PhD student: ‘I tell everyone to come to Westmead!’

University of Sydney PhD student Hafsa Rana and Associate Professor Andrew Harman.

University of Sydney PhD student Hafsa Rana didn’t know what to expect when she began her research at the Westmead Health Precinct.

Little did she know the unique access Westmead Hospital offers to hands-on clinical work would help lead to a world-first research breakthrough.

“I was always interested in doing research after my undergraduate degree, but I didn’t actually know that there were any research institutes at Westmead or that the University had projects based here,” Hafsa admitted.

Hafsa’s PhD aims to improve preventative treatments for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by studying the role of skin cells during transmission. Her proximity to researchers and clinicians at Westmead and access to real human tissue has led to a world-first discovery and a research publication.

Her research helped discover a brand new cell type, which are the first in the body to interact with the virus and could be used to block the spread of infection to other cells around the body.

Without the help of surgeons at Westmead providing access to human tissue, these cells may have remained undiscovered.

Now in the third year of her PhD based at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, Hafsa is an advocate for everything the precinct has to offer.

“I tell everyone to come to Westmead!” she said.

“Westmead is a big place and it’s changed a lot in the three years I’ve studied here. There’s a lot happening for students in terms of social life and research projects and everyone is really friendly.”

With around 2000 University of Sydney students now studying at the Westmead Health Precinct across disciplines from medical science to engineering to design, the need for an engaging student experience on campus is greater than ever.

Together with the Western Sydney Local Health District, the University has upgraded collaborative learning spaces including the Westmead Hospital Library and the Westmead Education and Conference Centre, a key facility for research, education and training.

The University’s close partnership with Westmead Hospital also means students like Hafsa have an up close and personal view of what a career in the health sector is really like.

Hafsa’s research supervisor Associate Professor Andrew Harman, who coordinates the University’s Applied Medical Science honours program, says students are excited by the opportunities to interact with clinicians and researchers at Westmead.

“Being able to say, ‘come and work on a real problem that affects real people in the biggest health precinct in the southern hemisphere’ – that’s attractive to students,” Andrew said.

As part of her PhD, Hafsa interacts with clinicians across Sydney to source real human tissue and says this unique aspect of studying at Westmead attracted her to her project.

“The specific interactions Hafsa has with surgeons are what’s great about working at Westmead,” Andrew agreed.

“You get that real translational feeling.”

Hafsa is grateful for the unique opportunities on offer at the Westmead Health Precinct.

“Researchers think of you as equals and that makes a huge difference in how you think of yourself here. You see yourself as not just a student but a researcher as well. At Westmead you are part of a team.”

The Westmead Health Precinct is one of the largest health, education, research and training precincts in Australia and a key provider of jobs for the greater Parramatta and western Sydney region.

Spanning 75 hectares, the precinct includes four hospitals, four world-leading medical research institutes, two university campuses and the largest research-intensive pathology service in NSW.

The precinct will be invigorated next year with the official opening of the 14-storey central acute services building on 20 October 2020 as part of the $1.1 billion Westmead Redevelopment.