This week we caught up with local Newcastle Scientist Raewyn Billings.
Raewyn specializes in molecular biology, genetics and cancer research and is currently working at the John Hunter Hospital as a Translational Scientist.
Seeing as we had arrived to write a blog on this interesting local, we needed a little more clarification. “So what exactly does a Translational Scientist do?” We ask.
“I develop new testing and techniques that will be validated and put into clinical testing, which helps speed up turn around times for certain genetic tests. I look at DNA all day!”
As we share a delicious fruit platter, Raewyn tells us about the long spiraling ladder that is DNA, “It’s the recipe for every living thing,” she tells us excitedly.
“DNA and RNA are used to create proteins and give instructions for the shape and formation of proteins – they’re like a secret code.”
After further conversation about exome sequencing, clinical diagnostics and genomes, Raewyn decides to break things down for us more simply… and deliciously.
“I’ll show you,” she laughs. “Lets extract some DNA from these strawberries.”
Sure, why not!
So as we got to work extracting from the berries in the lab, we also got to work extracting the story of Raewyn’s journey into genetics.
“I have always been the girl who had to figure things out,” Raewyn tells us while cutting up berries and pureeing them.
“I had a dream to work in forensics. When I was in Year 10 I started a petition so that our science classes would include forensic lessons. Mr Cook was the teacher and he eventually gave in – we did some fingerprinting and some other things.”
After school, Raewyn followed her passion for science and gained her Biotech – Medical Forensics degree working in Anatomical Pathology and Molecular Genetics.
It was in 2006 that Raewyn’s dream of being a forensic scientist would become a reality, as she was successful in gaining a role as a Scene of Crime Officer based in Gosford.
For almost 6 years Raewyn attended high volume crime scenes, gathering and examining evidence.
“I loved my job but something was missing. I missed the lab work and started to realise that my real passion was genetics.”
Through close personal family and friends being affected by cancer, Raewyn felt the push to further her study into medical genetics.
“I applied to the UBC – one of the top medical science universities in the world – and was so excited to get in! I had to leave my family here in Newcastle and move to Vancouver and spend my life savings to do it. But I knew it was my calling.”
Raewyn scoops out a long piece of white string (DNA) from the strawberry goop with an aura of fascination that can only come from someone who is passionate and engaged with their work.
We talk about Raewyn’s time in Vancouver, Canada while studying her Masters of Science, Medical Genetics.
“At times it would get hard,” Raewyn admits, “and sometimes I would feel disheartened – but my Aunt Jenny who was battling cancer at the time had said to me “You have to do this” and I knew I could.”
Her Thesis on simulating the human tumour heterogenteity using cancer cell line mixtures sits proudly in front of us as proof that she could – and she did.
An impressive undertaking on the understanding of the evolution of a tumor and a revelation on finding the culprit cell that is driving any one particular tumor, so that the correct treatment can be administered.
Another passion formed in Canada for Raewyn and that was photography and the online social community of Instagram.
“I find photography an amazing outlet for creativity and to use another part of my brain away from all the pressures of science,” Raewyn says. “I’m an avid adventurer, so I utilised my time in Vancouver to make the most of the amazing hikes and scenery there.”
Raewyns Canadian adventures became quite popular on Instagram gaining over 50,000 followers, however she now gladly shares her adventures back home in Newcastle.
“I am glad to be back home in Newy, it’s such an amazing place to live: the beaches, the opportunities and of course the wonderful community,” Raewyn tells us.
She is now contemplating her next move: a PHD with the University of Newcastle while simultaneously working in the lab to help produce results for cancer patients, all while enjoying Novocastrian life back home.
Newcastle is a thriving and supportive community, and from what we learned from Raewyn about the spiraling ladder of DNA (that tells proteins how to form in the right shape), we are happy to know that our community is an amazing building block that supports it’s villagers, creating an abundance of vibrant life.