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New Zealand Science Teacher

Teacher Education in Science

Biomedical partnership forged on the soccer sideline

SARAH BOASMAN and ANNETTE LASHAM share their experience of an Endeavour Teacher Fellowship.

When two ‘soccer mums’ met at a game, it wasn’t goals or penalties that caught their attention, but their shared interest in molecular medicine and research.

Sarah Boasman is Head of Science and a biology teacher at Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls. For the past six months she has been hosted by Dr Annette Lasham, senior research fellow at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland.

The Endeavour Teacher Fellowship programme is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and involves partnering teachers with working scientists. For this Fellowship, Sarah Boasman was involved in a project on DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ), which is a disease that sometimes occurs prior to breast cancer.

New Zealand Science Teacher asked both Sarah and Annette (pictured below) about their work together.

Hi Annette, what is your role at Auckland University?

I am a Senior Research Fellow, working in the fast-paced field of cancer genomics, predominantly focused on breast cancer. This means we use nucleic acid (like RNA or DNA) information generated from cutting-edge technologies to identify potential new drug targets or biomarkers that might in the future be used to diagnose cancer or predict a patient’s prognosis or their response to treatment.

Can you tell me about the work you undertook with Sarah?

Sarah has explained her project beautifully, below! We were also fortunate that this work was largely subsidised by a grant from the technology company Illumina (Australia-New Zealand). But looking at the bigger picture, we were very pleased to have the opportunity to share the enthusiasm for our work with someone who can inform and inspire future scientists! In particular, when high-achieving biology students feel that a career in medicine is their only option, hopefully Sarah can explain that biomedical scientists are the behind-the-scenes workers who have the potential to discover the next new drug or test to improve treatment for patients in the future.

Had you taken part in an Endeavour Fellowship before, and what did you get out of the experience?

I had not been associated with an Endeavour Fellowship before. The Royal Society, and in particular, the Endeavour Teacher Fellowship team have been incredibly helpful in minimising the amount of accompanying paperwork that I needed to do to support Sarah in her project. It was a pleasure to work with a Teacher Fellow who was so keen to learn as much as possible in a short time. I suspect she is typical of most! We benefited also by learning what New Zealand students are taught in high school biology curriculums. This is important not only for our new university entrants, but also so that we know at what level to pitch our talks when we visit high schools in the hope of inspiring budding scientists.


Hi Sarah, can you tell me about what led to your fellowship at the University of Auckland?

I knew that I needed a new challenge! I've been in teaching for just over 18 years, and I was aware that my passion was waning. Around that time, I was on the sidelines watching Saturday morning kids' soccer and talking to another parent of the soccer team, who turned out to be Dr Annette Lasham. After a number of conversations and some form filling, I was successfully accepted by the Royal Society of New Zealand as an Endeavour Teacher Fellow.

Have you always been interested in molecular medicine?

Yes, I have always had an interest in molecular medicine, but the biggest attraction for me was the fact that this particular research had a clear link to human need and demand. When working in the lab, I would be able to look out of the window across to the hospital wards. Therefore, I had a constant reminder of how the science research that we were doing was potentially helping lives.

How long did you spend working with Annette and what work were you doing together?

For six months, I have been working in the Molecular Medicine and Pathology department at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), under the supervision of Associate Professor Cris Print and Dr Annette Lasham, both of whom are experts in the field of human cancer genomics. My research task has been to focus on the differences in RNA sequences found in Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) and invasive breast cancer.

DCIS is often a precursor disease that is found in a third of women who go onto to develop invasive breast cancer. However, not all women who are diagnosed with DCIS actually go on to develop invasive breast cancer. So the question is how does a clinician determine the difference and make the correct diagnosis? Unfortunately, at the moment, the answer is they can’t. This means that many women diagnosed with DCIS are likely to have the full blown treatment of surgery and radiotherapy even though there is a possibility that the DCIS will never actually progress to become invasive breast cancer.

What were you trying to do?

The goal of my research has been to try to find out if there are genetic biomarkers that would indicate the ‘type’ of DCIS that was present and so be able to advise the appropriate personalised treatment.

First of all, I had to obtain ethical approval to access ten patient tissue samples from the Cancer Society Tissue Bank in Christchurch. Some of these patients had had DCIS more than five years ago that had not progressed to an invasive breast cancer. The rest had been diagnosed with DCIS and had gone on to develop invasive breast cancer. With the guidance of Dr Lasham, the senior technician Sandra Fitzgerald and a visiting pathologist, Dr Gavin Harris, Medical Director of Anatomical Pathology, from the Canterbury Health Laboratories, we extracted RNA from 10 patients’ tissue samples. RNA is an important polynucleotide that plays a crucial role in the making of proteins, as well as the control of regular cell processes. A small change in the amount/presence of certain RNA sequences can disrupt important cell pathways. This is what happens in cancer cells.

We wanted to compare the RNA extracted from the DCIS samples (from patients that had not developed invasive breast cancer after at least five years) with the DCIS (that had progressed to invasive breast cancer) and with the RNA of invasive breast cancer cells. This extraction process is very challenging due to the preserved nature of the samples. All the tissues samples are Formalin Fixed Paraffin Embedded (FFPE), which is a technique that keeps tissue samples protected from oxidising and breaking down and allows a pathologist to make a clear diagnosis regarding the type of cancer and stage. These samples are stable for decades, which makes them a great resource, but as a scientist, it makes it an incredibly difficult task to isolate and remove the RNA in an intact form due to the effect that the formalin has on the cellular structures. Many weeks were spent trialling and tweaking different extraction techniques before we eventually got some RNA that could be sent down to a sequencing facility at the non-profit technology consortium New Zealand Genomics Limited (NZGL). 

Why did you have to use the Formalin Fixed Paraffin Embedded samples?

The reason for using FFPE tissues instead of fresh tissue was that we needed to know which DCIS patients had not developed invasive breast cancer after many years – we wouldn’t be able to do this with fresh samples.

Also another factor to consider is that research scientists sometimes struggle to find enough samples for their specific research but there are huge amounts stored in tissue banks in this preserved state. Therefore, if a reliable extraction process can be mastered, it would open up a wealth of historic genomic information that could be used for the advancement of medical treatment of diseases.

Once extracted, the RNA was quality controlled and then sent down to the Otago NZGL facility to undergo Illumina ‘Next Generation Sequencing.’ This involves special machinery that can determine the order of the bases within the RNA and then store it as a massive data set. This technology is cutting edge and is revolutionising biomedicine. This is the stage that the project is at. The data has yet to be completely sequenced and therefore hasn’t been sent back to the university. Once it is back, it will be analysed using a combination of statistics and bioinformatics, with assistance from NZGL bioinformaticians in Auckland.

What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fellowship, from your perspective?

Through this experience, my understanding of the potential impact that genomics is going to have on society has increased enormously. Not only that, but I've also been able to see how important the foundations and skills are that the students build/develop at school for their ongoing education at university.

Thinking about returning to school next term, what is it from this experience that you hope to take back into the classroom?

I'm looking forward to bringing my six months experience into the classroom as well as sharing new information with my colleagues. The new ties that I have formed with the FMHS will hopefully go from strength to strength and lead to new learning opportunities for the senior biology students.

The past six months have been rewarding, challenging, and re-energising. The experience wouldn’t have been possible without the fantastic support of the RSNZ, the willingness of the University of Auckland to be my host, the readiness of Diocesan School for Girls for releasing me and the generosity of the Diocesan Heritage Trust to support some of my research.

Further reading on the Fellowship programmes

The Royal Society of New Zealand: Endeavour Teaching Fellowships

NZST: profile of Nicki Harding


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