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Empowering First Nations scientists

As WEHI alumni who’ve enjoyed successful careers, Stan and Karen Chism have first-hand experience of the opportunities and pathways that a science degree can open.

They’re both passionate about supporting the next generation of researchers who may not otherwise have the avenues, connections or resources to succeed.

Stan and Karen Chism possess a deep connection to both Australia and the WEHI community.

Their passion is directly focused on supporting First Nations Australians who encounter obstacles when accessing opportunities, specifically in the scientific field. Their second focus is on distributing the funds now rather than in the future, such as by an endowment.

They admire the collegiality, inclusiveness and support they experienced at WEHI in the 1970s which they believe still holds true today.

Their journey with WEHI began in 1974 when Stan, a newly hired assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, deferred his position to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at WEHI, drawn by its groundbreaking cancer immunology research.

“I first heard about WEHI when I read the 1969 book Self and Not-Self by [Sir Frank Macfarlane] Burnet,” says Stan.

“In the spring of 1976, I met with Ian MacKay when he was attending a meeting in Washington DC. He offered me the opportunity to pursue postdoctoral fellowship training in his lab.

“When I arrived at WEHI in the summer of 1976, it was soon apparent that the opportunity with Ian was too clinical for my plans, but downstairs on the first floor Noel Warner was pursuing several research projects that were perfectly in line with what I wanted to study.”

During their two-year tenure in Melbourne, Stan and Karen fostered enduring friendships and made substantial contributions to our understanding of oncofetal antigens, which are prevalent in a number of cancer types in adults.

Karen fondly remembered a friendly encounter with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet in the level seven tearoom. Stan emphasised the invaluable aspect of WEHI’s collaborative atmosphere, where knowledge flowed freely among peers such as eminent scientists Sir Gustav Nossal, Professor Jerry Adams and Professor Don Metcalf.

Karen Chism 1976
Above: Karen Chism 1976
Dr Stan Chism
Above: Dr Stan Chism 1976

In 2023, the Chisms funded the highly successful pilot Graduate Laboratory Training Program.

This structured initiative aims to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science graduates with clear pathways, internal support, professional development, connections, and paid lab work, empowering them to pursue scientific careers or further study.

Their dedication to supporting First Nations people who face barriers to accessing similar opportunities reflects their deep affection for both the WEHI community and broader Australian society.

“The graduate training program provided me with invaluable lab experiences and mentorship, solidifying my passion for the biomedical field,” says Leisha Lyons, who participated in the program in 2023.

“Additionally, the supportive environment and cutting-edge research I was part of at WEHI convinced me that it was the ideal place to stay and continue my journey.”

Leisha will be completing a postgraduate degree at WEHI, starting this year.

The Chisms’ dedication to supporting First Nations Peoples who face barriers to accessing similar opportunities reflects their deep affection for both the WEHI community and broader Australian society.

“Our commitment to philanthropy, while modest compared to some, is driven by a profound motivation to contribute what we can,” Stan says.

“Our aim is to level the playing field and encourage those with the drive and potential to thrive in scientific pursuits.”

The Chisms’ philanthropic vision embodies the transformative power of education and community support within science.

It serves as a beacon for hope, inspiring others to recognise and address systemic barriers faced by underrepresented groups in the medical research space, fostering a more inclusive and equitable future for all aspiring students.

Header image L-R: Dr Stan Chism and Karen Chism with fellow WEHI alumni Dianne Grail, former WEHI institute director Emeritus Professor Suzanne Cory, Emeritus Professor Jerry Adams and Professor Ken Shortman. 

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Illuminate Autumn 2024
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