Professor Minoti Apte has often been described as humble. Yet the word does not, and cannot, do justice to the woman who has won a prestigious award every year for the last six years including Order of Australia Medal in 2014, NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year in 2015, the Professor Rob Sutherland AO Make A difference Award from the Cancer Institute in 2016, the Lady Mary Fairfax Distinguished Researcher Award from the Ingham Institute in 2017, the prestigious Distinguished Researcher Prize from the Gastroenterological Society of Australia (GESA) in 2018 and her most recent award, announced in October 2019: Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.
With almost as many titles as awards, Professor Apte who is Director of the Pancreatic Research Group at the Ingham Institute of Applied Medical Research, is quick to point out that the awards, although in her name, are the not solely hers.
“I never coveted these awards. I am aware that I stand on the shoulders of other great minds who came before me as well as the hardworking collaborative teams that I worked and continue to work with,” she says.
But, Professor Apte almost didn’t receive any of these awards. That is, she wouldn’t have received them had she pursued her original career in opthalmology.
“I had just finished my medical degree in India and had been accepted into opthalmology. Only two people are accepted each year into that specialty and I was pleased to be one of them,” She says.
But the universe had other plans for Minoti. Her husband, a chemical engineer received a Commonwealth scholarship to do a PhD at the University of Newcastle and Minoti moved with him.
Starting her early life in Australia as a volunteer in the Pathology Department at Royal Newcastle Hospital, Minoti worked with a doctor who had just received a small grant for research into alcohol and liver disease. From there, Minoti explains, she literally “fell into research” when she was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship of her own to do a Master of Medical Science by research at Newcastle University.
Now, over 30 years later Professor Minoti is an internationally-recognised leading researcher in the field of chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. Towards the end of her PhD at UNSW, she was the first in the world to develop a method to isolate and culture pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) which are the key cells that produce pancreatic scarring. Her Group was also the first to establish the role of these cells in aiding the progression of chronic pancreatitis as well as of pancreatic cancer.
“We have been looking at the ways in which stellate cells and cancer cells interact and how to interrupt that interaction. We have discovered a pharmaceutical way to stop the interaction which seems to wipe out metastasis in a pre-clinical model of pancreatic cancer, even at a late stage of disease,” she explains.
“We now need to take this to Phase 1 clinical trials to ensure that firstly the drug combination that we propose is not toxic to humans and then to look at its effectiveness in pancreatic cancer treatment.”
Although challenging at times, Minoti has always tried to balance her career with her commitment to family and the Indian community. She has been heavily involved in community work through her activities as an Indian classical Kathak dancer and choreographer as well as through her mentorship of young professionals and new migrants seeking advice on career and family matters.
Despite all her successes, Minoti is full of humility and this, she believes, is due to her upbringing as well as her culture.
“It is culturally ingrained in us not to be smug about what we achieve. I was surrounded by a family of strong, career-driven women. My grandmother, who was home-schooled until Year 11, founded a girls’ school in my home city in India. Her sister was a principal of another school and another sister was an obstetrician/gynaecologist. These women were all high-achievers but none of them talked about themselves,” she explains.
“I was taught that yes, your hard work pays off, but there is some other grace guiding you. There has to be God’s grace.”
By Linda Music