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.

Honouring career excellence

Biomedical Research Victoria is delighted to announce the recipient of the 2018 BioMedVic Clinician Researcher Career Recognition Award – Professor Rinaldo Bellomo AO.

Professor Rinaldo Bellomo has an internationally outstanding track record in conducting patient-based research and a three-decade long influence on peers, colleagues, the healthcare sector, patients and the next generation of clinician researchers.

He has published over 1200 peer reviewed publications and is the most cited critical care researcher in the world. Prof Bellomo is also the most cited biomedical investigator in the history of Australian medicine. His research has resulted in the Medical Emergency Team (MET) concept, which is now the standard of care throughout Australian hospitals, all Scandinavian countries, and dozens more.

Prof Bellomo is Director of Intensive Care Research (Austin Hospital), Professor of Intensive Care Medicine (The University of Melbourne) and Senior Research Advisor (Melbourne Health).

When talking about Prof Bellomo mentorship, his nominator, A/Prof Adam Deane, identifies as “one of the many fortunate mid-career clinician researchers to whom he tirelessly provides ongoing support and mentorship”.

The Award will be presented by BioMedVic CEO Prof Jan Tennent at an event to be hosted by Austin Health later in the month.


You can find more information about past recipients of the award here.

Catherine Granger: “The BioMedVic Early Career Clinician Researcher Award really made a difference to my career”

Dr Catherine Granger is Head of Physiotherapy Research and Chair of the Allied Health Research and Quality Committee at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at The University of Melbourne. In 2017, Catherine won a BioMedVic VCRN Early Career Clinician Researcher Award in recognition of her achievements and commitment to clinical research. In 2018, she was selected by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as one of the “Top 5 scientists” for the year. For the first time, the 5 scientists were all women, and were identified by ABC as “ambassadors for their fields and role models for future scientists”.

Catherine’s research has been praised because of its relevance. Her work brings insight into the role of exercise and physiotherapy in the treatment of patients with lung cancer; more specifically, Catherine is researching how being physically active can improve outcomes for patients with cancer, such as quality of life and daily functioning. She is also interested in the current models of care within the health system, and how they can be improved to ensure that patients with cancer are advised regarding the benefits of physical activity.

BioMedVic spoke to Catherine about her career and scientific endeavours some months after receiving the BioMedVic VCRN Early Career Clinician Researcher Award and her selection as a “Top 5 scientists for 2018”. Read on to find out how these recent recognitions have impacted her career.


Yours was not a traditional pathway into research. As practicing physiotherapist you got into research after finding some gaps in the literature regarding exercise and lung cancer patients. How did this shape your approach to research?

I had been working for four years in public hospitals in Melbourne as a physiotherapist before starting my PhD, so my academic research has truly complemented my practicing experience. These double skills help me to easily translate research into practice and therefore my studies are clinically meaningful.

How did the BioMedVic Early Career Clinician Researcher Award impact your work?

It has made a very deep difference. As an early career researcher, my biggest challenge is funding. Regardless of your ideas or team, without financial support you can’t continue your career. The BioMedVic Early Career Clinician Researcher (ECCR) Award allowed me to travel to two amazing conferences, the Australian Lung Cancer Conference in Sydney and the World Lung Cancer Conference in Canada. Participating in these events was extremely important for subsequent funding, because publicly presenting my research at conferences, networking with other researchers and health professionals… it all helps to build up a track record, improve my CV and raise my profile, which collectively make my grant applications more competitive.

And the results are already visible: this year I have received the biggest project grants of my career from the Cancer Council Victoria, which will enable me to continue my research on lung cancer and exercise. I want to highlight that the BioMedVic ECCR Award really made a difference to my career. I’m very grateful to BioMedVic!

In 2018, you also got selected by the ABC as one of the “Top 5 scientists” for the year. How did that recognition impact your career?

Well, the recognition came with a science communication training that was extremely valuable. We were working alongside science journalists who helped us a lot in the process. We wrote an online media article for the general public, produced a radio segment and podcast for a more specific audience, and filmed engaging social media videos. The whole experience was very rewarding and changed the way I think about communicating science. Now I understand the crucial role that good communication can play for my research, not only in the form of academic papers but also in the way my research findings reach and inform clinical practice and thus can have a positive impact on patients.

Nowadays I’m always looking for new ways to communicate my research. Besides articles, I speak on the radio, present at consumer groups, reach patients and the public via Twitter… I’m trying to get my message out in as many ways as I can!


ABC’s Top 5 scientists 2018. Dr Granger on the right.

What’s the next steps for your career?  

Now it’s time for me to increase my research capacity and grow my team so that we can have a bigger and better impact on clinical practice with patients. My career aspiration is to be a leader of clinical-based cancer exercise research and to generate high-quality research to improve treatment for people with cancer and their outcomes. Particularly, I would like to focus on developing strong skills in randomised control trial best practice.


