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Yolanda Surjan from RadVet

Adam Spencer_Circle Written by Adam Spencer

@welcometodayone

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Today you’re going to hear the story of Yolanda Surjan and RadVet.

Dr Yolanda Surjan is a senior lecturer of Radiation Therapy at the University of Newcastle, she has a bachelor degree in Medical Radiation Technology, a graduate certificate in health promotion, a masters in health science education and a PhD. She has worked in Europe and North America and she has a total of 5 teaching awards and was awarded CSIRO’s Breakout Female Scientist of 2017 and is the founder of RadVet. 

RadVet has gone through CSIRO’s ON Accelerate program and is helping to treat cancer in animals through Yolanda’s research, we will talk about all of that and so much more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…

Transcript

Yolanda:

I’ll tell you how it happens. There’s many sleepless nights, there’s a lot of anxiety around how are you going to make ends meet sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure on family and friends. And then there’s some really good bits as well, but it’s a hard task to get to a point where you can, as you say, make your obligations and get it out there and scale to a point where you are offering good to a whole bunch of people.

Adam:

Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to day one, where we go back to the very beginning, to share the untold stories of incredible Australian startups and the organisations and people that support them.

Today you’re going to hear the story of Yolanda Surjan from RadVet. 

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Yolanda:

I’m Yolanda Surjan, and I’m the founder of RadVet.

Adam:

Dr Yolanda Surjan is a senior lecturer of Radiation Therapy at the University of Newcastle, she has a bachelor degree in Medical Radiation Technology, a graduate certificate in health promotion, a masters in health science education and a PhD. She has worked in Europe and North America and she has a total of 5 teaching awards and was awarded CSIRO’s Breakout Female Scientist of 2017 and is the founder of RadVet. 

Yolanda:

So RadVet stems from a number of years of research in the area of radiation therapy, and the possibility of translating treatments that we use currently in humans to animals.

Adam:

RadVet has gone through CSIRO’s ON Accelerate program and is helping to treat cancer in animals through Yolanda’s research, we will talk about all of that and so much more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…

Yolanda:

I started as a clinician, a radiation therapist, and worked clinically for a number of years before I moved back to Newcastle and came across now as an academic to teach undergraduate students.

Adam:

Yolanda studied…

Yolanda:

Radiation Therapy degree here at the University of Newcastle and when I graduated I moved to Sydney and worked at Prince of Wales Hospital for a number of years. And then from there, as most young people do, I moved overseas and worked there for a while.

Yolanda:

I lived in Barcelona and worked odd jobs and I worked at Planet Hollywood in Barcelona. Then I moved to the UK like most of us do to earn some good money working clinically and then I did a lot of travelling. I worked at a pub and I’ve worked multiple jobs enough to know what I wanted to do thereafter.

Yolanda:

When I moved back to Australia, I moved to Sydney again and worked at Prince of Wales once again. And then in time, my husband was contracted up here to Newcastle so we decided to come back only for a short period of time. That was 2001. But we decided to stay on. So I came here and I started working clinically at Newcastle Mater and then not long after that I applied for a job at the University of Newcastle and became an academic.

Adam:

Interestingly enough Yolanda originally didn’t even want to teach and here’s why…

Yolanda:

I could never picture myself standing in front of a crowd speaking or lecturing. So it was never something that I considered I could do in particular and definitely not well, but I think it’s that same pattern that I’ve had throughout my life where I needed something more, I needed a challenge, I needed to do something different. And there it was and I couldn’t have done anything more different to what I was doing clinically and then to come here and teach.

Adam:

So 18 years later, Yolanda is a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle teaching Radiation Therapy to undergraduate students, Yolanda is always looking for new ways to challenge herself, so when the opportunity comes about to focus more on research and then begin her PhD, Yolanda welcomed that challenge and it allowed her to realise a dream she had since back before she started studying at University.  

Yolanda:

It’s an interesting story actually. I wanted to be a vet. That’s all I ever wanted, and I missed out by some ridiculous 0.5 of a mark and didn’t really have, I guess the support behind me to, oh, maybe we’ll change that. I didn’t really consider the options around trying again the following year, so I just invested in a different approach. 

Yolanda:

I’ve always been drawn to animals. It was the only thing I ever thought about wanting. There was no other option for me to be quite honest so when I did miss out, I was quite devastated by it. Interestingly, I’ve come full circle and now I work with them.

Yolanda:

I knew I wanted to do something that would benefit other people or animals for instance. So, I did a year of science once I was deciding what to do and then my eyes fell upon the radiation therapy degree, which spoke to me about what it would be like to work with cancer patients and following their journey and so that interested me, I enrolled in that and haven’t looked back.

