NHMRC recognises Victoria’s leadership in health and medical research

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently announced grant outcomes, totaling $437 million distributed among 495 projects throughout Australia.

Following the usual trend, Victorian researchers have received the majority of the funding, with $392 million for 329 projects. This represents 44.3% of all funding and reflects the leadership, expertise and strength of Victoria’s capability in the health and medical research sector.

BioMedVic congratulates all NHMRC grant recipients.

More information here.

ATSE welcomes biomedical leader

Prof Jan Tennent, CEO of BioMedVic, has been elected Fellow to the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE). She is among 25 leaders in applying science, technology and engineering to solve real-world problems elected to one of Australia’s Learned Academies.

ATSE highlighted Prof Tennent’s career:

In her previous role as Director for Business Development & Global Alliances at Pfizer Animal Health, Professor Tennent was responsible for maximising the growth and profitability of APAC business units and leading the due diligence and negotiation teams for a number of company and product acquisitions and numerous technology licences and collaborative R&D agreements.

As a member of the CSL Animal Health executive team she was responsible for new product opportunity evaluation and leadership of product development and the launch teams for unique vaccines in Australia and the UK.

Professor Tennent’s research career included periods as Director of the CRC for Vaccine Technology and Program Manager for the Vaccines and Immunology group of CSIRO Animal Health.

Academy President, Professor Hugh Bradlow, welcomed the new Fellows. “We bring together Australia’s leading experts in applied science, technology and engineering to provide impartial, practical and evidence-based advice to enable Australia to maintain its position as a leading technology economy.”

“The 2019 cohort of new Fellows comprises a remarkable and talented group, who will contribute to helping the Academy fulfill its mission.” The Academy has also announced a Foreign Fellow, an Honorary Fellow and a Fellow elected directly by the Board.

Twelve of the 25 new Fellows are women – the highest proportion ever and almost matching the Academy’s 2025 diversity target of electing at least 50 per cent women.

The other 2019 new Fellows are:

  • Dr Douglas Bock FTSE. Director, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science
  • Dr Lynn Booth FTSE. Chief, Joint and Operations Analysis Division, Defence Science and Technology Group
  • Dr Gunilla Burrowes FTSE. Chair, Eighteen04 Inc
  • Dr Helen Cleugh FTSE. Director, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO
  • Dr Martin Cole FTSE. Deputy Director, Agriculture and Food, CSIRO
  • Mr William Cox FTSE. Global CEO, Aurecon
  • Professor Melinda Hodkiewicz FTSE. The University of Western Australia
  • Professor Emma Johnston AO FTSE. Dean, Faculty of Science, UNSW Sydney
  • Professor Sandra Kentish FTSE. Head, School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, The University of Melbourne
  • Professor David Lloyd FTSE. Vice-Chancellor and President, University of South Australia
  • Ms Romilly Madew AO FTSE. Chief Executive Officer, Infrastructure Australia
  • Professor Neena Mitter FTSE. Director, Centre for Horticultural Science, QAAFI, The University of Queensland
  • Distinguished Professor Adrian Mouritz FTSE. Executive Dean of Engineering, RMIT University
  • Professor Saeid Nahavandi FTSE. Pro Vice-Chancellor (Defence Technologies), Deakin University
  • Professor Ranjith Pathegama Gamage FTSE. Professor in Geomechanics Engineering, Monash University
  • Dr Andy Sheppard FTSE. Research Director, Managing Invasive Species and Diseases, CSIRO
  • Dr Surinder Pal Singh FTSE. Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO
  • Associate Professor Elaine Saunders FTSE. Executive Chair, Blamey Saunders Hears
  • Dr Alison Todd FTSE. Co-Founder & Chief Scientific Officer, SpeeDx Pty Ltd
  • Professor Nicolas Voelcker FTSE. Monash University
  • Professor Chien Ming Wang FTSE. Transport and Main Roads Chair in Civil Engineering, The University of Queensland
  • Professor Huanting Wang FTSE. Monash University
  • Mr Anthony Wood AM FTSE. Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute
  • Ms Zoe Yujnovich FTSE. Chair/Executive Vice-President, Shell Australia
  • Foreign Fellow: Ms Francesca Ferrazza FTSE. Senior Vice-President Decarbonisation & Environmental R&D, Eni, Italy
  • Honorary Fellow: The Hon John Anderson AO FTSE. Former Deputy Prime Minister
  • Board-elected Fellow: Dr Andrew Thomas AO FTSE. Former NASA astronaut

The new Fellows will be formally welcomed into the Academy at its Annual General Meeting in Melbourne on 29 November.

More information: applied.org.au/new-fellows

Dr Patricia Jusuf: “There is a big difference between UROP and other undergraduate programs”

Dr Patricia Jusuf is a Lecturer at the School of BioSciences (The University of Melbourne) and Group Leader of the Jusuf Lab. Her research looks into the genetics of nerve cells to understand how they are generated and regenerated. Read on for Patricia’s insights following her experience as a UROP Supervisor.

