Renise Ayearst: a health researcher pushing limits in the chronic disease research

Working in STEM is an interesting field. It’s an ever-changing subject and carries a life-changing mission. Despite it’s still a male-dominated industry – women represent just 29 per cent of the world’s researchers according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics – more smart and ambitious women are joining force to contribute and make a positive impact to the world through their roles in the field.

Advance chatted with Renise Ayearst – an Aussie based out of Toronto since 2002 – who’s  working fiercely on the arthritis research to foster a better understanding of the chronic disease.

Renise is the Clinical Research Manager at University Health Network and she shared how exciting it is to work in scientific research.

 Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

Can you tell us your role and what you do?

I am a Clinical Research Manager at University Health Network in the Rheumatology Department as program manager for the Psoriatic Arthritis Program and Ankylosing Spondylitis Program. I manage a team of clinical research staff who are working to find a cure for arthritis. We collaborate with researchers around the world in network programs like IPART – “International Psoriatic Arthritis Research Team” and SPARCC – “Spondyloarthritis Research Consortium of Canada”.  We are at the forefront of arthritis research using latest technology to advance the understanding and treating complex chronic disease.

What made you move to Toronto?

I moved to Toronto in 2002 when I got married, choosing to explore living and working abroad. Toronto has many opportunities in healthcare with many leaders in clinical research conducting excellent research.

What made you want to pursue a career in STEM fields?

I chose a career in STEM since I felt it was where I could contribute, have purpose and a fulfilling work life. Technology advances are occurring so quickly it is an exciting time to witness new discovery and utilize these advances to continue improving knowledge and understanding.

In your opinion, is there anything that Australia could learn from Toronto to support and encourage more women to work in STEM?

In my workplace I have good maternity leave coverage and benefits which I think is essential for women to maintain their careers and not sacrifice so much of themselves when deciding between family or work. Workplace flexibility regarding the balance of child care and work hours is also helpful for women to be able to do both things.

What’s the most exciting clinical research project that you have ever worked on?

One of the most exciting projects would be our research into the human microbiome and how its role may be very important in the process of disease in the body. We are setting up our laboratory here to conduct studies in the gut and skin microbiome.  Understanding how we are impacted by the presence or absence of certain microbes living in and on us has become of great interest to researchers. Learning more about these complex interactions will lead to significant discoveries in disease processes and offers enhanced focus in the direction of precision medicine. There is a lot of potential to draw lines of connection between different things going on in our bodies that we previously viewed in isolation. While many of the fundamental mechanisms are still being delineated it has enabled more questions to be asked that will lead researchers to develop technologies further to continue discovery in this hotbed area.  We are very excited to be conducting genomic, microbiomic and metabolomic assays and combining all these complex data using advanced AI algorithmic functions to study arthritis. This research is very innovative and we believe it will ultimately lead to improved care and quality of life of people suffering with arthritis.

What’s the best and worst thing about working abroad?

The best thing about working abroad is learning new things about other cultures. Even though Canada is quite similar to Australia in many ways, it is the little differences that are amusing. I love traveling and being located in this part of the world does make traveling around a bit easier in terms of time and cost.

The worst thing about working abroad would be missing family and friends, usually at those times of year you want to connect like Christmas and missing out on seeing kids grow up.

What do you miss most about Australia?

I miss Australian attitudes and sense of humour that is so characteristic of our culture.  Right next to that I miss the weather. Australia is the best place in the world and always will be in my mind.