leading landmark research

Associate Professor Francine Marques on leading historical blood pressure research

Associate Professor Francine Marques leads critical research to treat the more than 4.1 million Australians with hypertension. She is a geneticist and laboratory researcher at Monash University and was named an Emerging Leader in STEM at the 2021 Women’s Diary Leadership Awards.

This year, Dr. Marques marked a milestone in her career and in the field when she received her very first randomized clinical trialtranslating evidence her team had previously identified in experimental models to humans.

Translating this kind of evidence is a difficult task that usually takes many years or even decades – her team did it in an impressive 5 years. In the process, her team has been nominated for nearly 40 awards. The research has important implications for how high blood pressure might be treated in the future.

Here’s Dr. Marques an update on her life (she’s about to become a mother for the first time!) Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards. She also provides valuable advice to other women interested in making a big impact in STEM and research.

Nominations and entries for the 2022 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards close in August. view more here.

Can you give us updates on your research on the development of high blood pressure at Monash University?

I lead a team with 10 Amazing Scientists and Clinicians passionate about improving human health and making a difference. Together we are working on many aspects of how our gut microbes and the substances they produce can help us regulate our blood pressure. We have ongoing studies on how microbes communicate with us, genetic studies on the link between blood pressure and gastrointestinal disease, and trials on using microbes to lower blood pressure. It’s an exciting time to work in STEM!

How would you describe your current role and job?

I am an associate professor of genetics and genomics. Last year I received a generous grant from the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation, which allows me to spend most of my time researching and supporting my team. However, I get to teach some classes to undergraduate students on genetics, genomics and molecular biology, which is something I really enjoy. I also offer my time on service to support our research community. Some of these roles include co-program manager of the High Blood Pressure Research Council of Australia (HBPRCA), where I co-host our annual scientific meeting, and chair of the Mentoring Committee of the International Society of Hypertension (ISH), where we connect mentors and mentees around the world and develop new ways to support mentees and junior researchers.

What was your career and life like in the past year?

Life is changing fast for me as I’m getting older for the first time in a few weeks. The past year has been a challenge to deal with the pandemic, support my team and plan my parental leave as a lab head. However, it has also yielded a lot. I started my lab 3.5 years ago, but my team has been so resilient, creative and supportive of each other, it’s been amazing to watch. We’re now seeing some of our hard work come through as we put the finishing touches on some of the first papers coming out of our lab, which is exciting.

Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on over the past year that you’re really excited about?

Another project I’m really excited about is the benefit of dietary fiber during pregnancy. We just completed this study, where we fed pregnant mice diets low or high in a type of fiber that feeds gut microbes. We then studied their offspring and how well their hearts were functioning. We found that the offspring of high fiber mothers were less likely to develop heart disease. These findings are exciting because they could have an impact on heart disease prevention in the future.

What do you think urgently needs to change for women in your current field of work or focus?

When I was doing my PhD and in my early postgraduate years, I looked up to our leaders – lab leaders, department heads/school/committees – to understand what I would need to become to be considered successful in the future. Life was put into perspective for me when I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer in 2015. I decided that what I saw in most leaders was not the person I wanted to become and the leader I wanted to be. As a result, I have developed my own leadership style. I believe this is a common problem we observe: we continue to expect women and other underrepresented groups to fit in with current measures of success and leadership styles, rather than changing the system to support all kinds of diversity and allow for authentic leadership styles . We recently published a step-by-step plan where we describe many ways our research communities can better support women and other underrepresented groups to achieve this.

What advice do you have for women looking to break the status quo to achieve better outcomes for others?

To change the status quo and improve diversity and equality, we must unite with those with a similar mission. Tap into leaders and organizations where change is needed or support diversity and equity to drive major changes that can lead to a cultural shift. Change may take some time, but it is possible.

On a personal level, know the data why diversity and equality are important, and don’t be afraid to speak up when needed. I know this is hard! Having clarity about my values ​​of honesty and responsibility helps me do this – I have to decide between being silent and going against my values, or being brave and living up to my values. This makes me choose courage over comfort in many difficult situations. It also gets easier with time and practice.

In general, what is your best career tip for making great things happen?

My best career tip is to: have a diverse group of mentors at every stage of your career. Guidance is the key to enhance opportunities and provide opportunities for networking and visibility. I’ve been lucky enough to have such a great team of mentors who have supported me in countless ways, and I’m now trying to pay it forward. My own mentees do a fantastic job and I am proud of their achievements.

Another important aspect for me is having clarity about my mission and values ​​- they guide me in the decisions I make every day. My personal vision is to empower and support others to become the best version of themselves – this involves becoming the best scientist they could become, as well as finding a career they love and improving and maintaining their health. I love that I can accomplish my mission every day while doing research, talking to my team, mentees or students about the work they are doing, or interacting with our community to empower them to improve their blood pressure.

Because we are based in an academic institution, our lab’s mission is to build exceptional scientists who help improve cardiovascular health. This is important to me because I believe we need to shift the focus from science to the people – they are our most important resource.

Nominations and entries for the 2022 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards close in August. view more here.


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