Marilena DeMayo, PhD Candidate and IMNIS mentee in the 2017 MedTech-Pharma program in NSW (USyd) [Image: The University of Sydney]

“The IMNIS program was a wonderful experience that developed both my skills and my confidence in them.”

Marilena DeMayo is a PhD candidate at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney who participated in the 2017 NSW IMNIS cohort.

Marilena’s research has two broad aims. Firstly, she is investigating oxytocin nasal spray as a potential treatment for the core social symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder, attempting to characterise effects on the brain and how this may influence treatment response. Secondly, she is working to understand the brain development associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her research uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and she has developed protocols to scan children (in order to be scanned they must lie perfectly still in a noisy tube). Prior to commencing her PhD, Marilena was a Research Assistant at the Brown University MRI Facility.

Marilena’s interest in Autism Spectrum Disorder began through her volunteer work at Recreation Sports and Aquatics Club – a club dedicated to providing sporting, social and recreational opportunities for people with a disability. She was fascinated by how differently autism presents itself in each individual.. She hopes her research will begin to answer this question.

Why did you participate in the IMNIS program?

I participated in the IMNIS program to understand more about the industry sector in Australia. Working in clinical trials highlights the value of  collaboration between academia and pharmaceutical companies and I wished to understand how these could develop to create more productive relationships. Being paired with an experienced mentor was appealing, as I hoped to develop my professional skills in a broader context. I thought IMNIS would broaden my exposure to the scientific community in Australia and prepare me to engage with this community in a meaningful way (and it did!).

How often did you meet with your mentor and did you prepare for these meetings? What was the best piece of advice you received? What was the most important aspect of this professional relationship for you?

I met with my mentor, Nadia Levin, monthly. I would prepare notes, discussing challenges she’d set and current challenges.  

An outstanding piece of advice was “be prepared for every opportunity”. We discussed upcoming events and how to ensure I was positioned to get the most out of them. For example: to prepare for a networking event, knowing who I wanted to meet at the event, having my personal pitches ready and accessible business cards.

Nadia stepped back, took in the whole picture, and helped me develop professional skills that would be useful in any career.

Would you recommend participating in the IMNIS program to your peers?

Absolutely! The IMNIS program was a wonderful experience that developed both my skills and my confidence in them. I think it is so valuable to gain knowledge about and experience with the broader industry community. Having a dedicated mentor for a whole year allowed me to develop a genuine rapport, which facilitates an excellent opportunity for developing new skills and challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone.

What was the most rewarding aspect of the IMNIS program for you?

One of the challenges my mentor set me was to pitch my research, explaining the potential impact and why it was worth investing in the research. On my first attempt, I found it really challenging to illustrate the importance of the research. This became an ongoing project, having to develop pitches to three hypothetical audiences (philanthropists, high schoolers and policy-makers). Nadia and I would go through and refine them, developing my style and adapting the content. At our final IMNIS meeting, she had me present these to her colleagues, which showed me how far I had progressed.

Did IMNIS help you get to where you are now?

Although I am still completing my PhD, IMNIS has helped me in two key ways. Firstly, I have developed my networking skills and associated confidence, which I know will be critical for my career development and progression. I have followed up with individuals I’ve met at events. Secondly, I have learnt about leadership and different leadership styles. I am chair of the student committee at the Brain and Mind Centre, and participating in IMNIS has developed my leadership competency. These are both important skills now and for the future.