Helen McRae

Scholarship opens doors to America’s finest city

Meet WEHI alumna Helen McRae, a postdoctoral fellow at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego.

Helen’s research interest is in gene expression, particularly the regulation and maintenance of transcriptional states through chromatin-associated mechanisms. Her current project involves immune cells called macrophages, which normally help fight infection and remodel tissues, but in cancer are co-opted to help tumor cells grow.

The aim of Helen’s current project is to see whether macrophages can be transformed into ‘tumour fighting’ cells by targeting the BAF complex, which controls access to DNA.

Starting a scientific journey at WEHI

Helen said her first exposure to medical research occurred when she joined WEHI through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

“It was my first taste of doing research and also when I realised that being a scientist was a job that I could do,” she said.

Helen then joined the Voss/Thomas laboratory for her PhD, studying the role of mutations in the gene PHF6 on blood development and leukaemia.

Helen said that being part of close-knit team meant she got to work closely with colleagues and was able to form friendships in the tearoom and lab.

“I feel lucky to have been surrounded by so many great people,” she said.

Above: Helen in 2019 at WEHI, with Anne Voss and Tim Thomas

International opportunities and challenges

In 2018 Helen received the Edith Moffat Travel Award from WEHI to attend a conference in the US and interview for postdoctoral positions.

“This was extremely valuable in terms of securing a postdoctoral appointment and for my development as a scientist.”

Helen accepted an offer from the Salk Institute in San Diego, US, in 2019.

“I moved before the start of the COVID pandemic. Being away from friends and family, including my husband, has been challenging. That said, I absolutely love living in San Diego and feel I have developed as a scientist and grown as a person during my time here. I feel that I am being exposed to new ways of thinking from my surroundings.”

While Helen said the financial cost of living overseas had been far greater than she imagined, scholarships had helped to ease the financial burden. In 2021 Helen was awarded an American-Australian Association Graduate Education Fund Scholarship to continue her postdoctoral studies in the US.

Helen said in her spare time away from the lab she enjoys being outdoors.

“I like to keep fit, whether it be running, hiking, swimming or surfing … well paddling around in the white-wash, really,” she said.

Connect with Helen on LinkedIn

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