We wish Catherine all the best in her research career! If you want to learn more, connect with Catherine here.

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.

Peter Hickey: “If it weren’t for my placement, I don’t think I would be doing research today”

Peter Hickey majored in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Melbourne in 2009. Up until UROP, he was not sure about where his Bachelor’s degree would lead him. Ten years after his UROP placement, Peter reflects on what it meant for him and how UROP influenced his career.

Why did you apply for the UROP program?

A university friend had just done a UROP placement and said it was great, so I decided to apply. The fact that it was a paid placement was also very important for me, because I was supporting myself through university. Also, getting paid for your work makes you feel valued.

At that stage I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. In fact, I nearly didn’t even go to university at all. I was considering studying music or joining the police force. I only started Mathematics and Statistics at university after a family friend encouraged me to. And although I was enjoying my degree, I didn’t really know what I would do with it at the end. It was thanks to UROP that this changed!

How was your UROP experience?

I did my UROP placement at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). As soon as I started I was immediately working on a real project, mapping genes that were involved in rare Mendelian diseases and trying to understand what mutation in the genome was causing the diseases. I really appreciated that it wasn’t a toy problem, it was a real dataset, which made it very exciting and relevant.

But I had quite a bit to learn when I started! I was a Maths and Stats undergrad, so my Biology and Genetics knowledge was rather limited. I taught myself some concepts and I also received a lot of help from my lab colleagues. Most of them were from a similar background to me, so it was a great environment because we had a comparable process of learning.

The supervisor-student relationship is, for me,
the most important element for a great placement.

How was the relationship with your supervisor?

My relationship with Melanie Bahlo was fantastic. Melanie was very happy for me to knock on her door and have a chat whenever I got stuck – which happened a lot when I started! She understood that I wasn’t used to working with high-performance computing and was very patient and supportive. I appreciated that she took a lot of time to involve me in the the project but also in the whole lab so that I felt part of the research group. Since my UROP placement, Melanie has continued to play a very important role in my career and today is still a mentor of mine.

What was a highlight of your UROP experience?

At the end of my UROP I went to the 7th GeneMappers Conference in the Blue Mountains. I had never been to a scientific conference to present my results, so it was an amazing experience to conclude my placement.

Another highlight during my placement was the chance I got to present my results to clinicians, neurologists and people from other backgrounds, which gave me a priceless experience in explaining statistical research to non-statistical scientists.

How has UROP influenced your scientific career?

Doing UROP meant that now I have a scientific career. If it weren’t for my placement, I don’t think I would be doing research today. UROP was very influential and a real pathway for me.

My placement was so successful that I decided to stay in that lab and do honours in Statistics with Melanie. I then went on to do a PhD, also at WEHI. After my PhD, I moved to the US for a post-doc position at the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where I spent two and a half years working in a great environment, professionally and socially. After my time at the Johns Hopkins University I came back to Melbourne. Nowadays I work at WEHI in a service role within a multidisciplinary team where I can move between Statistics and Biology, a combination I started to discover during my UROP placement as an undergrad.

What do you think is the key to a successful UROP placement?

In my opinion, the key for a successful placement is having a good supervisor. In any lab there is a lot to learn so students need someone who is willing to dedicate some hours answering questions and guiding them. The supervisor-student relationship is, for me, the most important element for a great placement.

Would you like to become a UROP supervisor?

I would love to have a UROP student one day, it would be a way of paying it forward. I would like to give the same opportunity I had to a new person. And I would be inclusive, meaning that I would want to bring into research more women, minority groups from Australia and people from non-scientific families. I don’t have a lot of power to change the whole system but supervising UROP students can be good way to contribute to make science more inclusive.


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

Two veski programs calling for applications!

Veski is calling for applications for two of its programs.

2019 STEM sidebyside program

Veski and Monash University, supported by the British Consulate General Melbourne, call for applications for the 2019 STEM sidebyside program. The program will be delivered between May and November 2019 and features workshops and networking opportunities to empower women at different career stages through two streams:

  • Leading the Way – Mid-career emerging leaders
  • Stamina – women who want to, are about to, or have just, return(ed) to work within a STEM industry

Applications close 2.00pm AEST on Thursday, 18 April 2019.

Find application details on the websites for Leading the Way and Stamina.

2019 veski fast smarts program

Innovators are encouraged to send their applications for the final two spots of the 2019 veski fast smarts. In total, nine people will be part of this curated showcase of Melbourne’s brightest innovators.

Veski will deliver its third and final veski fast smarts on 22nd May 2019. You can find more information here.

NHMRC 2018 Research Excellence Awards

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2018 Research Excellence Awards were recently announced in Canberra. These Awards recognise “excellence in the health and medical research sector by celebrating individual achievements, leadership and the exceptional contributions of Australian researchers to their fields of research”.