You became a UROP supervisor in 2012, after finishing a post-doctoral fellowship in the UK. When you submitted your project, you were a senior researcher setting up a research program in neural development and regeneration at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI). What made you decide to be part of UROP?

I had been recruited at ARMI as a senior post-doc within Peter Currie’s Muscle Research Group at the start of 2011. Peter Currie, nowadays the Institute Director, encouraged me to put in a project for UROP. I thought it could be a great opportunity because there was a lot of work to be done and also because it could help me develop my mentoring skills. I had heard about the high calibre of UROP students, so it was really an easy decision to make!

How was your experience with your student?

I was very impressed with Andrew. He was really motivated and keen to learn, he wanted to be in our lab and definitely earned his place there. His motivation translated into a very positive work attitude, which meant that he was not only intelligent and good at learning techniques, but he was also a pleasure to work with.

What do you think makes UROP special?  

There is a big difference between UROP and other undergraduate programs. A majority of undergrad programs get assessed, which means that students need to have results, and this tends to make projects more tailored and time-consuming for the supervisor. But as UROP is not for assessment it makes for a very hands-on experience that allows supervisors to spend time exposing their UROP students to lab meetings, lab work and relevant seminars, in addition to training them in the laboratory skills needed to get data for their UROP project.

UROP students should consider the bigger picture and view
their placement as a privilege and an amazing career opportunity 

From your UROP experience, what do you think students bring to a research team?

UROP scholars are very intelligent and capable, so having them around helps the whole lab on many levels. For supervisors, having a UROP student keeps us aware that we are role models helping to shape a young person’s future, which motivates us to be our best selves in and out of the lab. Having a student also helps us in terms of science communication, because it can be challenging to explain a complex project to someone who has limited experience in the field. Indeed, learning how to effectively explain research goals, methods and outcomes is actually very useful for the whole lab – and this communication skills can assist us on other occasions, such as when grant writing.

BioMedVic’s UROP methodology matches a research project with a specific student candidate. How would you value this feature of the program?

From a student point of view, this is a major benefit because it allows students to explore an area they are interested in, so it is an invaluable experience. Even if a student ends up in another field of research, there are many skills that are transferable across research jobs, including lab techniques, safety procedures and science communication. From a supervisor perspective, the fact that students get placed based on their interests is crucial in terms of their attitude, their honest involvement in the lab, and the level of the discussions held. It’s beneficial for both parties!

What tips would you give to students about to start their UROP placement?

I would tell them to focus on the positives. It’s normal for some experiments to fail but UROP students should consider the bigger picture and view their placement as a privilege and an amazing career opportunity.

And what tips would you give to UROP supervisors?

I would recommend supervisors adapt the project to the student and set realistic goals. Also, to integrate the student into your team and keep in mind what an amazing role you have in shaping somebody’s future!

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

Jett Osborne: “My UROP project has showed me how real science is”

Jett Osborne is a Biomed undergrad student at RMIT that applied for UROP in 2018. As he finalises his UROP project at The Bio21 Institute, we interview Jett and his supervisor, Dr Matt Dixon, to discover more about what made this placement so successful.

You were selected for UROP when you were in second year. How did you find the selection process and the interview panel?

Jett: The whole process seemed pretty daunting, but I have never been a nervous person in those kinds of situations. The interview was more like a conversation and I didn’t feel “attacked” by the questions. I actually enjoyed it!

Matt: When I was on the interview panel, I observed that the students that did best were the ones that treated the interview more like a conversation. I can see why some people might get nervous, but as a tip – if you think about the interview more as an informal chat about science and your interests it won’t be so daunting.

Once you were selected, you had to meet your prospective supervisor. How did you prepare before sitting down with Matt?

Jett: The truth is, I stayed awake until 3am on the night before to prepare for it! The meeting went well, and it was easy because Matt explained the project and what I would be doing really well.

Matt:  I could tell you had prepared for the meeting because you had intelligent questions to ask about the project and the research area.

What is the topic of your UROP project?

Jett: My UROP project looks at how the sexual stages of the Malaria parasite change shape and why this is important for the transmission of the parasite by mosquitos. There are 5 sexual stages of development, and my project was to investigate which proteins shape the parasite in the different stages of development. If these proteins are targetable, then maybe we can block them and potentially stop the transmission of the disease.

Matt: We have been working on these stages of the parasite for quite a long time now. The lab has been trying to understand how the banana shape of sexual stages of the malaria parasite supports the survival inside the human host and helps the transmission by the mosquito.

Jett: It’s a very good project, it makes you ask a lot of questions and is very hypothesis-driven. I really like that, as a lab, we are working on the same overarching questions but approaching them from different angles.

Following on from that, how has your lab experience been?

Jett: It’s been really cool. We are all working on different proteins and structures involved in the shape formation of the Malaria parasite, with our work coming together to answer the main research question of why shape is important from malaria transmission. I feel very lucky to have been placed here! Our lab is very social, and people are very supportive. It has been a great learning experience.

