Watching killer cells at work

06:20, Dec 04 2013

Not many people can say they spend their day watching killers at work.

But that is just what Dr Misty Jenkins does: research the white blood cells of the human body that kill infected and cancerous cells.

Jenkins has won the L'Oreal Women in Science 2013 Fellowship, which allowed her to attend the Australasian Immunology Conference held in Wellington this week.

As the first indigenous Australian to attend either Oxford or Cambridge universities, Jenkins has come a long way from her hometown of Ballarat.

Her work in immunology is set to open the way to a better understanding of how T cells – a type of white blood cell – turn into serial killers in the body, hunting down an infection or cancer cell in minutes before killing it and moving on to find others.

A "typical nerd" at school, she showed an interest in science and the human body from an early age – competing in first aid competitions while friends attended Brownies.


Jenkins has since attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities, gained a PhD in microbiology and immunology, and has been mentored by a Nobel Prize winner.

She also juggles a busy home life, with daughter Tilly having just turned 3.

Jenkins credits her amazing husband as one of the reasons she is able to do it all, and said equality in the workplace began with equality at home. When men took on a greater share of traditionally female aspects of home life, women could do more in their professions.

She speaks of her work easily in terms of cells turning into armed assassins, firing bullets at infected cells, before killing them and moving on to their next target.

The reality of it is much more complicated than that, but Jenkins knows the importance of having a public literate in the basics of science.

Funding is always a problem, but she encouraged women in science on our side of the ditch to put themselves forward for things, and not wait for the tap on the shoulder.