Publish Date: 
Tuesday, March 8, 2022 - 10:45

A woman on a mission: Dr Blerida Banushi

Dr Blerida Banushi has fit more in a lifetime than most: fighting cancer in a TRI lab at UQDI before scaling the sky became her next frontier. 

Always fascinated by space and biology, and how the micro and macro cosmos function, Blerida fearlessly applied for the Astronaut program at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Germany last year. She beat thousands globally to make it to the first stage.

“I heard about the program through a good friend of mine in New York City who knew I was passionate about space,” Blerida recalls. 

“I was super excited as I didn’t know about this opportunity before - and people from non-engineering backgrounds were also allowed to apply - so I thought I’d put in an application because I had nothing to lose.”

The ESA’s Astronaut Program is one of the most highly competitive in the world. The ESA has issued a call for astronauts only three times since 1979 – the most recent being in 2008.

Blerida was surprised to receive a follow-up email from the ESA a few weeks later in October last year, and to discover 13,000 had applied for the 2021-22 round. She was one of 10 chosen to travel to Hamburg for first-stage testing.

“It was such a surprise because I thought sure, they’re not going to invite someone from Australia - it is hard to get anywhere during COVID-19. But to my surprise I received an invitation letter and I was extremely excited,” she said.

After being granted an exemption from the federal government to leave and return to Australia, and the ESA organised her flights, Blerida headed to Germany for the next selection phase of the Astronaut program.

“I met quite a few incredible candidates soon after I arrived, with a united passion for space exploration. I felt so lucky making connections with many of them, including the co-founder of one of the biggest space start-ups in Australia. It was the most wonderful experience,” Blerida said.

“I had a full day of aviation-based tests, which started early morning to late afternoon. Resilience through the non-stop testing process was part of the selection criteria.

“I was more comfortable with the maths and physics tests, and less with the spatial-orientation ones. I was so happy and excited to be there that it exceeded my stress levels.”

Following a gruelling application process lasting two years, only 4-6 astronauts are chosen each time.

While Blerida didn’t make it through to the third round, she sees it as another adventure in her unfolding story.

“I was realistic when I applied for the program. It might be another 20 years before they (ESA) open positions again and I met a few candidates who applied for the previous program, 16 years ago, and reapplied, they’re that dedicated,” Blerida says.

A world of possibilities

“I took the astronaut challenge on board with a lot of excitement, while being aware of the statistically low chances to go through to the end of the selection process, and I made the most of this incredible experience.

“It is all scientist’s ultimate dream to be an astronaut, and just for having tried and having been a small part of it, makes me extremely happy and proud,” she said.

Born with a tenacious spirit, Blerida overcame huge obstacles after growing up in Albania, and suddenly moving to Italy with her family when civil war broke out in 1997.

“My empathetic nature has been both my strength and my weakness through my journey since childhood,” Blerida says.

“I started school in a new country, speaking a new language, and had to overcome a few obstacles along the way, including some bullying at school at the start. My father was training me in athletics, and I became champion of Italy in javelin while excelling in school.”           

She later completed her undergraduate and Master Studies at the Collegio Nuovo (University of Pavia) in Northern Italy and then relocated to the UK to undertake a PhD and Postdoctorate at the University of Birmingham and University College of London (UCL).

Blerida knew her calling is helping others and joined UQ Associate Professor Fiona Simpson at TRI in 2017. She has been focused on applying a novel technology developed in the lab to manipulate the surface of tumour cells in humans so that existing cancer drugs that target tumours can interact better with the immune system and save hopefully lives.

They completed phase one of the clinical trials at the PA Hospital and hoping for phase two to receive funding.

“My main questions in my career and everyday life has always been, ‘how can I be of service to others?’ and ‘what can I do to reduce suffering and leave the world a better place than I found it?’” Blerida says.

“My cancer research and work, the impact of, aligns with my goals to make a difference, and I try to do this also outside work as well, with spreading information among the public on the impact that our lifestyles have on reducing the risks of cancer.

“With some of the factors like alcohol and an awareness of meat consumption, and diet generally, there is still a high level of unawares - 90-95% of cancers are caused by environment rather than genetics - and a global effort is required to make change in that direction.

“It’s a scientist’s dream to be able to translate research and I’m very lucky to do that at TRI and work in Fiona’s lab. When you realise your work is more than wonder and pleasure that comes from discovery, but it can change people’s lives, it puts that into perspective and I’m so grateful to be part of it.”

Concurrently, Blerida supervises PhD students in the TRI lab in their translational projects.

Blerida has forged a new life abroad, applied for an international space program, researched cures for cancer, summited Mount Kilimanjaro for UNICEF, hiked in Iceland last year, volunteered in an orphanage, sponsored the education of two children in Africa and become a fitness and breathing instructor.

But she doesn’t think she has the definite answer about where her journey will lead her.

It’s more of an evolving process and paving the path along the way,” she says.

However, she’s aware that the great opportunities she has had in STEM and life aren’t afforded to other women, believing gender equity broadly, needs to level up.

Breaking the bias

This year’s International Women’s Day 2022 theme is to #BreakTheBias.

“There are biases and discrimination, I can’t deny that, in every field of life and not just science. People consider me brave and “good crazy”, I’m quite independent and free in the way I live my life.

“From being a woman, very often I come across judgmentalism about my physical and intellectual capability. It’s not fair, and sometimes tiring to have to prove yourself, constantly, as a woman,” Blerida added.

“With time I have become more immune to this type of behaviour in our society when I am personally affected by it, but I am more reactive and protective when it affects others around me, especially younger ones.

“We need to be further than where we are now, by implementing strategies which create better gender equality and following countries (such as Scandinavian countries) that lead on this as an example. There are countries still behind on this front and more women are required to come into leadership positions.

“I’m surrounded by exceptional women, like Associate Professor Fiona Simpson, who have been working in the field for 20 years and deserve higher recognition. It’s time for a change and it has to come from the system itself. In grant applications, the success of men is disproportionally higher than women, the gender bias in academia is real and unfair.”

Blerida sets no limits on herself, sharing the same advice to emerging female scientists and researchers.

“The main limit to what we can achieve is ourselves. Just do it and don’t overanalyse your circumstances and chances, what others think, etc.,” Blerida said. “Life is all about the journey, there is no right or wrong path. With that in mind you’ll feel less afraid to taking chances in life and living." 

Blerida hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

She’s ready to face a new challenge and in typical fashion - it’s unexpected. On a weekend trip to Bundaberg in February 2022, Blerida suddenly found herself stranded in floods in Gympie, but as always, thought of others first.

“Our motel in Gympie flooded, my friends and I escaped and I helped an 81-year-old woman crossing the railway bridge to get to the evacuation centre on the other side of town. It was a bit scary but I held her hand while walking along the bridge, with my torch and bags in one hand and her hand in the other, until she safely made it across,” Blerida said.

Blerida during a Breathing Instructor Course with Breathless, an organisation leading Australia's breathwork.