MELISSA LITTLE - Cancer research

Melissa Little portrait








Salary range

AUD$75,000-85,000 p.a.

My advice for students

“Science is more of a career option now than it has been in the past. Make sure you get some laboratory experience when possible. Shop around different labs and look for the best project you can. Try and work out what motivates you about science - is it the thrill of finding out how and why, do you want to have an outcome that it useable or do you want to convey interesting information to others? This may help you determine the career path you opt for within science.”

What I studied

Bachelor of Science 1983
Bachelor of Science (Honours) Physiology 1984
Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) Biochemistry 1988 - 1990

Career path

Research assistant - Genetics and childhood cancer, Queensland Institute for Medical Research (QIMR) 1985 - 1987
Royal Society Endeavour Fellow - Human Genetics Unit, Edinburgh, Scotland and Wilms’ tumour, Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology (CMCB), The University of Queensland (UQ) 1990 - 1994
R.D. Wright Postdoctoral Fellow - WT1 and kidney development, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology (CMCB), UQ 1995 - 1997
Sylvia and Charles Viertel Senior Research Fellow - Kidney development and disease, CMCB and the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, UQ 1988 - 2002
NHMRC Senior Research Fellow - Kidney development and disease, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, UQ, present

Melissa Little is a leading researcher in the field of molecular genetics, attracting highly sought-after research funding for her work. Her research primarily looks at which genes control the process of development in humans, and in particular, she looks at paediatric kidney cancer.

During school and her undergraduate degree, Melissa made informed decisions based on her interests, which have led her into an area of cutting edge medical research. Melissa is now also a mother and is able to combine her career with a young family.

“I took a science degree because my father was a scientist and I was interested in biology during school. However, I was also interested in architecture. In Grade 12 I was incorrectly counselled that I would not get into architecture or medicine, [so] I enrolled in occupational therapy and science. During Grade 12, I visited the occupational health unit at Wolston Park [psychiatric hospital] and realised that I did not have the personality to be an occupational therapist, so I accepted a position in science.

“I did a Heart Foundation vacation scholarship between second and third year university. That was very helpful in my decision to continue on to do research. There were two key decisions that I made during my career. The first was to not continue on to do a PhD after Honours but to work as a research assistant. This developed my laboratory skills but also made it clear to me that I wished to be driving my own research agenda rather than following instructions. That realisation convinced me to enrol in a PhD. The second key decision was after I had returned to Australia as a postdoctoral fellow. I was pregnant and facing the situation of trying to gain another fellowship to stay in research or take an academic position. I chose to continue in a higher risk position but have more time to do research.”

“My research involves working on understanding what genes control the process of development and we’re particularly interested in how you get a normal kidney and what goes wrong in kidney disease, both in children and in adults. We’re suggesting that the genes that are important in making the kidney in the first place are probably going to be some of the things that go wrong later on in kidney problems and kidney disease.

“So we’re also interested in understanding whether there are ways we can get the kidney to repair itself or use stem cells to repair it, if it’s damaged in some way. These could be embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells from other part of the body, or kidney stem cells still present in the kidney after birth, that if we activated the right way would repair damage within that kidney.

“My job also entails:

  • laboratory management
  • writing of grants, manuscripts, seminars, reviews and progress reports
  • supervision, training and mentoring of students and staff
  • design of experiments
  • troubleshooting, project management, communication with peers and the community
  • professional activities surrounding science in Australia.

“I enjoy planning and troubleshooting experiments, working out how things work, writing scientific manuscripts and helping people within my lab develop their own careers.

“I travel a lot. This comes from my involvement in science administration nationally (for the NHMRC, Department of Education Science and Training or the Department of Health and Ageing), presentation of scientific seminars and meetings or reviews of different aspects of science. I am also involved in seeking commercial funding for aspects of my research that are likely to have realistic outcomes.”