Alison Farley

inducted 2021 Science

We can only wonder if former St Ann’s biology teacher Margaret White remembers a bright student with flaming red hair called Alison Farley, as it was Miss White who inspired now Dr Farley to pursue a career in science. This stellar career includes being involved in ground-breaking research, publications and patents in cell and developmental biology, all aimed at improving medical treatments for people around the world.

After graduating from Latrobe University in 1995, Alison began her career as a research assistant in one of Australia’s most prestigious research centres, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of medical research – or WEHI. In those early days, Alison was fortunate to be part of a dynamic WEHI team which published numerous papers on understanding protein interactions which could help develop drugs for cancer treatment.

From WEHI, Alison travelled to Scotland to work and study at Edinburgh University, where – thanks to her mother’s Irish heritage – she was able to enrol in a PhD as an EU citizen, rather than as a far more costly international student. Alison’s parents, Thomas and Bridget, worked hard to give their children a good education, and it was a proud day when they flew to Edinburgh to watch Alison graduate with a doctorate from the same university that nurtured Charles Darwin.

Her 12 years working at Edinburgh University also marked a critical change in direction for Alison’s research. Her new focus became understanding the Thymus – a vital part of our immune system. As part of this research, Alison and team described the fundamental developmental steps in thymus biology which was published in top international journals.

Another major event in Alison’s time in Scotland was getting married and having two children, then in 2012 they returned to Australia where Alison took up a position at Melbourne University with Professor Martin Pera, who was among the first to discover human stem cells.

More recently, however, she has returned to where it all began. For the past four years, Alison has been a Senior Research Fellow at WEHI where her former boss as a university graduate, Professor Doug Hilton, is now the director. Her work at WEHI involves redefining how platelets are made in the human body- a breakthrough that was met with controversy because it turns 100 years of science on its head. Despite this initial backlash, this work was published in the international research journal, The Journal of Experimental Medicine and has led to many collaborations.

Alison is now working on how to recreate platelet production in the lab, at large scale, and testing drugs that help to stimulate this process. This research could ultimately provide a breakthrough with drug treatments that could stimulate platelet production for patients with low platelet counts and bleeding.

Another project Alison is passionate about is looking at exactly how platelets are involved in preventing brain bleeds in babies. Reducing brain bleeds could reduce the risk of cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions. This research so far has discovered that unborn babies need platelets to prevent brain bleeds and maintain healthy blood vessels developing. When you don’t have platelets these blood vessels of the brain break down and cause large bleeds. This work has just been published in the international journal BLOOD. This work has also led to understanding when to boost platelet numbers in the unborn baby, which could prevent cerebral palsy or miscarriage.

Through all of her achievements, Alison has remained unassuming and humble. In fact, some of her friends are only now realising the global significance of her work. As one friend described it, Alison’s ability to forge ahead in a field where women weren't always encouraged, and to work her way up to the position she now holds, is inspirational.

Alison admits she is not one to shy away from a challenge or a touch of competition which is perhaps why, for fun, she also once ran marathons in New York, London and Edinburgh.

“My sister,” she says, “always says ‘You take things on. You’re never scared to do things.’ There’s just something in me that makes me do it.”

"There’s just something in me that makes me do it.”

Alison Farley

Inducted 2021