Adam:

Yolanda had always loved animals so when an opportunity for a PhD topic that encompassed animals and her field of study come up Yolanda investigated.

Yolanda:

So in looking for a PhD topic that I wanted to be engaged in considering PhDs last a number of years. I was speaking to a colleague of mine here at the university who mentioned that he had heard that there was an equine vet in Sydney who was using a type of radiation to treat skin cancers. And so I thought I would reach out to the vet, make contact with him and see if he might have some time for me to travel down to Sydney and have a conversation to become more informed in terms of what it was that he had been doing. 

Yolanda:

That was 2009 and I remember because I was heavily pregnant at the time. So I approached the equine clinic and through the equine clinic, they helped me connect to the veterinary hospital.

Adam:

That conversation with the veterinary clinic pretty much decided it for Yolanda, she would conduct a retrospective study on veterinary radiation therapy. It wasn’t a simple task to undertake though, there were a number of challenges. From no connections within the veterinary industry to juggling her teaching career, managing a research team at the university, undertaking the huge task of completing a PhD whilst having a young family. And it was about to get a little more complicated with her third child on the way.

Yolanda:

So if you think about when I started my PhD and that was 2009. So I started on my PhD because like I said, I got to the point where I thought, “What else is there, what else do I need to get into to inspire me to want to get up and get to work and get started on another big project.” So that was 2009 and six months into it I found out I was pregnant with my third child so that threw things out somewhat. So I had some time off and then came back to it, worked on it throughout my maternity leave where I could, and came back to it and really got stuck into it to finish it. But why did I do that? Just the same story and I just needed something else to inspire me, something else to work towards. And I think life can get pretty boring if you just sit doing the same thing day in, day out in that, right?

Adam:

I’m always very impressed by people that manage to juggle so many different things so I needed to ask Yolanda how in the world she was doing all of this and I loved Yolanda’s answer.

Yolanda:

Thanks for asking that Adam. Look, it was difficult at times. I guess it depends on how you’re built. So I’m built and driven to do, sitting idle doesn’t sit well with me. I’m energized by having a lot to do even though I might complain about it sometimes is if you don’t give me a lot to do, then I’ll complain even more about that. And I could see a purpose in what I was doing.

Adam:

Purpose. Yolanda loved the connections and human side of the work she used to do as a clinician, that personal touch, the relationships and now that she was so much more involved in the research side of things, in the behind the scenes, she really had missed the people so through the work she was doing now, she had the opportunity to still touch their lives.

Yolanda:

I could see that there was not only a need, but that I could offer something to people that I’m no longer connected to because I’m not a clinician and still have that sense of satisfaction that I’m doing good.

Adam:

Yolanda started her PhD in 2009 and it’s now 7 long years later. Yolanda had…

Yolanda:

Finished my PhD and I was literally almost carrying it around in a box and wondering what do I do with this? I had no idea what to do with it. I just knew I wanted to do something with it. It needed to get it out there. That’s exactly when things started taking off because I submitted it. I was a PhD student no longer, and I had this almost this box full of this research that I wanted to translate, but I didn’t know how to go about it. 

Adam:

And a few things happened relatively quickly at this point. Yolanda had completed her research, submitted her PhD, been awarded her PhD and was trying to figure out what to do with her findings, with her box of research under one arm and her free hand checking emails, an email popped into her inbox that would prove to be exactly what Yolanda was looking for. An email for an information session about CSIRO’s ON Program. 

Yolanda:

So, they came to the University of Newcastle in August, 2016 to pitch to us on the program and what it had to offer and to tell us about applications opening. So it was as simple as that. I attended, if I hadn’t attended all of this probably wouldn’t have happened. I sat in the crowd and listened to them going through the criteria for someone to enter the program and I ticked every box. Do you have research that you have finished and is translatable? The answer is yes. Do you know how to do it? No. Do you how to go about finding people to help you? No. So for me it was what have I got to lose? Let me go on and find out and learn something.

Adam:

That was in August of 2016. But something had to happen before that to free up Yolanda’s time to really take advantage of these types of opportunities.

Yolanda:

So February 2016, I was awarded my PhD. And then not long after that, in fact, the applications for the Gladys Brawn Research Fellowships through the Faculty of Health and Medicine at the university came out.

Yolanda:

And if I didn’t have the Brawn, I wouldn’t have been able to apply for CSIRO programs because you need to be away from campus.

