to several high impact journal publications, a Phase III clinical drug candidate and a patent for detection of specialised immune cells. I think my younger self always wanted to do well whatever I did in my life but it is hard to imagine when you are young what is possible.

Why do you love working in STEM?

STEM doesn’t just provide a pathway to get a job, but it provides an opportunity to test your curiosity and learn how things work. What I like about STEM is that it provides limitless opportunities and you can use those skills for any kind of problem solving in life, even like creating great art installations! I wake up looking forward to learning everyday.

Best advice for next generation?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, in fact stay away from those people. Find role models whose journey you can relate to and ask them questions. You would be surprised how many strangers would offer you help if you just asked. There are many opportunities in STEM and no right or wrong way to get to them. You don’t always have to follow others but instead have courage to dream and find your own path.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

I love art and am always looking for ways to integrate art and science. I believe in STEAM not just STEM, as training in arts/humanities is equally important in STEM. It is not just about making discoveries and developing technologies but equally important to think their impact on the society in a long run.

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