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.

Avnika Ruparelia: “I became a UROP supervisor because I wanted to give back what I got”

Avnika Ruparelia is a Research Fellow in the Currie Group at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI). She did her UROP placement in 2009 also at ARMI, where she discovered the zebra fish model for muscle disease. Ten years later, Avnika has become a UROP supervisor to give back all that she got from her experience. Read Avnika’s research journey and how UROP played its part.

How was your UROP experience?

When I was first placed at ARMI, I didn’t know what I would be doing and knew nothing about zebra fish. During my UROP experience with Associate Professor Robert Bryson-Richardson and Professor Peter Currie, I discovered not only that I liked research, but that I was passionate about it. My work during the placement set the foundations for my PhD, and therefore, for what I am doing right now as a post-doc. My UROP experience definitely shaped my scientific career!

You have been a student and now you are a supervisor. What made you decide to take on a UROP student?     

I wanted to give back what I got. I had seen the benefits of UROP, so I wanted to make it possible for somebody else and give them their first research experience in a lab. Also, because I had a great supervisor I now want to become that person for a new student. Who knows, maybe in ten years from now, this student will speak about me in the same way I speak about my supervisor!

What would you say is the value of UROP for students?

UROP gives students a real insight of what research is all about. In undergrad prac classes, all experiments are set up to work towards the expected outcomes, but that’s not a true representation of reality… Most of the time, it’s the other way around! UROP students get exposed to real lab work and learn how to tackle failure, which is a key learning for any career. The UROP placement also is a great opportunity for students to test the waters and see if research is something they feel passionate about and want to pursue further.

I had seen the benefits of UROP, so I wanted to make it possible for somebody else.

And what would you say is the value of UROP for supervisors?

Students bring in fresh ideas! When we have been in the lab for some time, we get used to following protocols blindly or we forget to ask the simple questions about our own research. For supervisors, it is fantastic to have someone asking “why do we do this like this?” as it helps us reflect on our work. And of course, an extra pair of hands to help move the research forward is always welcome and appreciated.

What do you think is key to being a good supervisor?

I believe supervisors should take the time to teach and train their students, remembering what they were like the first time they entered a lab and how much they knew. Good supervisors should be able to put themselves in the students’ shoes and understand their position, without negative judgement.


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

BioMedVic Communicators Forum: “Communicating for Change”

A professional development forum designed by and for communication professionals working in Victoria’s scientific, medical and health sectors.

Thursday 30 May, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm

REGISTER HERE

Communicating for change

Communication is rapidly changing, from tools and channels to language and delivery. The scientific biomedical research and health sectors are also changing with the introduction of new technologies and the resulting discoveries and innovations, changing healthcare, research and society. How we communicate these changes – messaging, influencing and connecting- also impacts how these changes are perceived and received. Where do communication professionals in health and biomedical research sit in this era of change?

Join your colleagues and peers in scientific, medical and health communications portfolios from across Victoria to share ideas, knowledge and experiences in BioMedVic’s fourth annual forum.

This event is relevant to directors, department heads, managers, advisors and officers working in media, communications, public affairs, marketing and event management roles.

Keynote speaker:

  • Jason Gale, Senior editor at Bloomberg News
    Award-winning journalist, Jason Gale is a senior editor here in Melbourne with the international news organisation Bloomberg News, where he’s worked for 19 years. He edits mostly feature articles, and occasionally gets to report stories about medical science or global health. Jason has been a speaker and panelist at international medical, scientific and veterinary meetings. In 2007, he was asked by the World Health Organization to be one of three members of the media to advise public health officials globally on communications related to pandemic influenza. Last year, he completed a Master of Health Security from the University of Sydney.

Date:
Thursday 30 May 2019

Time:
8:30 – 9:00 am | Registration
9:00 am – 4:00 pm | Program
4:00 – 5:00 pm | Networking & Drinks

Venue:
RMIT Storey Hall, 336-348 Swanston Street, Melbourne VIC

Cost:
$275 incl. GST for BioMedVic members. $330 incl. GST non-members (please note that tickets are limited)

Contact:
For queries please email nuria.saladie@biomedvic.org.au

Registrations now open!

