Visible Women

Meet the pioneering doctor who’s changing the face of cancer treatment

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Hannah Keegan
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we’re highlighting the work of Dr Liz Patton, a cancer research scientist who wants to see more women in her field.  

Dr Liz Patton didn’t grow up dreaming of labs and microscopes; she was drawn, instead, to dance, theatre and the arts. But, thankfully, creativity is a skill that comes in handy when you’re working on groundbreaking research.

“When I was studying for my undergraduate [degree in biology] I had no idea what I wanted to be. I had good grades but that doesn’t necessarily translate into wanting to be a scientist,” the cancer research scientist tells Stylist.

It was only when she got the chance to work alongside scientists that she caught the research bug. “Because of my grades I was trusted with a project in a lab,” she explains. “The idea that people didn’t know the answer and they were allowing me to look for it really excited me. I remember looking at the graduate students and thinking, ‘They’re so lucky they get to do this all day.’”

Spurred on by her love of making new discoveries, Patton went on to receive a PhD from the University of Toronto and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. It was at Harvard that she developed a pioneering model for research into melanoma, or skin cancer. Using zebrafish, a tiny tropical fish native to southeast Asia, she discovered that she was able to visualize how cancerous cells operate in the early stages under a microscope.

Today, she leads a team of 10 at the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at Edinburgh University, where the zebrafish method is key to developing their understanding of melanoma. 

Dr Patton developed a model using zebrafish to visualize cancer cells 

Patton is particularly excited about an international female-led initiative she’s currently working on with the Melanoma Research Alliance, funded by L’Oreal Paris. The project aims to understand how someone who has been cancer-free for years can suddenly be hit by the disease again, a question that science doesn’t yet have answers for.

“We’re working on imaging those cells that suddenly become active,” she explains. “They don’t seem to be visible to the immune system or to us, but if we can start to see them, we can maybe start to target them.”

As well as working to change the face of cancer treatment, the project also hopes to encourage more women into science.

“We have to think practically about how this can happen,” Patton says. “There are so many talented women who have so much to contribute, but then don’t make it to the top. We need to anticipate the practical problems they will encounter, like childcare, and create supportive female networks.

“As women our tool kits are different,” she continues. “We’re expected to be smiley and positive all the time and if we’re assertive it’s interpreted as aggressive. This holds us back because we don’t get to use all the tools that men do. We have to get used to hearing women as leaders.”

As one of the few female leaders at her institute, Patton is still energised every day by what she does. “I feel cancer is a solvable problem,” she says. “And just like great art, music or literature, great science is part of humanity’s potential.” 

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Dr Patton / iStock