Gabriella Farrugia has always been drawn to science.
‘Growing up I was that annoying girl always asking, “but why?”
‘I’m passionate about science because there’s almost always an answer – and if there isn’t one yet, you get to experiment, research, trial and get one step closer to knowing,’ she says.
Gabriella graduated with a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biotechnology and Chemistry at Swinburne, as part of which she completed a one-year paid placement in 2014. She has worked in science research labs since.
Gabriella enjoyed the way her studies allowed her to carry out experiments like real researchers, while having the safety net of teacher support and fewer time constraints.
‘Swinburne was my first choice, particularly because of their strong lab-based components and their connections with industry. Although a five-hour chemistry lab session might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I thrived in these practical sessions!’ she says.
Gabriella completed her placement during the third year of her degree at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and was offered a role as a junior research assistant at the end of her experience.
Initially nervous about the job, Gabriella quickly realised how well prepared she was given the practical focus of her degree.
During the placement, Gabriella tested innovative drugs that would be used with radiation therapy to minimise the side effects. Each day, she tested the stability of compounds and analysed their effects on cells.
Gabriella says she loved the practical work and the experience helped her to develop her confidence.
‘As a student during placement and then as a junior research assistant, at times I felt I needed to make a bigger effort than expected to be noticed by colleagues outside my lab. My confidence in my work was restored when I was asked to work with an oncologist on his research. It made me feel recognised and proud of what I had achieved.’
Gabriella's current work involves conducting experiments to analyse heart cells
Gabriella currently works as a research assistant within the Cardiac Cellular Systems Lab at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute within the Alfred Hospital.
She manages projects and conducts experiments to analyse how heart cells differ in healthy men and women, compared to those with any disease.
‘We employ cutting-edge technology involving 3D printing, microfluidics, and robotics, to allow us to interrogate the heart at a single cell level. Everyone in the team comes with a different set of skills and knowledge, and together we troubleshoot, innovate and learn.’
Alexander Pinto is laboratory head of Cardiac Cellular Systems at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and says Gabriella does ‘outstanding work’ that exceeds expectations.
‘She is often the first to volunteer for an experiment that requires an individual to be present in the laboratory very early, late or on the weekend. Recently, she was at the laboratory at 5am on multiple occasions to ensure mice were prepared for experiments performed by other laboratory members.’
As soon as she started her placement, it became evident to Gabriella that there was a lack of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas, though she says this is improving.
Due to the culture of the research industry, there a few women in leadership roles as it ‘often comes at the expense of these amazing women not having a family’, she says. ‘We can encourage women to pursue STEM through using language such as “possessing leadership qualities” and “compassionate”.’
Gabriella hopes that women aspiring to a career in STEM will be ‘loud and proud’ of their passion and not have to sacrifice anything else they want in life.
‘I achieved this and so much more. With the right people working with you – you can’t go wrong.’