Meet Julienne O’Rourke, a biochemist & molecular biologist investigating how DNA repairs itself!

What is your scientific background? 

I have a Bachelor of Biomedicine with a major of Pharmacology, with Honours in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I am currently undergoing a Ph.D. at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne in Cancer Biology

Best day in the lab is when you get to try out something new, or get some shiny new toys – like pipettes!/ Julienne O’Rourke

How did you choose your field of study? 

I wanted to be different! Most of my family are polyglots and linguists, and I wanted to be unique so started focusing more on STEM subjects at school. It wasn’t long before I was addicted. Exposure to university chemistry at high school lead me to enroll in biomedical sciences. Even though I was planning to pursue a career in Medicine, I was inordinately interested in the mechanisms of disease, and from there, the potential that a better understanding of these mechanisms could contribute to new treatments, so a Ph.D. seemed the way to go!

Why did you choose to become a scientist? 

I am extremely curious by nature! Anything I don’t know much about I research straight away. From there it was a natural progression to life in the lab. Being able to manage my own project and troubleshoot my experiments, within a larger supportive environment is exhilarating!

#Scientistswhoselfie/ Julienne O’Rourke

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

Currently, I am investigating how the cells within our body identify damaged DNA, and how proteins fix this damage. A single cell can suffer thousands upon thousands of DNA damage events per day. This damage can occur from a range of sources, from UV light and cigarette smoke to internal processes within the cell that have gone wrong. Our cells have developed intricate mechanisms that recognize when the DNA is damaged and initiate its repair. Many DNA damage events are relatively harmless. However, when these fundamental processes go wrong and damaged DNA is left unrepaired, it can result in detrimental disease causing mutations, such as cancer.

DNA repair is a double-edged sword, with the induction of DNA damage a major mechanism by which many widely used chemotherapy drugs kill cancers. As cancer avoidance and treatment outcomes are dependent upon the efficient repair of DNA damage, understanding DNA repair is important to both the prevention and treatment of cancer. My research uses a range of biochemistry and molecular biology techniques to understand the way integrity of our DNA is maintained.

Even though DNA repair is known to be vitally important, there is still little known about the exact processes of DNA damage repair. The importance of DNA repair coupled with the lack of knowledge is what drew me into this field. Hopefully, one day, one of my research findings will contribute to a treatment or clinical intervention.

Cellfie! So many of my experiments have an element of pink in then – it is such a shame that I dislike pink! Might have to invest in some green dyes!/ Julienne O’Rourke

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science? 

I don’t feel like there was a single individual that influenced my decision to work in science. My family was supportive in everything I tried, so I didn’t feel pushed to pursue a certain field or career. However, while growing up, learning about strong and intelligent females throughout history has inspired me, and instilled in me the realisation that nothing is impossible. From academics and creatives, such as Rosalind Franklin and Artemisia Gentileschi, to leaders like Cleopatra and Catherine the Great. They are the people who ensured that I would never second guess my ability to do something based on my gender.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures? 

Biggest achievements: Outdoing myself, day after day. Biggest failure: Not starting sooner.

Incubator hog! Multitasking different flasks and experiments has become a talent of mine. Without this skill, I would never get any work done./ Julienne O’Rourke

What are the hardest parts related to your work? 

Setting the bar too high for myself, expecting myself to produce more and more quality work in less time. As many of us do, I especially struggle with this as I feel that I am not good enough to be where I am, that if I don’t pick up my feet and work harder and better and faster, someone will work out that I am not smart enough to be here. This inevitably leads to constantly having unrealistic expectations and trying to accomplish something unreachable. Which, when not achieved, leads to feelings of inadequacy – a never-ending circle.

That, and horrible experimental time points that fall in the middle of the night/early morning. (I love sleep, and anything that takes me from bed is evil!)

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Every day, every single day, I feel like an imposter. Sometimes, I believe that my success in my life thus far has been the result of error or extreme luck. I tend to remember the occasions in which I have not done my best, or have really struggled, more than the times I have done my well and have achieved a lot. I think I still struggle with this, however, I talk to my friends and colleagues and being frank with them helps me manage these situations and feelings.

Drug response assays for days! Here I am testing the sensitivity of a range of cancer cells to different chemotherapeutics/ Julienne O’Rourke

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

All of them?! Basic research really needs more attention – both public and scientific. There has been a major push in Medical Research for translational and commercially-viable research at the expense of a lot of basic research groups. Whilst translational and innovative research is amazing and can really improve patient outcomes, one cannot exist without the other. Just like how one field of science is not exclusive, basic science in all fields is needed. We wouldn’t have a lot of our current therapies and drugs without it!

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

Family, friends, and colleagues have supported me throughout my career and life, and for this, I am eternally grateful. In the lab, there has been Charlotte Hodson (postdoc) and Sylvie van Twest (research assistant) – constantly giving me career and experimental guidance. Out of the lab, there has been colleagues and friends who have supported and mentored me – Rachelle O’Rourke, Ashleigh King, Tanja Racic, Jane McCausland, Chris Ryan, Ayan Dasvarma, Nora Hanafi, et al. Without these people, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Have I already added that to my buffer?/ Julienne O’Rourke

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

The biggest prejudices I have had to overcome is the inherent thought of people not believing that I can do something or achieve something. There were many who thought I wasn’t capable enough to get into the Ph.D. program, let alone get a scholarship to do so! Again, when I wanted to go overseas for a portion of my Ph.D., many didn’t believe I could get the funding and told me not to bother applying. Usually, this light’s a fire under my ass! I feel the need to work harder and prove them wrong. Then, when I do achieve my goals, the satisfaction that I feel, is glorious!

How does your family regard your career choice? 

I am lucky in that my family has supported me in every step of my university life and career. There have been times that they haven’t really understood what I am doing, seeing as it is so complex, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to understand and being extremely supportive. To them, the most important thing is that I am happy and healthy, as well fulfilled in what I do – and to me, that is the best support I could ever ask for. Thanks, Mum, Dad, Rachelle, and Frankie!

It’s Friday night, stop working and do something more important – like pat me”/ Julienne O’Rourke

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both? 

There have been times where it has been very difficult to manage both career, degree, and private life. Especially with the unpredictability of experiments and drastic changes of work load throughout the week. It’s very easy to forget to balance work with life outside the lab. Knowing this, I try to make a concerted effort to schedule time with my friends and family, as well as time to take care of myself. Sometimes it feels stupid to schedule this in my diary or calendar, but it pays off in the long run! When worse comes to worse, Frankie the cat reminds me every now and then to stop and have a break, even if it’s just for a scratch behind the ears! Frankie does know best, for a cat she does take after her namesake: chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

The path to success is never linear, it is as drastic as the Himalayas – but it is what you make of the valleys that lift you up to Everest.

Also, in the era of fake news:

“Great is the power of steady misrepresentation – but the history of science shows how, fortunately, this power does not endure long.”

— Charles Darwin Origin of Species (6th ed., 1872), 421.


You can connect with Julienne via Twitter or Linkedin!