Adam:

The fellowship really allowed Yolanda to free up some of her time to focus on taking the next step with her research and gave her a little more freedom both in terms of time and funding. 

Yolanda:

The best thing about this research fellowship is clearing some of your lectures, so you can actually be working on something else and not just trying to do it all at once. So it’s been one of those pivotal moments for me where it has allowed me to go from hardworking academic, head down, bum up in my office teaching, trying to get my research done to give me the opportunity to gain a profile in some ways because I can be more involved, I can be more visible because I have that extra bit of time to do that.

Adam:

And something that keeps coming up in the story of RadVet is Yolanda’s desire to say yes to challenges and opportunities, not to shy away from them. There are plenty of opportunities all around us, it’s on us to say yes more and to take that chance on something new, to give it a go. 

Yolanda:

I think there are multiple opportunities, particularly working in an institution like the University of Newcastle, multiple opportunities that land in your inbox day in, day out. There were those of us that think we’re  too busy to take the opportunities on and then there are those of us that think I’m to give it a go.

Adam:

And so, Yolanda was accepted into CSIRO’s ON program.

Yolanda:

I think CSRIO or ON-Accelerate for me was more than just about learning to create a business. So for me, I entered the program quite an introvert and then was expected to pitch. I would say, it has to be tens and tens and tens of times. Learn how to articulate my research for different audiences. I had to learn a lot about myself and my confidence. I think, it’s huge to say, but I was transformed by the program because at the other end I came out thinking all the things that I always thought I wasn’t particularly good at or had to work incredibly hard for, I actually did. And I feel comfortable going out and doing it. Now. What was my ultimate goal? I’m not sure what the beginning I even knew what that was. It was about learning what this all involves.

So now I know that the decisions rest with me. It’s not about what other people think I might need to be doing or what direction, but rather it’s about me taking control. It’s my research, it’s my future. It’s about what I think and what direction it needs to go in.

Adam:

Why hasn’t this been done already?

Yolanda:

There is a reason why it hasn’t been done before in terms of what we at RadVet offer. And that’s because the cost of the treatment is very high and so accessibility to this type of treatment is difficult for your everyday person who owns a moggy or a dog that needs this type of treatment. And so I guess when you think about the philosophy behind RadVet, it’s about accessibility more  than anything.

Yolanda:

So in looking at what currently occurs in veterinary medicine, it’s very different to what happens in the human oncology world. So for skin cancer in particular in veterinary medicine, the go to treatment is generally surgery and that often results in disfigurement, sometimes recurrence, and sometimes even death of pets. Whereas in the human world, we’re particularly good at treating skin cancer. We have very high survival rates and exceptionally good outcomes. So in translating what happens with us in the human world to the animal world, it was almost a no brainer really.

Adam:

Yolanda has done a lot of incredible work on her own getting her research and RadVet into the position that it can make a great impact, but no-one can do it all on their own and Yolanda knew that and built a great team around herself. 

Yolanda:

So definitely wouldn’t be here without the help advice and sometimes to the point of nagging from David Burt at CSIRO.

So he was an immense support help mentor to me, and still is, I would say. Beyond that, there’s so many people, there’s multiple people. So I think part of this whole process is about building your team around you and it doesn’t have to be your immediate team that you travel down and treat with, but about building the team around you of people who have expertise.

Adam:

RadVet are coming to the pointy end of phase 1 and entering phase 2 in 2019. 

Yolanda:

Phase one is about collecting the data. So it’s already evident that it works in humans, how does it look in animals? So we treat the animals and we watched them over various time points and make sure that they get to the point where it’s hasn’t recurred, that it hasn’t caused any terrible side effects, et cetera. We record that data, we analyze it, and then we can move forward from there.

And phase two is about scaling and increasing the number of clients that we have coming through, possibly connecting with other veterinary services and to charge. I want to start charging.

I think if you look at where research has come from, it wasn’t easy. It took me a long time and it came at a cost at times. I had a young family, I worked incredibly hard to get to this point. We know it works. We know that there is a gap and we know that the vets are open to it, to the innovation that we’re offering.

So now working in the veterinary field, I never would have thought that the same type of feelings that I had working clinically have come about. And that’s as a result of the response that I have from the owners of these pets and never would have considered that they’re so engaged with their animals, that they’re such a huge part of their loss. If you consider that some of the phone calls that we made to owners during the time with CSIRO, we tallied up what their responses were and nine out of 10 people said that they considered their pet to be an integral part of their family. And so now I have a sense of that. So when I do treat, the treatments are finished and the dogs go, the owners are so incredibly overwhelmed that they were given the opportunity to be involved in this trial that could potentially save their animals. So that in itself is enough for me to keep ticking on.

