Catriona Nguyen-Robertson: “I couldn’t imagine not coming into the lab every day!”

Catriona Nguyen-Robertson is a PhD Candidate at the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. She did her UROP placement in 2013 at Western Health, where she worked with different research labs. Although she considered pursuing a career in Medicine, she finally decided to go down the research path. Catriona is also an excellent science communicator involved in numerous projects across Melbourne… including an internationally-famous science communication competition! Read this interview to find out more.

After your UROP placement, you did an Honours year in Microbiology and Immunology at The Doherty Institute, where you later embarked on a PhD in Immunology. Could you tell us a bit more about your current research?

I am working on basic Immunology, particularly with certain immune cells, the T-cells, that are very specific with what they target. For a long time, we thought that these T-cells recognised and targeted peptides, which are the broken-down products of proteins. However, we have now seen that some of these cells actually recognise and target lipids, that is, fats and oils. These “new kids on the block” are the ones I am studying. I want to find out what they are and what they do in the context of tuberculosis (TB), because the bacteria that causes TB has a lot of lipids in its wall. I am looking at how our body can fight TB using these T-cells and how this could be used to improve the TB vaccine.

I am also studying these T-cells in the context of skin allergies. Actually, it’s because I developed an allergy myself during my PhD, so I decided to incorporate that as a project too. I am studying the sun protection that I used and trying to find out what ingredient could have activated the T-cells I am studying. It’s such a coincidence! I would like to understand better how the recognition mechanism of our immune cells works so that we can stop skincare products giving people rashes.

Did you know you wanted to study Immunology when you applied for UROP?

Well, I wanted to do Medicine originally, although in the context of research. But I was genuinely very interested in a lot of my lectures and I really liked learning, so I thought that research, being a job where you are constantly learning, could be a good option for me. I wanted to know what real research was and how it felt to be at the forefront of research. I knew that the knowledge that gets into a lecture has been established for years, so I wanted to go to the source.

What was the best part of your UROP experience?

The best part for me was that I got to work in different projects. Together with my original supervisor at Western Health, I also collaborated with two other groups as a research assistant. And I really enjoyed how independent I could be. As I worked, I could also listen to music and sing – music is a very big part of my life. I really enjoyed working in research. So after my UROP experience I said “I’m definitely doing Honours!”. My UROP supervisor put me in contact with my current supervisor at The Doherty Institute, where I did my Honours year and stayed for a PhD. Actually, after finishing Honours I also applied for Medicine… But I ended up deciding for a PhD. I couldn’t imagine not coming into the lab every day!

What would you say is the key to a successful UROP placement?

Rather than the specific project you do, the key for me is to get along with who you work. And is true now only for UROP, but also for Honours and for a PhD. I also think that a successful UROP experience has an engaging project with achievable goals and allows for the scholar to see results along the way.

Apart from your PhD, you are also involved in a variety of initiatives related to science communication.

Yes, I am the science communications officer at the Convergence Science Network and The Royal Society of Victoria. I participate in writing website content, with some social media action and organising events. I am also a member of the SciCurious team of the Science Gallery Melbourne, which acts as a think-tank to develop new exhibit ideas relevant for the target audience of the Science Gallery. And I also write content for Scientell. So a variety of things!

And you are also a FameLab finalist! Congratulations on your performance. You were selected as one of the three Victorian FameLab finalists to travel to Perth for the national contest. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience at this science communication competition?

FameLab is a science communication competition for early-career researchers like me. The idea is that we explain our scientific research to a lay audience in only three minutes, and that we make it interesting, engaging and fun. I really enjoyed my time at FameLab. Putting myself out of my comfort zone while doing science communication was an amazing experience. I have to admit I have a bit of stage practice, because I used to do musical theatre. I knew I enjoyed the feeling after a performance, so I put myself out there with FameLab and did my best.

The content of my three-minute performance at the Victorian FameLab and at the Perth Finals was about the relationship between the immune system and physical exercise… a topic I started researching during UROP!


Catriona went to Perth at the beginning of May 2019 for the National Finals of the FameLab competition. You can see her performance here.


Read more about the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) here.