Researcher Spotlight: Professor Maria Kavallaris


Professor Maria Kavallaris

This month’s blog focuses on the work of Professor Maria Kavallaris, Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at Children's Cancer Institute, and Founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at UNSW. 

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Why Cancer Research?

Prof Maria Kavallaris began studying for her undergraduate science degree at UTS in 1983. At the age of 21, her studies were unexpectedly interrupted when she was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, surgery and chemotherapy were successful and Maria went on to make a full recovery. However, sadly this was not her only personal experience with the disease. Whilst in the second year of her PhD, her brother died of pancreatic cancer at just 30 years old.

It is these experiences that Professor Kavallaris credits with strengthening her resolve to dedicate her life to research. 

The impact of funding early-career researchers

Maria received her first early career grant from Cure Cancer Australia in 1999, followed by a further grant in 2003. Her research is now internationally regarded, and she has made seminal contributions to understanding the mechanisms of action and resistance to cancer therapy. Her studies include identifying how some tumours can grow and spread in the body, and she has applied this knowledge to develop effective and less toxic cancer therapies using nanotechnology.

 “Both of my Cure Cancer Australia grants came at critical times in my early career development and have led to further grants,” explains Maria. “Providing start-up funding to young researchers is crucial in getting their ideas off the ground, and also means they will be able to prove themselves to other funding bodies in the future”.

Professor Kavallaris now leads an outstanding team of Australian researchers at the forefront of cancer research, supported by competitive research funding from agencies including the NHMRC and Australian Research Council. During the last 10 years our research alumni have attracted on average an additional $45 of research funding for every dollar we have invested in them. However, in Maria’s case, the return has been significantly larger. Maria’s total career funding to date is $45 Million, a massive return on our original grants of $50K and $60K, at a  $1:409 ratio.

Present day

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Today, Professor Maria Kavallaris holds a highly competitive National Health and Medical Research Council Principal Research Fellowship and serves on key government funding panels, committees and editorial boards. She is a member of the Board of the Australian Institute for Policy and Science and has served as President of the Australian Society for Medical Research. In 2015, Professor Kavallaris was named as an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Woman of Influence.

Bringing things full circle, Maria was also the PhD supervisor for Nikki Verrills who received her first grant from Cure Cancer Australia in 2007, and postdoctoral supervisor for Dr Joshua McCarroll when he received his first grant from Cure Cancer Australia in 2011.

How you can help

"Cancer research is not a career for the faint-hearted,” says Maria. “It’s always a frustrating battle. There are the constant funding knockbacks so there’s not enough money to go around even when people come up with great ideas. It’s especially tough in early to mid-career because there are so many others in the pool. But you have to keep at it and stay passionate”.

“You don’t need to be a scientist to be involved in cancer research, you just need the drive to make a difference by raising much needed research funds. As a community, we can all contribute to improving the outcome and survival rates of people diagnosed with cancer”.

The funding landscape for cancer research has never been more competitive, or crucial. We can’t cure cancer without research, so we thank all our supporters for their ongoing commitment.

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