Ten years on, uni ‘drop out’ becomes doctor

Alicia Didsbury gave up university study when she got pregnant in her late teens but more than 20 years and a lot of hard work later, she graduates with a doctorate in biological sciences.

Alicia Didsbury

Alicia says it might have taken a bit longer than usual to get her PhD but all the hard work was worth it.

“It’s been amazing and so rewarding and I just feel so grateful for all the support I have had and I feel really proud,” she says.

At 18 years old, and pregnant with son William, now 22, she couldn’t have imagined where she is now.

“I was a teenage drop-out really and it wasn’t until my father died of cancer I realised I really wanted to go back to study and in particular I wanted to do work on cancer,” says Alicia, who is now 41.

Alicia has spent most of the past ten years studying immunology for her PhD under the supervision of Maurice Wilkins Centre of Biodiscovery Director Professor Rod Dunbar.

Immunology has the potential to treat serious disease including cancer. Scientists have only recently begun to understand how the immune system could be used to attack and kill cancer tumours in the body through the immune system itself. At Maurice Wilkins Centre, scientists are searching for drug targets in the cancer cell.

“Everyone and all the team there have been so supportive to me and Rod had so much belief in me. While we all work long hours and it’s been really hard work, it’s also been amazing and I feel really lucky and really proud.”

After leaving University and setting study aside, Alicia raised William, who watched his mother graduate, got married and had another son, Fynn, now aged seven.

“I have been so lucky that my family and wider community have helped me and that my husband took on a big role in terms of childcare, that’s been really important.”

Looking ahead to her research career, Alicia says immunotherapy is one of the most exciting fields of cancer research to be in.

“We have got a clinical-grade suite and are hoping to get funding for clinical trials within the next ten years and that would mean that instead of only being available overseas, some treatments would be available here to kiwis and is an amazing goal to be working towards.”

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Anne Beston | Media adviser
DDI 09 923 3258
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Email a.beston@auckland.ac.nz