College Life Blog

Search all blog posts

Women in Science 2019: Dr Alvina Lai

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Thursday, February 7, 2019

February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, declared by the UN with the aim of promoting full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

To mark the day, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of our own brilliant women in science, by finding out more about the amazing things they do and how they got to where they are today.

We're starting with Dr Alvina Lai, a Lecturer in Biological Sciences at Christ Church with a particular interest in Genomics.

Dr Alvina LaiSummarise your research area

I work at the interface between two seemingly disparate domains of Evolutionary Biology and Cancer Biology. We witness evolution happening at a macro scale that gives rise to life on earth as we know it. Within multicellular organisms, individual cells can also undergo evolution. In fact, cancer is a by-product of evolution gone awry. Over the course of the disease, cancer cells continue to evolve traits that help them persist within the host. One of the key reasons behind failed cancer treatment and patient relapse is because contemporary therapies continue to treat tumours as static homogeneous masses. My research involves the application of both wet-lab (experimental) and dry-lab (computational) approaches to interrogate genetic changes underpinning cancer initiation and progression. This will allow us to identify molecular targets that can be prioritised in therapeutic regimes to ultimately win the war against cancer.   

What were your favourite subjects at school, and why? 

Ironically, my favourite subjects in high school were mathematics and physics although I ended up studying biology at university. I enjoyed maths and physics because they focus on developing one’s logical and deductive reasoning skills. As we move into a ‘big data’ driven era, the boundaries between scientific disciplines have become increasingly blurred. I soon realised that my favourite subjects in school have provided essential foundations for computational proficiency when applying programming skills to solve biological questions.  

Dr Alvina Lai in the labWhen and why did you decide to study science at university? 

My parents’ engineering background has influenced my decision to study science. I decided to study Biotechnology for my undergraduate degree because of its interdisciplinary nature. Biotechnology exploits fundamental biological processes in designing new products used in a variety of industries ranging from agriculture to medicine.

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy? 

The excitement of making new discoveries. As a scientist, I often have the freedom to pursue ideas that fascinate me. Although research can be challenging at times especially when experiments stop working, the process involved in translating a question into an answer can be highly rewarding.

What's the most fascinating thing you've learnt as part of your study of science? 

Scientific discovery is an intriguing process, but not all ideas get to see the light of day. I find that the steps involved in driving an idea into a finished product highly fascinating. When all the pieces of the puzzle start to fall in place in a scenario that is much akin to Archimedes’ Eureka moment, this is often the time when I am reminded of what brought about my love for science in the first place.

Dr Alvina Lai in the labWhat is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? 

Learn to surround yourself with people who are kind to you. Figure out people who you can build allyship with. Recognise the importance of failing quickly. Iterative rounds of failure are substrates for innovation.

What are you most proud of? 

Conducting and publishing research independently and receiving two prestigious international postdoctoral fellowships (EMBO and Human Frontier Science Program).

Who is your most inspirational female scientist? 

Marie Curie. Despite working in a highly male-dominated area, Madame Curie successfully conducted pioneering research on radioactivity leading to an award as the first female Nobel Laureate.

What do you hope to achieve in the future? 

To start my own research group, to undertake a high-risk high-reward project and to continue to provide exceptional mentorship to trainees.

If you could give one piece of advice to girls considering studying science, what would it be? 

If you are looking to start a research degree in science or beyond, do your research on potential supervisors. Pick the person not the topic. With good mentorship, great science can happen even when the project appears to be mediocre.