Please be advised that photographs may be taken at this event for use on the BioMedVic website and in communications material. Please email events@biomedvic.org.au no later than 24 hours before the event if you wish your images to be excluded from such use.

BioMedVic gratefully acknowledges RMIT University as the Event Venue Sponsor.

New Genomics Laboratory at St Vincent’s Institute with former UROP scholar at its lead

Former UROP scholar Dr Davis McCarthy has recently joined St Vincent’s Institute (SVI) as Head of the new Bioinformatics and Cellular Genomics Laboratory in a joint appointment with the University of Melbourne. A philanthropic donation made the lab possible, and now funding from the latest NHMRC Project Grant round secures its funding into the future.

As Head of the Bioinformatics and Cellular Genomics Laboratory, Davis McCarthy will establish his group focusing on genomics analysis and methods to interpret the data sets coming from gene sequencing technologies. His research will also explore how changes in DNA affect the gene expression in single cells. Moreover, Davis’ research group will collaborate with other SVI labs that need genomics analysis, thus strengthening SVI’s internal partnerships.

The new Bioinformatics and Cellular Genomics Laboratory was made possible thanks to a philanthropic donation from Mr Paul Holyoake, former SVI Board member, and his wife, Ms Marg Downey.

Davis’ NHMRC Project Grant is one of five awarded to SVI groups in the most recent NHMRC grant round. News of the funding was extremely well-received by Davis, who sees it as vital, enabling support and a fantastic opportunity to fast-track the lab set up to start working.

A researcher with an impeccable career

Davis McCarthy did his UROP placement in 2006 at WEHI. For Davis, his UROP experience “was more than a stepping-stone, it was my introduction to Bioinformatics and a real turning point in my career”. His placement allowed him to discover his interest in Bioinformatics with a genuine, cutting-edge research project. “Without UROP, who knows where I would be today”, says Davis.

After his UROP experience, Davis graduated with Honours from The University of Melbourne and then pursued a PhD at the University of Oxford. He then became a NHMRC CJ Martin post-doctoral fellow and worked at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI, Cambridge UK). Now he’s back in Australia, where he has already secured funding to continue his excellent research!

Matt Dixon, UROP supervisor: “Having a student in the lab makes you rediscover your passion for research”

Dr Matt Dixon is a Research Fellow at the Bio21 Institute of The University of Melbourne. He majored in Parasitology and Microbiology from the University of Queensland, and today he is an expert on malaria. In this interview with BioMedVic’s Engagement Manager Núria Saladié, Dr Dixon explores his new role as a UROP supervisor.

How did you get into research?

When I was studying my Bachelor of Science I was not sure about what I wanted to do next. I considered pursuing medicine, but then I got really interested in parasitology and microbiology thanks to some fantastic university professors. I was really drawn to these two areas of science, so I decided to do an Honours project on a medically-relevant parasite, malaria. I really enjoyed it and that was key for me to decide that I wanted to do a PhD rather than enrol in medicine. When I finished my PhD, I moved to Melbourne to continue my career as a post-doc, first at La Trobe University and now at The University of Melbourne.

Why did you decide to put in a project and become a UROP supervisor?

Supervising students is something that I really love doing. I have supervised many honours and PhD students through the years, and it has always been a very rewarding experience. I like the training aspect of helping someone grow as a scientist and become passionate about research.

I decided to put in a project for UROP because I like that BioMedVic puts candidates through a stringent application and selection process, which ensures that they have a genuine interest in pursuing science.

You were also involved in the selection process of some students.

Yes, I was part of the interviewing panels. It was great to see the quality of the students that had made it through to that stage of the process! Actually, I felt a bit for the them because it’s quite an intensive scrutiny, but they handle it very well and their level of preparedness is impressive.

It’s good to participate in the student selection process because you then understand the whole UROP program better. Being on the panel was no burden at all for me, I enjoyed it!

UROP students are the cream of the crop, the brightest students in Victoria,
so they can handle the work very well.

What do you think is the value of the UROP program?

From the student’s perspective, the value of UROP is to get an understanding of what research is all about and what it means to do real research. Even if in their undergrad they get practical classes, it is difficult to see the bigger picture and put all the experiments together to grasp how they can solve an issue. Working on a real project helps students realise how to bring individual experiments together to solve a larger, complex problem.