Four outstanding researchers from BioMedVic members were recognised with different categories of the 2018 Research Excellence Awards:

  • Professor Patrick McGorry AO (University of Melbourne) – Research Fellowship. This award is given to the highest ranked applicant in NHMRC’s Research Fellowship scheme.
  • Professor Peter Choong (University of Melbourne, St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne) – Practitioner Fellowship. This award is given to the highest ranked applicant in NHMRC’s Practitioner Fellowship scheme.
  • A/Professor Yuming Guo (Monash University) – Career Development Fellowships: Population Health – Level 2
  • A/Professor Rebecca Lim (Monash University) – Career Development Fellowships: Industry – Level 2

BioMedVic warmly congratulates these and all recipients of the NHMRC 2018 Research Excellence Awards.

You can find more information here.

Applications open for the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The Prime Minister’s Prizes recognise Australian scientists, innovators and science educators for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in science teaching. There are five Science Prizes and two Science Teaching prizes. Each prize recipient receives a medallion, lapel pin, prize money and an award certificate.

Applications close 12 March 2019. 

See the eligibility criteria and more information about the nomination and assessment process here.


Science Prizes categories:

  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is awarded for a significant advancement of knowledge through science. Prize money of $250,000 is awarded to the recipients.
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation is awarded for the innovative translation of scientific knowledge into a commercially available product, service or process that has had economic, social and where relevant environmental benefits. Prize money of $250,000 is awarded to the recipients.
  • Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year and Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year each recognise an exceptional achievement in science that benefits, or has the potential to benefit, human welfare or society. Prize money of $50,000 is awarded to the recipients.
  • Prize for New Innovators recognises an exceptional early achievement towards partial or full commercialisation of scientific research with substantial economic, social and where relevant environmental benefits. Prize money of $50,000 is awarded to the recipients.

Science Teaching Prizes categories:

  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools — prize money of $50,000 is awarded to the recipient
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools — Prize money of $50,000 is awarded to the recipient.

UROP – Now Accepting Projects!

Are you interested in employing talented undergrad students in your research team? Supervisors are invited to submit applications to host students through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

Entry into the scheme by students is highly competitive and Biomedical Research Victoria coordinates the selection of students and their matching to suitable projects.

Submit your project before 22 March.

 

More information and applications here


Read about supervisors’ experiences here: 

Celebrating new UROP Scholars at the 2019 Welcome Forum

The 2019 UROP Welcome Forum was held on Valentine’s Day in a celebration of our love for science! The new cohort of UROP Scholars, potential future candidates, current and past supervisors, and the BioMedVic team gathered on the iconic Melbourne Town Hall Portico to welcome the new UROPs and officially open the first round of 2019.

Two excellent keynote speakers inspired the audience with their UROP-related talks. Both presenters were former UROP scholars whose accomplishments since their placements have been impressive to say the least! First up was Dr Avnika Ruparelia, from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) at Monash University. Now a UROP supervisor, Avnika talked about her UROP placement, the key learnings from that time, and gave some useful tips to the current students. Avnika was followed by Dr Peter Hickey, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Peter shared his research journey, the decisions he made along the way, and finally gave some thoughtful advice to current and future UROPs about undertaking a scientific career.

The keynote speeches were followed by a round of Q&A, which led to the liveliest part of the event, a guided networking activity. Sticking with the Valentine’s Day theme, this year’s networking activity might better be described as “UROP Speed-dating”. The Portico was abuzz as students met one another and many new colleagues, each enthusiastically sharing their research interests (see this short video as evidence!).

On behalf of BioMedVic, Núria Saladié expressed sincere gratitude to UROP’s Principal Sponsor, CSL, who was represented on the day by Dr Marthe D’Ombrain, Director of Research Innovation. Marthe spoke about CSL, her scientific career and shared encouraging words about UROP and the opportunities the program provides to Scholars. Marthe also presented the new UROP cohort with their certificates and lapel badges.

All agreed that the 2019 UROP Welcome Forum was a resounding success! Avnika, Peter and Marthe’s speeches stimulated the audience with insights about UROP, about careers in research and about innovation in Australia and beyond. Their inspiration was tangible during the lively networking activities, leaving no one in any doubt that “Science was in the air” this Valentine’s Day in Melbourne.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to make the 2019 UROP Welcome Forum such a memorable event.

About UROP

A program of Biomedical Research Victoria, UROP is an employment scheme that places undergraduate students in research labs in Victorian universities, research institutes, hospitals and industry. Students accepted into UROP come from diverse education backgrounds including biomedical science, chemistry, computational science, maths and engineering. BioMedVic custom-matches eligible students with research experiences to the benefit of both parties. Since 2004, BioMedVic has placed almost 700 UROP Scholars.

See more information on UROP here.

Photo gallery of the event

Principal Sponsor

CSL logo

Event Sponsor

City of Melbourne