Tāmaki Innovation Campus


RECOGNISING A GLITTERING CAREER IN CANCER RESEARCH


Sandar Tin Tin
Dr Sandar Tin Tin

Dr Sandar Tin Tin is swapping the gentle suburban walk to Tāmaki Campus from her nearby home, for the gleaming spires of Oxford, as the recipient of the Girdlers’ New Zealand HRC Fellowship for ‘physical activity, sedentary behaviours and breast cancer risk’ in a prospective cohort of over half a million people.

She takes up the post in August (neatly gaining two summers) and is excited about the University of Oxford project, focussed on Oxford’s CEU (Cancer Epidemiology Unit) as a world-leading centre for cancer epidemiology, investigating modifiable risk factors for cancer.

Graduating in Medicine at the University of Medicine 1 (Yangon, Myanmar), she then completed a Master of Public Health and a PhD at the University of Auckland. But although her medical background had prepared her sufficiently for a clinician role, she decided to pursue a career in population health.

“I really wanted to be able to make a genuine difference in people’s lives. I am passionate about epidemiological research, as it’s the key to investigating the root of health problems, implementing control measures and improving health at the population level.”

“I am particularly interested in the design and conduct of longitudinal studies, health data linkage, pooling and analyses of large datasets and systematic reviews. I’ve been involved in a number of projects in the areas of cancer, physical activity, nutrition, injury, and child and youth health, and this is literally a one in a (half) million opportunity  for me.”

Sandar says the research programme at the University of Oxford builds on her current research in cancer epidemiology and aligns with her research interests, reflecting on a rewarding career as a public health researcher at the School of Population Health, starting with a Master of Public Health in 2005.

However, she’s become no stranger to awards either; in 2005-06 she was awarded the best student prizes in both years of the masters’ programme (John McLeod Prize in Public Health in the first year and the Community Health Prize in Public Health in the second year).

“My master’s dissertation investigated the role of supermarket sales data in population nutrition monitoring and was graded “A+. And in 2008-09 my doctoral research (part-time) investigated cycling and injury risk in New Zealand, based on the Taupo Bicycle Study, a prospective cohort study involving over 2,500 cyclists,” she says.

“I was successful as the principal investigator in securing funding from the HRC for the follow-up activities of the study in 2009. I was one of two New Zealand-based PhD students (across all scientific disciplines) selected by the Royal Society to participate in the first Commonwealth Science Conference (Bangalore, 2014).”

Sandar went on to receive the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF)/ Perpetual David and Cassie Anderson Postdoctoral Fellowship and AMRF/Kelliher Charitable Trust Emerging Research Start-up Award in 2016-18. Her project investigated prevalence, demographic profiles and clinical outcomes of genetically-defined subtypes of lung cancer, in a population-based cohort of New Zealand patients.  

Those findings were subsequently presented at the Cancer Care at a Crossroads Conference (Wellington, 2019): one of the three abstracts accepted for oral presentation.

2017 saw the Margaret L Bailey Science Award from the New Horizons for Women Health Trust awarded to Sandar, to investigate trends in endometrial cancer across different ethnic groups in New Zealand in a collaborative project with a pathologist from the Middlemore Hospital.

And in 2018 she became the principal investigator in securing a two-year funding grant from the HRC and New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation to investigate geographic variability in breast cancer incidence, care and outcomes. In an ongoing project, she also received an AMRF project grant to investigate medication use in breast cancer patients.

So, it was hardly surprising that her interest was sparked by a comment from a colleague and former Girdler’s fellow, outlining the large-scale cohort studies undertaken at the University of Oxford, such as the UK Biobank, Million Women Study and European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC)-Oxford.

UK Biobank is one of the world’s largest medical research initiatives aiming to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses including cancer. The study collected data on physical activity (self-reported as well as accelerometer-assessed), adiposity, and a wide range of biomarkers, together with all established risk factors for breast cancer and GWAS (genome-wide association study) data. The findings will inform public health strategies to prevent the most common cancer in women worldwide.

The proposed research aims to investigate the associations between physical activity, sedentary behaviours and the risk of breast cancer, and to examine underlying biological mechanisms, using the data from the UK Biobank, a prospective cohort of half a million people including 270,000 women.

Sandar believes the fellowship will give her valuable experience working in a world leading, multidisciplinary research unit.

“I’m very excited, as it will allow me to enhance my expertise and analytical skills in cancer epidemiology and to build skills in teamwork and publication in high impact journals. Such experience will be valuable for my career development as well as for my future research in New Zealand.”

Sandar says Professor Timothy J Key will be her mentor for the proposed research. “He is highly respected in the field of cancer epidemiology, and Deputy Director of the CEU at the University of Oxford. He is the principal investigator of the EPIC-Oxford cohort, and Chair of the Endogenous Hormones and Breast Cancer Collaborative Group, an international consortium of 20 prospective studies worldwide.”

The CEU is a leading centre for cancer epidemiology in the world. The Unit is within the Nuffield Department of Population Health, led by Professor Sir Rory Collins who is also Chief Executive Officer for UK Biobank.

She leaves in July for the two-year fellowship and intends to return, most likely to Grafton. “I do like the Tāmaki Campus, though, because it is quiet, peaceful and a walking distance from my home (and I have been studying and working here for nearly 15 years). However, I do think Grafton will be a better place to develop and strengthen research collaborations with other departments and schools.”

“The main challenge for me as a researcher, a supervisor and a mother of an eight-year old is to manage competing demands and to keep a good work-life balance.”