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Janet Rhodes

PhD research: immunology of CRC

An interview with Janet

What is your work here? What are you hoping to discover? Why will it be important?

I’m describing how our immune system responds to colorectal cancer. This is important because a good immune response often means the patient is more likely to survive, and a bad response means the patient is at greater risk of dying and might need extra treatment. But at the moment, there are so many aspects of the immune response that we don’t understand, it is hard to even know what is a “good” or a “bad” response. My research is trying to find out what parts of the immune response tend to be good for patients, and hopefully will help to describe what those immune cells are doing to the cancer too.


What attracted you to this area of research? What excites you about it?

I was attracted to the project because of the existing early evidence that immune response is important in colorectal cancer, but that there was clearly space to contribute additional detail to this field. I also like that this research on colorectal cancer is giving me skills and knowledge that I hope to apply to other gastrointestinal malignancies that often have bad outcomes for patients.


What is the most difficult element of your work?

One of the hardest parts of my work is looking at very aggressive cancers under the microscope, and knowing that there is a high chance that that patient has died from their disease before this research could help them. Conversely, I take comfort from the fact that even though they may be dead, their generosity in donating their tissue means that they are still contributing to the world long after their death.


What’s it like working in a Lab? How did you come to be working here in this Lab?

I came to the Kemp Laboratory because my surgical mentor Professor John McCall recommended Associate Professor Roslyn Kemp as a PhD supervisor. AP Kemp was patient enough to take me on board, despite knowing that I had little or no science background to speak of. The Kemp lab is a really fun and supportive place to work. I’m surrounded by really smart, approachable students which is really helpful for me, as immunology and laboratory research was very new to me when I started out here.


What direction do you want your career to grow in?

I’m a doctor training as a general surgeon. When you train in surgery you are allowed to take time off to do research, so I’m doing a PhD. I look forward to working as a general surgeon with an academic career too, as for me, research and teaching are an important part of contributing to medicine. I hope to subspecialise in upper gastrointestinal surgery; I enjoy the anatomy. I hope that there will be many opportunities to apply my PhD research to upper GI malignancies. I’m also interested in tissue banking, and how this can best be done to help reduce inequities in our current health outcomes.


What are the most important things you’ve had to learn to do well at your work?

I’ve had to learn to keep trying! This is something I wasn’t very good at as a teenager. If things didn’t come easily to me I would just give up. I have learned that if I set goals, and make sensible plans to achieve those goals, there is very little that I cannot do. I still forget to apply this attitude to my research at times, but when I do, it is very rewarding.


What advice would you give to someone in school who aspires to research?

I highly recommend finding mentors who have experience in whatever you want to do. They may work in different fields to that which you are interested, but can help you build contacts and develop a plan for getting to where you want to be.
You don’t have to be friends with your mentor, but meeting a few times a year, to check where you are at and where you are heading is good for keeping you on track. It’s also ok to change your mind and decide you want to do something else! A good mentor will help you with that process of changing direction too.

Where did you grow up? What things interested you about the world as a child?

I grew up in Greytown, a small town in South Wairarapa. I was interested in lots of things as a child; in particular I enjoyed drawing, writing, and music; so my parents are somewhat surprised that I ended up being interested in medicine and research.

What subjects did you enjoy most at school? The least?

My favourite subjects at secondary school were art and history. I loathed chemistry, calculus and physics. In fact, I think I failed all three of those subjects in seventh form/year 13. On the other hand, I really enjoyed biology. It was only when I realised that you cannot separate biology from chemistry and physics that I started to appreciate those sciences too. Art, biology and history were very easy to me, I did not have to try hard to do well. But I found chemistry and physics very challenging and just gave up. It wasn’t until I changed my attitude, and made a plan to pass chemistry papers at university that I was able to see how important goal-setting was to conquering those things that don’t come easily. Part of learning to set that goal for me was finding an end point that really motivated me: I wanted to get into medical school, and to do that I HAD to pass chemistry. I needed that long term goal that was really important to me, to be able to make the short term goal of passing chemistry papers.


Looking back, were there people in your family or community who influenced your field of study or sparked your interest?

My family is not medical or research based. However my parents both had science degrees and encouraged experimentation and participation. They also put a strong emphasis on finishing what you started. So I was usually allowed to take part in any sport or activity that I wanted, but if I did, I had to reach a pre-determined level of proficiency before I was allowed to quit! This helped me to learn to prioritise.

They also placed a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency and the outdoors. This may seem irrelevant to medicine and science but it definitely isn’t! Spending time outdoors is really important for my mental health. Medicine can be really sad, when patients die or have bad outcomes. Research often doesn’t go according to plan and can be very frustrating. Spending time outdoors tramping and running, and getting my hands in the soil to garden gives me time to reflect and helps me to remember what is important.


Where did you do your undergraduate study?

I did a biomedical degree at Victoria University, and my medical degree at the University of Auckland.

What do you enjoy outside your work here?

I enjoy hanging out with my four daughters. I love going to work! I love running, tramping, cooking, and gardening.