Matt: I want the UROP scholars in my lab to work on projects that will lead them to publications, and for them to feel that they have a large role in driving the projects themselves too. Jett fitted in really well from the beginning.

And now that you are about to finish your project, how has it met your expectations?

Jett: The coolest expectation met has been getting to see every step of the research process. My UROP project has showed me how real science is. Now that I have seen how it works and that I have monitored all the steps in our project, I feel I can understand the timings and the whole rhythm of the research project better.

In our lab, everyone is so dedicated and driven
that I felt very stimulated to try harder

What was the biggest thing you learnt from your UROP placement?

Jett: I have learnt about patience, but most of all, I have learnt about work ethic. In our lab, everyone is so dedicated and driven that I felt very stimulated to try harder. And this feeling has affected everything that I do these days. That is my favourite take-away!

Matt: There is a big shift in UROP from your typical marks-driven outcomes that the students are used to from their undergraduate studies, towards being part of a team, which motivates each other and works together to answer big questions. The UROP program gives you a nice taste of what science is like.

Matt, from your point of view, what is an attribute that Jett has that has made this project successful?

Matt: Jett is very enthusiastic, which has been great for the lab. Having a genuine interest in what you do filters into how hard you work on the project, how many extra background readings you do, and how well you interact with others in the lab. In general, the best set of attributes you can have is coming in with eyes open, willing to try different things and to work hard.

Jett: Working in Matt’s lab has also been a humbling experience. I have been working with people with knowledge that goes well beyond mine, so I had to push myself to keep on growing and learning.

Having a genuine interest in what you do filters
into how hard you work on the project

If you could talk to students thinking about UROP, what piece of advice would you give them?

Jett: If you haven’t applied for UROP yet, first consider if research might be for you. Be proactive, talk to your lecturers and professors, find a field that’s of interest. And if you have already been selected for UROP, prepare for your project, read your supervisor’s papers and get to know what they do specifically in their field. And as Matt said before, remember to go in with fresh eyes!

And what are your next steps from here?

Jett: I’m moving to Hong Kong as part of the New Colombo Plan, which is a very competitive scholarship from the Australian government. First, I’ll finish my undergrad studies at the end of December, and after that, I will do a 6-month internship with a Biotech company.

Matt: This is a great opportunity for Jett. He will now be able to see the industry side of research, and when he comes back, he will be able to choose what he prefers.

Jett: I’m very lucky!

Dr Matt Dixon (left) and Jett Osborne (right) at The Bio21 lab.

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

Cutting-edge science and inspiring research at UROP Conference Day 2019

This year’s UROP Conference Day took place on the 26th of July to celebrate student research talent in Victoria. Former and current UROP Scholars and Supervisors, together with program supporters and future participants full of potential, attended the event at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and shared their experiences, career plans and research questions during the premier event of the UROP calendar.

Over a 100 people participated in the UROP Conference Day, an event structured around presentations from UROP Scholars sharing their research results obtained during their placements.

BioMedVic’s Engagement Manager, Núria Saladié, welcomed the audience and presented the day, judges and chairs. She also expressed BioMedVic’s gratitude to CSL for their continued support as Principal Sponsor of UROP.

To inspire all attendees and set the tone for the event, the Keynote Speaker, Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, came on stage and spoke on ‘A World of Opportunities”. Her presentation reflected on the many career options offered by science, gave some tips and tricks for effective networking, and inspired all by defending the benefits of having a ‘balanced’ research life. She successfully juggles her PhD on Immunology with science communication hobbies and her passion for singing.

Dr Mike Wilson, Vice President of Research at CSL, warmly welcomed the most recent UROP cohort. After an encouraging speech sharing his journey in science and congratulating all Scholars, Mike awarded the certificates to the new cohort of 20 driven students.

The UROP Conference Day offered the opportunity to 17 Scholars to present their research in front of a supportive audience. For many, it was their first time presenting to such a large group! They strategically used their presentation skills to engagingly communicate their work. The topics ranged broadly, including regenerative medicine, computer aided visualisations and immunity comparisons.

CSL generously provided three Presentation Awards, which were decided by a remarkable panel of judges: Pierre Scotney, Associate Director, Research, CSL Limited; Jessica Holien, Lab Head at St Vincent’s Institute; and Jane McCausland, Student Programs Manager at ARMI. After some tough deliberation, Pierre Scotney presented the winners of the 2019 UROP Conference Day Presentation Awards: Olivia D’Rozario (ARMI), Jett Osborne (Bio21 Institute) and Kathleen Zeglinski (CSL).

BioMedVic is very proud of all UROP Scholars and wants to thank all Judges, Presenters, Chairs and program supporters for their ongoing involvement. The UROP Community gets bigger every day!

If you would like to employ a UROP scholar, please see more information for supervisors here and email urop@biomedvic.org.au.

Are you a student interested in research? Applications for UROP have kicked off! See information about applying for UROP here.

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.