Tales from... Dr Amanda Lee

The answers we ‘seq’ aren’t always the answers we want, are they?

Dr Amanda Lee

It feels like only yesterday as a little girl growing up in Singapore when one of my close family members was diagnosed with melanoma. The memories of this awful time in my family’s history continues to strengthen my resolve to be in healthcare- to help, treat and care for others.

In 2009, I arrived in Melbourne as an international student aiming to complete a degree with a double major – in Anatomy and Neuroscience as well as Biochemistry and Cell Biology at The University of Melbourne. I structured my studies to achieve my goal, which would enable me to undertake a PhD in my chosen area of study – cancer research. Fortunately, I was one of five undergraduates to receive a prestigious Victorian International Research Scholarship (VIRS). Throughout my postgraduate years, I worked part time as a lab technician and as a demonstrator. Little did I realise how valuable it was to build connections and essential skills that have been with me throughout my professional life.

After completing my PhD in 2015- studying brain cancer in flies – I was awarded a Cancer Council Postdoctoral Research Fellowship that eventually led me to my first role at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. I joined Professor Ian Campbell’s team researching breast and ovarian cancer. The focus of my work was to identify and discover specific gene mutations that cause these cancers to run in families. I had the privilege to work alongside leading researchers and students that not only facilitated my personal development but expanded my skill set in the laboratory and as a mentor.

The perfect role came up for me in 2018 with Dr. Gisela Mir Arnau in the Molecular Genomics Core (MGC). It combined my curiosity for seeking answers, my love for scientific laboratory work, being part of a team and importantly, helping and supporting others. As a senior research officer, my role is extremely versatile. In a nutshell I oversee, manage and complete projects that use Next Generation Sequencing – an amazing process that enables us to identify differences or defects in DNA.

DNA is made of building blocks called nucleotides. Determining the type and order of the nucleotides in an individual’s genome is called sequencing and is used, among others, to test for genetic disorders. While the whole genome of an individual has over three billion nucleotides, only about one percent provides instructions for making proteins, the exome. The exome has close to 30,000 genes and from here only about ten percent are considered to be “druggable” and can be targeted by drugs in case of malfunction. Depending on the aims of the research, a scientist may choose to sequence the whole genome, the whole exome or a targeted portion of the exome, and we have the tools in the laboratory to do it. I specialise in DNA projects and in particular in high throughput automation, whole genome sequencing and targeted DNA captures, including whole exome sequencing.

While the work in a Core may seem of repetitive nature, it hardly feels like it. The type of samples I process are generally precious patient-derived samples that do not meet the quality and quantity threshold of standard laboratory protocols so we have to adjust our work to the needs and possibilities of every project and give these precious patient-derived samples the best chance to produce high quality data. Optimization of protocols, development of new protocols and incorporating emerging technologies is an important part of my job.

In addition to laboratory work, I am a trained PeterMac CARE champion with basic mental health first aid training. As a student mentor, I attend committee meetings and provide an empathetic listening ear to assist the mental health of students and help give them the clarity that they need to make pivotal decisions. I also know the value of a balanced approach to life. Being a competitive swimmer growing up, I have a passion for fitness and movement. I practice yoga and participate in Melbourne’s dance and fitness community as an instructor after work hours. I also run a frozen yoghurt food truck that I operate on the weekends in the summertime.

Early on in my studies, a colleague offered me some advice to always take the opportunity to enjoy the time you have, because moments are very fleeting. I believe that’s very true. If I could go back five years, I would tell my younger self to just let things unfold. Back then, I would not have imagined being where I am now. Yet when I look at how these things have happened I see that sometimes it was about hard work, sometimes it was just being at the “right place and the right time” and sometimes, it was about learning to identify and create opportunities for myself.

Figure Legend: (A) schematic representation of library preparation for whole genome sequencing; (B) sequencing reads (red) mapping to the Whole Genome, Whole Exome or a Targeted Panel. 

Dr Amanda Lee’s journey in Victoria has taken her from 1 of 5 undergraduates to receive the Victorian international research scholarship (VIRS) to the recipient of one of two Cancer Council Postdoctoral Research Fellowship that eventually led to her role at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. She is a senior research office in the Molecular Genomics Core specializing in high throughput automation, targeted DNA captures, whole exome and whole genome sequencing.

Dr Amanda Lee and contacted by:

Twitter: @DrAmandaLee

Linked-In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amanda-lee-9113155a/

Email: [email protected]

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