July 19, 2022

Perspective: Vanessa de Mello

As part of our support for Sarcoma Awareness Month, we have been featuring some of our colleagues who work to support the BLA and potential commercialization of afami-cel.

Vanessa De Mello is based at our facility on Milton Park, in the UK. She is a Senior Scientist in the Stem Cell Research team. Vanessa shares how her interest in drug discovery and experience working with sarcoma during her Ph.D., gave her the passion to be a scientist in biotech.

How did you first become interested in science and biotech? Who inspired you?

I can’t say I have always aspired to be a scientist. It just ended up being a subject that I found interesting and enjoyed at school. It was during my undergraduate degree in Pharmacology when I became interested in drug discovery and knew I wanted to pursue a career in biotech. I wanted to gain more experience in research to learn about new innovate therapies, so I decided to do a master’s degree in Regenerative Medicine at the University of Bath, which gave me an insight into cell-based therapies as a treatment for diseases.

Following my master’s, I worked in medical devices within a development team which helped me to gain experience in industry and found that I longed to get into a research environment related to regenerative medicine. I then managed to secure a PhD position at the University of Aberdeen. My lab group worked on muscle stem cell development and Rhabdomyosarcoma, a terrible muscle cancer that mainly impacts young children. After completing my PhD, I was inspired to get back into Industry and work on finding treatments for terrible diseases like cancer.

I genuinely feel very lucky to have been able to study and learn as much as I have. I’m a first generation British-Indian and my parents never had the opportunity to undertake further education. In particular, my Mum really wanted to study medicine, but couldn’t afford the fees, and, as a woman, she was expected to settle down and have a family instead of pursuing a career. I faced similar, although less intense pressures, but was still able to go all the way to Aberdeen to try and achieve my goals!

What is it about science that drives your passion? What do you accomplish every day in your job?

I really enjoy research, venturing into the unknown, and making tangible contributions to the field. It’s also hugely inspiring when we’re able to see the benefits our research has to people’s lives!

Day-to-day, I spend most of my time either in the lab, planning experiments, reading research articles, or analyzing data. However, it’s important to remember to take a step back and think of the bigger picture, which is sometimes difficult when you are caught up in everyday tasks.

Greatest obstacles and opportunities you’ve experienced establishing yourself in the industry? What has been your approach to succeeding in the field?

I am early in my career, but I have still encountered my fair share of obstacles. They are difficult topics to discuss, but I have been subject to exclusion and discrimination based on my ethnicity and gender. I do find this hard to talk about; sometimes I find it difficult to know if I have been treated a certain way because of my gender and/or race or if there’s a more innocent explanation. Although, there have been other times where it is clear that I haven’t been treated fairly.

We still have a long way to go to ensure that everyone is treated fairly both outside and inside the workplace. I try and do my part to achieve these goals, for instance I am a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council that aims to raise awareness of these issues and suggest solutions.

What needs to be done to ensure that more women like you enter STEM fields?

We need to engage with schools early on - not only with students but also with teachers, so they can support pupils on their career path. To get more people from ethnic minorities into STEM, I think it's important to see strong representation across all levels of industry. If had I seen someone like myself pursuing a career in STEM, it would have inspired me and helped change my perceptions earlier on in my life.

I think by pursuing a career in science myself, I have influenced younger generations in my family by showing them that a career in STEM is definitely something they can achieve.

What advice would you give to the women and girls pursuing careers in STEM?

My advice to young women and girls is that you should never let your race or gender stop you from achieving your goals. I really hope, and want to believe, that at some point it will be a level playing field for everyone.

July is sarcoma awareness month – what do you think we should all be aware of when it comes to this cancer?

Cancer is terrible disease that does not discriminate; we all know and have lost someone to cancer. It’s important we all do our part in raising awareness, so we can catch cancer sooner and have a better chance of beating it.

My hope for Adaptimmune is that we can create affordable ‘off the shelf’ cancer treatments which are inclusive of all patients.