16 March 2023

In a tour de force, primary schoolers Zara and Mila raise more than $12k for brain cancer research

| Travis Radford
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woman and two female pupils in lab

Professor Leonie Quinn gives aspiring scientists Mila (centre) and Zara a special tour of the ANU’s brain cancer research lab. Photo: Travis Radford.

Best friends Zara Skepev, aged 8, and Mila Costa, 9, made more than 300 earrings to raise money for the Australian National University’s (ANU) brain cancer research.

The girls’ fundraising work came to a climax in March with a special tour of ANU Professor Leonie Quinn’s brain cancer research lab led by the professor herself.

But the fundraising journey started several months ago, in 2022, with the brain cancer charity work of Zara’s mother, Milena Skepev.

Milena met Professor Quinn during a cancer research centre tour and told her about her daughter’s dream to become a scientist.

“But Zara had spoken to me a couple of weeks prior to our meeting, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to be a scientist … because she can’t be a mum,” she said.

“She understands that women make a lot of sacrifices for their careers to raise children, and I reiterated to her that it would definitely be possible … but she had that very big doubt.

“So when I said that to Leonie … she said, ‘Oh my gosh, Zara needs to come and have a tour of my facility; 90 per cent of the people here are female and they’re either mothers or grandmothers’.”

Zara said she was with Mila, who also wanted to be a scientist, when she found out the news and her mum agreed to let her best friend join her on the tour.

“We were dancing and chanting around [Mila’s] dining table,” Zara wrote in a recount prepared for school with the help of her mother.

“[We were] calling out ‘Professor Quinn! Professor Quinn! We love science! We love science! No more brain cancer! No more brain cancer!'”

Zara said she had a dream she was Professor Quinn’s assistant and they discovered a cure for brain cancer the night before her big idea.

“I told [mum] that I couldn’t stop thinking about Professor Quinn and that I had an idea on how I could raise money to support her,” she wrote.

“I would make clay earrings and set up a stall in Manuka where my teenage brother works and would give her [Professor Quinn] all of my money.”

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Zara said she begged her mum to take her to buy supplies at 7 pm so she and Mila could start making the earrings straight away.

Z and M Co Jewellery by Zara and Mila was born the next day when the girls got together and started planning.

The new business partners spent their school holidays designing and making the clay earrings from scratch.

“By the end of [2022], I had personally made over 220 pairs and Mila had made another 90,” Zara wrote.

“My mum had to say to me, ‘No more, Zara, please!’ We still have to finish about 180 pairs.”

But Milena said the community response to her daughter’s fundraiser had exceeded her expectations.

“Our initial target was only $5000 but within the first day of us launching [the fundraising page], we raised almost $3000,” she said.

“That was a week away from the [market] stall [to sell the earrings], so we upped that to $10,000 and we have currently reached over $12,500.”

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Professor Quinn said it was important to raise awareness for “discovery-side” research like her own with the capacity for “eureka” discoveries.

“Research has been … very much of the thinking that we have to find stuff that is going to be immediately put into the clinic,” she said.

“Unfortunately, if you don’t fund the kinds of research that we’re doing, you don’t have anything to put into the clinic.”

Professor Quinn said past clinical trials that had tested brain cancer drugs had been largely unsuccessful.

Her research has been using vinegar flies as a genetic model to understand brain cancer mutations.

“This is a great avenue to talk to young people about the different ways that we do science,” Professor Quinn said.

“[I want] our next generation to know that we need to have multiple irons in the fire for research.”

Professor Quinn said she was confident Mila and Zara would be part of that next generation.

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