Kiarn Roughley smiles and is wearing a blue graduation cap. Photo: Michael Gray

Cancer diagnosis inspires University Medallist to pursue science

Cancer diagnosis inspires University Medallist to pursue science

First-in-family graduate Kiarn Roughley followed his curiosity to career in research

At the age of 14, Kiarn Roughley was diagnosed with leukaemia. Well, two forms of leukaemia, to be precise. The first diagnosis, of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukamia, was followed a few days later by a diagnosis of Acute Myloid Leukaemia.

“I was very fortunate to get it young,” Kiarn said. “The combination of the two types of leukaemia has a 50-75 per cent survival rate but was 50 per cent for my particular case due to the high risk nature of my diagnosis and the tumours in my chest.

“I responded very well to treatment, which lasted for two years and then in 2021 I entered remission.”

That two-year period would change the course of Kiarn’s life. It gave him a sense of perspective and provided the impetus for the decision to pursue a life of science.

This week (Tuesday 16 April), Kiarn celebrated his graduation from the University of Wollongong (UOW) with a Bachelor of Science (Honours), majoring in Biomolecular Physics. It is his second degree in the space of six years, after he graduated last year with a Bachelor of Health and Medical Sciences. He added the Bachelor of Science while in his third year of the latter degree, with the aim of gaining an education that would encapsulate his three main areas of interest: physics, chemistry, and biology.

Kiarn, who delivered the Vote of Thanks on behalf of the student cohort, was named the winner of the University Medal for the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, awarded to the student with the top academic performance.

“I didn’t even know the University Medal was a thing until I received the email, so I was shocked,” Kiarn said ahead of the ceremony. “I haven’t told my family that I am giving the Vote of Thanks or that I am receiving the University Medal, so I’m excited to surprise them at the graduation.

“Ever since my diagnosis, I have developed a strong interest in medical science and biochemistry. That is where my passion lies. I just followed the topics I wanted to learn about, rather than aiming for the best marks.”

Originally from Manyana, just north of Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast, Kiarn described himself as “disinterested” in education.

“I hated school and I was a mediocre student at the best of times.”

But getting sick, and then going through the gruelling process of recovery, was an awakening.

“The change for me came with realising that I am a product of medical research. I owe my life to science, just like most of us do, whether we are aware of it or not. Our bodies are fascinatingly elegant and complex systems, just like the rest of the universe. Science is just an objective attempt to make sense of it all. The best part is that anyone can be a scientist.”

Kiarn Roughley smiles and is wearing a blue graduation cap. He is standing in front of a green bush on Wollongong campus. Photo: Michael Gray

After recovering and finishing high school, Kiarn’s curiosity led him to university. As the first in his family to attend university, Kiarn focused on following his interests and pursuing what mattered to him.

“Since my diagnosis, I no longer fear death but rather fear a life where I could have offered more – to myself, my family, and the world.”

That path eventually took him to a career in brain cancer research. Kiarn is now undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy, under the supervision of Associate Professor Moeava Tehei, from the Centre for Medical Radiation Physics, focused on how lifestyle interventions, such as diet, influence existing and emerging brain cancer therapies. It, too, was inspired by Kiarn’s experiences.

“Diet was very poorly emphasised during my treatment,” says Kiarn, who is now part of the Targeted Nano Therapies Research Group in the Centre for Medical Radiation Physics at UOW. “When I went through treatment, the doctors only focused on maintaining weight with no care on what I ate. I lost most of my muscle due to the treatment and gained a lot of fat since I basically lived of cheeseburgers for every meal. This was tough for a young teenager.”

“I view diet as an extremely important pillar of health, especially to susceptible cohorts such as cancer patients. So now I am investigating how diet may influence the response of cancer to treatment. This is extremely important to me as diet is a lifestyle intervention that will enhance patient involvement during treatment.”

Kiarn credits his partner, Ashlea, with getting him through the rigours of university, particularly as a first in family student.

“My partner, Ashlea, studied nursing so she really understood the demands of university. But most importantly, Ashlea endured the conversations concerning biochemistry and physics better than any sane person could. I understand this is no small effort.”

Dr Tehei has also been instrumental in helping Kiarn to explore his interests and shape his PhD, and just be a sounding board whenever he needs it.

“My supervisor, Moeava, has been incredibly supportive and understanding. Finding someone who is equally excited and passionate about research is a truly wonderful thing to experience. For that alone, I am eternally grateful.”

“My friends have also been amazing and one of the best parts of university. Because my degrees have straddled two faculties, I’ve made a broad range of friends and had some great experiences.”

Kiarn has come a long way, from being the disinterested student to the top in his faculty. The answer, he says, lies in his insatiable curiosity.

“University was never about finding a job or a career path. Rather, university was a space to explore and expand my curiosity – the thing that really matters to me. Fortunately, this approach has worked pretty well thus far.”