Adam:

Here’s a Yolanda sharing a testimonial from the family of a dog named Bonnie.

Yolanda:

We are ever so grateful for amazing people like you and your team to develop new, innovative and kind of treatment options for our precious pets makes you very special people and gives us all hope for a better future. Isn’t that amazing?

Adam:

It’s been quite a journey that started in 2009 when Yolanda started her PhD in translating radiation therapy from humans to animals, or maybe it started back before Yolanda started University when she wanted to become a Veterinarian and her love of animals, always having cats, chickens, dogs and ducks around when she was growing up.

Yolanda:

I grew up in Barcelona, Spain, in fact, and we moved to Australia when I was eight. And all the while. We always had dogs and cats and chickens and ducks at our house so it was something that I just grew up around.

Adam:

Or maybe Yolanda’s entrepreneurial journey started when she was a child making cakes for her parents retail business.

Yolanda:

I think it’s always been in me, so if you consider that my father didn’t go to school, and still he ran a retail business in Spain and always ran his own business and mum was on that company also, if you consider that I made cakes and always thought that I would sell them, that there was always ideas in my head around what I would do and how I would go about doing  it.

Adam:

In any case, I think it’s clear that Yolanda is an entrepreneur. She always needs a new bigger challenge and is always ready to jump on opportunities. 

Yolanda:

If an entrepreneur is someone who’s always looking to do something different that’s outside the box, then I guess I am. The only regret I have, I think is that I didn’t back myself earlier. And maybe that’s because I’m a woman, but I think I’ve grown enough now to think that, you know what, even when I feel like maybe that’s not me, maybe I can’t do it, maybe I’m not good enough or maybe I am and I have to back myself.

Adam:

So what does the future for RadVet hold?

Yolanda:

I have thought about what the future might hold for RadVet and so I know one thing for sure. I know that if RadVet turns into a difficult environment for me or something that I don’t look forward to, that it will cease to exist. So as long as I can keep working with a good bunch of people who have the same philosophy as me, and as long as I keep hearing testimonials like the one that I have during the research phase that I’ll keep moving forward, where are we headed? I don’t know if it’s only a small business that just gives access to the local hunter, people will so be it. That’s what it’ll be. If it grows bigger than that, then I’ll go with it.

Adam:

I’ll finish off the story of RadVet with this little piece. Yolanda was awarded CSIRO’s breakout female scientist of 2017 and this is the reason why she received it…

Yolanda:

I’ll tell you one last thing. This award that CSIRO gave me, it was for resilience and determination. And I think that really is the key to getting through this lead up or to this amazing outcome at the end that everyone expects when are you going to just scale, when’s it going to be? You have to be determined and you have to have resilience or else you’ll crumble. You’ll be a crumble mess. You just have to keep pushing through even in those days where you think, I just can’t be doing this anymore.

Adam:

Thank you for listening to the story of Dr Yolanda Surjan from RadVet. I hope you enjoyed it. This episode was brought to you in partnership with the University of Newcastle’s Integrated Innovation Network and as Yolanda told me the i2n has been behind her 100%. Through promoting her work and through all the information they have imparted to her through their various information sessions on different topics. Everything that was mentioned in the episode today is on the show notes page on welcometodayone.com.        

Ratings & reviews help to keep us going and they help more people discover our stories. You can rate the show on most podcast platforms by going to ratedayone.com. That’s ratedayone.com to leave a rating on the podcast.

And, Thank you for giving this episode of Welcome to Day One your attention. 

Interviews conducted by me, Adam Spencer.

A big thank you to the University of Newcastle’s Integrated Innovation Network for partnering with Welcome to Day One to bring you today’s story. 

And thank you Dr Yolanda Surjan from RadVet for taking the time to sit down with Welcome to Day One for an interview and for being involved in this episode. 

The script was written by me, Adam Spencer.

Music by Lee Rosevere, full attribution on our website welcometodayone.com

This episode was produced by Welcome to Day One and edited by Natalie Holland. Thank you for listening and see you next time!

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Resources mentioned

Credits

A big thank you to the University of Newcastle’s Integrated Innovation Network for partnering with Welcome to Day One to bring you today’s story. 

Thank you Dr Yolanda Surjan from RadVet for taking the time to sit down with Welcome to Day One for an interview and for being involved in this episode.

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Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere.

Title: Let’s Start at the Beginning

Source: Let’s Start at the Beginning 

Licence: CC BY 4.0

 

Thanks for listening! Catch you next time.

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