Sam Forster: “I was given the opportunity to discover the field of bioinformatics and see how fascinating it is”

Sam Forster is Head of the Microbiota and Systems Biology Research Group at the Hudson Institute. He finished his UROP placement in 2008 and since then his scientific career has sky-rocketed – and it’s only the beginning. He has published in Nature and other extremely relevant journals about the bacteria living in our body. Read on to discover more about Sam and how his UROP placement shaped his path.

When did you apply for UROP?  

In 2007 I was a student at The University of Melbourne doing a Science and Information Systems double degree when I applied for UROP. I got placed at the Hudson Institute (then called “Monash Institute”) with Paul Hertzog and Shamith Samarajiwa, to work on a bioinformatics-heavy project about innate immunity. As I had never studied immunology before, I felt very fortunate that Paul and Shamith taught me all the Biology content that I needed for my UROP project! I really enjoyed the combination of Biology and Computational Sciences that I explored during my placement.

What did you do after your UROP finished?

I pursued a wet-lab project during my Honours year with Paul Hertzog, and then stayed with him for my PhD working on a combination of bioinformatics and wet-lab based research. After I finished my PhD, I went on to a Postdoc position at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a major genome sequencing centre in the UK and worked with Trevor Lawley. It was there that I started researching the microbiome. Nowadays I have gone full circle and am back at the Hudson Institute where I have my own research group.

Could you tell us more about your current research?

Most of our current work is focused on the communities bacteria in the gut, also known as the microbiome, composed of between a hundred and a thousand different species. We are studying how bacteria vary within the Australian community and how these different bacteria impact our health. It’s still early days, but some evidence suggests that the microbiome is as important as our immune system in terms of its systemic effect! We anticipate that the next five years is going to be a very important period in understanding how we can intervene and modify our microbiome to improve health outcomes.

This whole area of research creates a fascinating contradiction because often when we think about bacteria it’s pathogens that come to mind. So… is the microbiome a group of bacteria, or potential pathogens that our body is allowing to live inside it? One might think that the body is asking for trouble. But now we realise that these bacteria must be providing significant benefits from an evolutionary perspective to be able to stay in our body. It seems we’ve been unfairly thinking of bacteria as the bad guys all this time.  We still don’t know what these benefits are, though, but we are working on it.

Meeting Paul was a critical point for my career, and it was all
thanks to UROP that I was able to access this type of mentorship.

How did UROP influence your career?

Immensely! It was thanks to my UROP placement that I met Paul Hertzog. In Pauls’ lab I was given the opportunity to discover the field of bioinformatics and see how fascinating it is. If I hadn’t done UROP, I would have probably ended up going down an IT career path.

What do you think is the key aspect of UROP?

The fact that it very effectively matches the students with the labs where they can best thrive. From the beginning I really enjoyed being in Paul’s lab and he was not only my PhD supervisor but he’s also still one of my mentors. Meeting Paul was a critical point for my career, and it was all thanks to UROP that I was able to access this type of mentorship.

And now you have decided to put in a project to become a UROP supervisor yourself.

Yes, and it was an easy decision because having gone through UROP myself, I know the advantages of being part of the program. An important aspect of UROP is that new students bring different perspectives, backgrounds and areas of expertise to a lab and can really impact lab culture and contribute with new questions. UROP also allows for staff to adopt supervisory responsibilities, and in this way contributes to the training capacity of people within the lab.

If you could give a tip to new UROP students, what would you say to them?

Well, if there is even the smallest chance that you would like to have a science career, you should stop thinking about it and apply for a UROP placement now! And, if you have already been offered a UROP placement in a lab, remember that you are in an environment full of knowledge, so make sure you interact with as many people as possible and learn as much as you can from them.

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