Mind over matter

Today’s aspiring female neuroscientists walk across the shards of a glass ceiling that Professor Pamela McCombe helped break.

As one of only a handful of women to pursue neuroscience in the 1980s, the pioneering researcher has shaped the field into what it is today, all while raising five children.

Her fascination with neuroscience began while studying Zoology at school and drove her to pursue Medicine at UQ.

“I loved it for its complexity. Even as a medical student, I could see that this exciting and relatively unexplored field was going to take off and there would be much to do. I wanted to be part of it,” she recalls.

“Both immunology and neurology were emerging and I was attracted to putting these two together in the study of neuroimmunology.”

After completing her clinical training in Sydney, Professor McCombe enrolled in a PhD to study a rare neurological disorder called Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), under the guidance of leading expert Professor Jim McLeod.

“I always felt supported by my mentors, but like all women, the real challenge comes with having kids,” she recalls.

“It was difficult. I thought that I couldn’t have it all, something would have to give, and that was money. I spent a lot on childcare and housekeeping to make sure my kids were well looked after.”

No night shifts while raising five children made research look attractive to Professor McCombe and accelerated her towards a full-time career in the field. Her interests have spanned a range of neurodegenerative disorders, including motor neurone disease (MND), multiple sclerosis (MS) and stroke. Most recently, she has been studying the effect of pregnancy on MS.

“I’ve used my strengths in multitasking to shape my research,” she explains.

“On face value, diseases like MS, MND and stroke are very different, but when you get down to the base biochemistry and the molecular biology, it’s the same old molecules. I find it helpful to think about these processes in all different diseases. Women often excel in this way of thinking, and it’s good to have people doing things in different ways.”

Collaboration across genders, ages and research institutes has heralded a new era for neurosciences at UQ, and Professor McCombe has been at the forefront of this work. She has teamed up with several researchers across the university, including Professor Michael Pender on MS and the School of Biomedical Sciences MND research teams.

Now, it’s about giving back and creating new opportunities for those who follow in her footsteps, something Professor McCombe hopes to achieve as the first female President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Neurologists.

“We are very focused on helping the next generation, and a lot of what we do is centred on supporting the trainees. We need to ensure the structures we have established keep rolling on.”

mother and son in graduation photo

Professor McCombe with her son and UQ Medicine alumnus, Dr David McEniery.

Professor McCombe with her son and UQ Medicine alumnus, Dr David McEniery.

shattered glass
purple and red neurons

This story is featured in the Summer 2019 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.