Nine-year-old Zara Skepev is on a mission to support brain cancer research and empower female scientists.

At just nine-years-old, Zara Skepev has raised more than $30,000 to support brain cancer research. 

The primary school student has been making and selling earrings, with the funds being used to support female researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).   

The idea for the Zara Skepev Fund for Women in Brain Cancer Research fund came about when Zara’s mother Milena, founder of the Australian Brain Cancer Foundation, met Professor Leonie Quinn from the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU. 

Professor Leonie Quinn leads a tour of cancer research facilities. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

“Before I met Professor Quinn, I had this image in my head — someone that I didn’t think I could connect with because she is so intelligent but there was an instant connection. She was so human, humble and extremely creative,” Milena says. 

“I went home that evening and I told my daughter about how wonderful this female scientist was. That’s where her passion came from,” she says. 

The initial meeting may have been driven by Milena’s philanthropy work but the idea to sell earrings came from Zara. The primary school student’s hard work has seen her receive an Order of Australia Association Youth Medallion and a shoutout in a senate speech. 

“My mum and dad have been giving money to charities and I wanted to do that too. So, I thought; ‘Oh, I have a great idea. What if I make a little fundraiser? And give it all Professor Quinn?’,” Zara says. 

Women supporting women

When Zara had the chance to tour Quinn’s lab in 2023, she was amazed to discover that the team was mostly women. 

“I thought I couldn’t be a scientist and a mum and Professor Quinn said, ‘​Y​es, you can!’,” Zara says.  

During her tour, Zara learned that ANU scientists are using vinegar flies to study how different genetic mutations contribute to brain cancer. She is now considering a career in science herself. At this stage, she would like to be “​a scientist that studies pigs​.” 

Zara Skepev is shown the robotics during a tour of the cancer research facilities at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Her experience visiting a female-led lab also gave Zara a sharper focus for her fundraising efforts — to ensure women in science are supported in their return to work after maternity leave or carers leave. 

“If a scientist is doing something amazing and they also have a child, they should have the money to have childcare. Because they’re doing a good deed. If they do a good deed, [they should] have money,” Zara says. 

It’s a cause Quinn also feels strongly about. 

“My mission in life is to enable as many women to do both science and motherhood as I possibly can,” ​she​ says. 

“Something that is very important for career progression as a researcher is attending conferences, presenting your work, networking with other scientists and learning about what’s the latest in the brain cancer research field.” 

Zara’s fundraising has already helped ANU researcher Dr Olga Zaytseva. 

“What it enabled her to do, immediately, was to buy some more daycare hours and get [her son] Arthur settled into daycare a bit more quickly. That really gave her that back-into-the-lab opportunity,” Quinn says. 

Zara’s fundraising efforts have also supported Zaytseva to attend a conference in Melbourne and will enable her to travel to other work-related events locally and internationally. 

A step further for fundraising

Following on from this year’s successful market stall, where Zara raised almost $13,000 in just one day, the nine-year-old wants to take things a step further. 

All the ‘helpers’ at the market stall. Photo: supplied

She and her new business partner-classmate Indie Gocevski are selling earrings at hair salon, OffLondon. The two girls have made studs earrings for those who prefer something smaller, clip-ons for those without piercings and keychains for those who want to support but are not fans of earrings. Zara has even introduced some gold designs, inspired by a trip to the National Museum of Australia to learn about ancient Egypt. 

“We made over 400 earrings. So, we are planning to sell all of them. How could people not want to buy them from this sweet, innocent child?” Zara says, giving her best puppy-dog eyes. 

A brain cancer research hub

Quinn and Milena Skepev are also looking to level up their work on brain cancer research through further collaboration between ANU researchers and the Australian Brain Cancer Foundation.  

“What the foundation has really done is not only strengthen the collaboration across all of the disciplines — across the hospital, the university, and our consumer groups — but it has also expanded that,” Quinn says. 

“It’s really enabled us to think more about what we do, to plan together and say, ‘​W​hat do we need to actually work better on our clinical research projects? How do we get this? Where is the ultimate end point?’”  

They both hope that with this work, and Zara’s “small but mighty” fund, Canberra will be transformed into an international hub for research and best practice for brain cancer.


You can make a tax deductible donation to Brain Cancer Research here.

Top image: Zara Skepev with her mother Milena Skepev and Professor Leonie Quinn during a tour of the cancer research facilities at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research in 2022. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

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