Catalyst for change
Microbiologist Dr Willa Huston believes that with the right environment and support, raising a young family and solving complex scientific challenges can go hand in hand.
“For me, UTS is the best research environment I can be in; it’s really supported me to thrive,” she explains. “The facilities for microbiology are excellent and the culture is diverse, innovative and dynamic, with a broad representation of female scientists and people from minority groups.”
Willa has earned an international reputation as a frontier researcher into chlamydial disease while balancing the demands of research and teaching with parenting her two young children. She says that the proactivity of management in facilitating flexibility and opportunities has been a decisive factor in her ability to engage with her work, family and community in equal measure.
“Gaining funding under the UTS Research Equity Initiative to help re-establish my research following maternity leave was a huge support — not just financially, but the acknowledgement that the dynamic and challenges are different,” Willa says.
Gaining funding under the UTS Research Equity Initiative to help re-establish my research following maternity leave was a huge support – not just financially, but the acknowledgement that the dynamic and challenges are different.
“Just as important is the flexibility among managers on work hours and how you manage your workload profile, and access to exceptional programs like the UTS Women in Leadership course.”
With this support network behind her, Willa and her team are working to advance understanding of the chlamydial mechanisms of disease, its persistence and how it leads to female infertility. Chlamydia is a silent epidemic; it is also asymptomatic, with women affected by the disease often not realising until years later when they face challenges conceiving.
“In Australia alone there are around 80,000 infections annually that we know about, and a lot more that go undiagnosed,” says Willa.
“Around 4,000 of those women will develop serious pelvic inflammatory disease, of which at least 400 will go on to develop tubal factor infertility. Globally, we think there are about 131 million chlamydial infections every year, more than half of which occur in women. It’s a massive public health burden.”
Better diagnosis and treatment are crucial in preventing the disease’s often devastating consequences for women and families, and Willa’s team is working up a new serological diagnostic for infertility in women and a more effective antibiotic for chlamydia.
And with her discoveries also helping counter the devastating impact of chlamydial disease on a treasured national icon, the benefits extend beyond human health.
“Some of our research actually translates to koalas as well, so we’re also looking at chlamydia in koalas and in livestock and other wildlife — the questions are very similar,” she explains.
Willa is deeply passionate about equity and diversity. She has been a driving force in making her faculty an impressively diverse, inclusive place as co-convenor of the UTS Academic Women in Science network and Chair of the Faculty of Science Equity and Diversity Committee. She is also a member of the self-assessment team for the UTS Athena SWAN pilot project, working to demolish structural barriers to positive change.
“UTS really celebrates and rewards diversity, but there’s much more that we’re looking to do,” she says. “We're at a point right now where we need to really disrupt in order to hit the next level of change.”
Photographer: Andy Roberts