Perseverance, dedication, skill and finesse

While perseverance, dedication, skill and finesse are necessary traits for many disciplines it’s not every day you encounter an individual who has applied all four attributes across three very diverse fields. Unlikely but not impossible. As La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) researcher Dr Erinna Lee proves in everything she does.

Dr Lee is a rising star in the field of cancer research, synchronising her knowledge of BCL-2-regulated apoptosis and autophagy with collaborators at LIMS and connection to research and patient care through her laboratory at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI).

Erinna is also a successful business person, with over 129,000 Instagram followers ogling her uber cute Amigurumi crochet designs as @littleaquagirl and online shop The Little Hook Crochet.

Erinna Lee ballet and crochet

But before science – and crochet, Dr Lee very nearly became a professional ballet dancer and ballet school teacher. Until her early 20s, science was not on the horizon. She didn’t even study Biology or Chemistry in secondary school.

It wasn’t until travelling to Australia and completing The Australian Ballet School’s Teachers Course in 1999 that she turned her attention to a science degree. Dr Lee’s passion for discovery has not since abated.

After an undergraduate degree at The University of Melbourne, Erinna completed her Honour’s with Professor Ray Norton at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Here she first encountered LIMS researchers including Emeritus Professor Robin Anders and Professor Mick Foley. “It was a great experience for a young student to collaborate with such a friendly and nurturing team,” said Erinna.

It was during Dr Lee’s PhD at WEHI that she met mentor and current collaborator, Associate Professor Doug Fairlie, who together with Professor Peter Colman, started Erinna on her journey of BCL-2-regulated apoptosis. “It was a truly fantastic opportunity for a postgraduate student to be working in an Institute where I could sit down for a cup of coffee and Ched with Vegemite next to an internationally renowned researcher who had made some of the seminal discoveries in the field I was studying,” remarks Erinna.

Erinna Lee and Doug Fairlie

Continuing as a post-doctoral researcher with Associate Professor Fairlie at WEHI, she extended her research expertise into animal models and made a serendipitous discovery that paved the way for the development of novel anti-infective drugs (drugs that work to prevent or treat infections).

But it was not always perfect, admitted Erinna. “I became a little disillusioned with a researcher’s life. Not the actual science, I still loved that, but by 2015 I was frustrated with everything else that came along with being a researcher.” Erinna even briefly returned to university to undertake studies in a completely different field until a conversation with La Trobe University Provost, Professor Robert Pike (at the time Professor Pike was Director of LIMS) returned her to science.

“Professor Pike encouraged me to give it another shot. I moved to La Trobe University under a joint appointment between LIMS and ONJCRI. This was the refresh button needed and I don’t regret giving a career in research another go.”

“By joining LIMS I began Chapter 2 of my scientific career. It led to new opportunities, new collaborations, and new friendships,” remarked Erinna. “Research is hard, sometimes a new perspective or a short-break can make all the difference to help you realise where your passions lie.”

Dr Erinna Lee continues her work at LIMS and ONJCRI today, furthering her research into apoptosis (cell death) and, more recently, autophagy (cell survival). “I am branching into collaborations with gastrointestinal researchers at ONJCRI, as well as forging new pathways into extracellular vesicles with the highly regarded Hill Lab at LIMS.

“Being based at ONJCRI whilst employed by LIMS has been a research utopia for me. Our discovery program focussing on the development of effective cancer strategies has benefited greatly through our collaborations with clinicians and researchers with expertise in specific cancer subtypes of interest.”

“I’m looking forward to working with researchers from La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science and being a part of the Institute as it grows into its next phase in 2022 and beyond,” said Dr Lee enthusiastically.

Dr Erinna Lee is the LIMS Cancer Theme Lead and takes up an academic promotion in January 2022, as Associate Professor at La Trobe University.