If it’s for a charitable cause, Sophia Symeou and Maria Kavallaris don’t hesitate to venture out of the comfort zone of their beautifully renovated semi in Sydney’s Bondi. The intrepid Symeou has parachuted out of a plane dragging a terrified Kavallaris behind her, she has been dunked in an ice bath on live television and she has tiptoed over broken glass. These challenges were undertaken in support of the Children’s Cancer Institute’s Dare to Cure fundraising campaigns.

“By far the scariest dare was performing a stand-up comedy routine. It was only three minutes long but it felt like a lifetime and it culminated in the full monty,” says Symeou, who is quick to add that her modesty was protected by a body stocking and fig leaf. Cancer research is a cause close to the couple’s hearts. Kavallaris is head of the tumour biology and targeting program at the Children’s Cancer Institute and is the founding director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at the University of NSW.

She is an internationally recognised leader in childhood cancer research, working to develop less toxic cancer treatments using ­innovative technologies such as nanomedicine, which is the application of engineered ­materials at nanometre scale, for diagnostics and therapeutics. “I lead a large research group who are driven to improve the treatment and survival of childhood cancer so that one day this disease becomes history,” Kavallaris says.

Symeou’s vocation, as chief executive and founder of INS Career Management, is different yet equally fulfilling. “INS is a multidisciplinary ­organisation that provides a blend of human resource management, training and career-related ser­vices,” she says. “We are a preferred partner for the government sector in resolving complex structural and human resource issues.”

With a focus on life balance, the couple briefed architect ­Yvonne Haber to undertake a major renovation to the amenity of their previously single-level home.


An open-plan kitchen-dining-living area was created downstairs with north-facing, louvred, highlight windows increasing light and ventilation. A second ­storey containing two bedrooms with ensuites was added. The new kitchen, with its copious integrated storage, now plays a central role. “We both enjoy cooking — although, when hosting our large informal dinner parties, Maria tends to be head chef and I’m chief bottle washer. It keeps the peace,” Symeou says, laughing.


A feature of the renovation is the abundant built-in joinery incorporating niches for display of a collection of unique objets d’art. Plentiful wall space for artworks was an ­important ­requirement, too.

“The first art piece we bought together had to be folded and stored away until we had a wall big enough on which to hang it,” Symeou says, pointing out a Fijian handpainted tapa bark cloth that is now framed and hung to reveal its full splendour.

The main living room wall is painted in Dulux Deep Walnut as a backdrop for colourful indigenous paintings, many of which were purchased from community-run galleries. “We strive to ethically source any indigenous art we purchase and are drawn to pieces that have a connection to land and the spirit world,” Kavallaris says.

“When we travel, we collect art as a link to places visited. Our Masai shield was bought from a museum in Nairobi. The sales assistant couldn’t understand why we wanted to buy a used shield when she had a perfectly good new one to sell.”

Asked to nominate items that are favourites, Symeou points to an intricate, red, blown-glass and hand-etched sculpture, Turmoil, by Victorian artist Tali Dalton. Most meaningful, though, is a ­silver manta ray ornament.
“I gave it as a gift to Maria when she was awarded a research fellowship; it reflects our love of the sea,” she says.

Scuba diving is a passion both partners share and for more than 30 years it has taken them on many adventures including diving in the Cenotes in Mexico and through an abandoned lead mine in St Louis. “Underwater is a different and amazing world,” says ­Kavallaris. “Diving is the ultimate mental escape.”

Kavallaris is a keen underwater photographer, and one of her stunning photos of a school of barracuda in Papua New Guinea is printed on to ­canvas.  While her photographs are prize-winning, Kavallaris has been highly recognised for her work, receiving the 2017 Premier’s Science and Engineering prize for Leadership in Innovation in NSW.

Symeou, too, has won a swag of awards including the Australian HR Institute Workforce Flexibility Award and the 2018 Australian Business Award for Change Management and Employer of Choice. While remaining grounded, this is one game-changing couple who willingly deep-dive into any challenge.