From the supervisors’ perspective, the value of UROP is the possibility of getting exceptionally talented and motivated students that are passionate about research. Having a student in the lab makes you rediscover your passion for research, and a fresh pair of eyes in the work space is always helpful to put things in perspective again. Enthusiastic students really help drive the research forward, and seeing them discover things for the first time and getting good results… that’s very rewarding.


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

Celia Vandestadt, former UROP student: “My UROP placement changed my whole scientific trajectory”

Celia did her year-long UROP placement in 2013 and it changed her scientific life. It gave her the hands-on experience she never got during her undergraduate coursework and prepared her for a PhD, which she is currently about to finish at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI). In this interview, Celia explores what were the drivers, highlights and turns of her UROP experience.

Why did you apply for UROP?

When I came across UROP I was immediately drawn to the idea of it. I felt like it was important to gain a real-life experience into what being an academic would be like, because during my undergrad I only got some insights into it. But UROP was something different: it allowed me to embed myself in the lab and work on a real-world project.

Also, as an undergrad student, I was very pressed for time. I was dedicated full time to my studies, but I had to earn a living too. UROP was a unique opportunity to fulfil both needs, while also gaining an amazing lab experience.

Would you say UROP was valuable to you?

Yes! I did UROP in my last year of undergrad, so at that time it was extremely valuable for me to go through a real application process: writing my CV, preparing for the genuine interview process, and finally getting experience in a lab.

The UROP Conference was also very valuable, I still remember it! It was my first experience presenting my scientific research. It was a bit daunting, getting up there and talking for 5 minutes about my results in front of a crowd, but it was very rewarding. I attended the presentation skills workshop offered before the Conference, and that really helped me. I still use some of those tips when I write presentations today.

My UROP experience, with a genuine project and real-world work,
gave me the confidence to seriously pursue science.

How much has UROP influenced your scientific career?

My UROP placement changed my whole scientific trajectory, because I fell in love with research. Working on a real project sparked my curiosity, which led me to continue with that project through honours and, eventually, gave me the confidence to say “yeah, I can pursue this crazy thing called a PhD”. Because, to be honest, at the end of my undergrad I wasn’t sure whether I should pursue academia or find a job. My UROP experience, with a genuine project and real-world work, gave me the confidence to seriously pursue science.

How was the relationship with your UROP supervisor?

My supervisor had more of a guiding role and our relationship was rather informal. He gave me freedom to explore but also provided guidance when I needed it. He wanted me to go and get my hands dirty and find solutions to problems by myself, and then go back to him to discuss my results. Thanks to that freedom, I got to see how much fun wet lab work could be!

Would you recommend UROP to new students? What tips would you give them?

Absolutely. It’s a smart move for students because they will gain an incredibly valuable experience. In my case, UROP allowed me to really understand the techniques in the lab, which helped me to do well on my Honours and afterwards to succeed in getting a PhD scholarship.

My tips would be, firstly, to throw yourself at it, take it with both hands and try to get yourself immersed in the lab as much as possible. Secondly, to learn from people working around you, even if it’s just shadowing. Be curious about your research organisation and try to engage with peers. And finally, remember that you are not expected to know everything! So, don’t be afraid to ask questions or get things wrong, and make sure you speak up if you don’t understand something or if you need further clarification.

Would you like to become a supervisor?

Definitely! The questions and the energy that new students bring are so welcome in the lab. That energy feeds into what we are doing on a daily basis and makes the lab more fun. It’s a very positive symbiotic relationship between the the lab and the students, we all benefit from UROP!


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

New MedTech Skills Development Program Opens!

Are you a mid-career scientist, academic, or entrepreneur within the medical technology sector keen to develop practical skills in relation to the commercialisation of medical technology including devices & diagnostics?

The new BridgeTech Program, with its training focus on the scientific, legal, financial, clinical, regulatory and reimbursement disciplines that contribute to research translation might be for you!

For more details, see the BridgeTech Program flyer.

Inspiring Research Career Paths in Industry, Hospitals & Academia

Congratulations to our 2017 Round 2 cohort of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

BioMedVic warmly thank our colleagues who volunteered their time to participate on interviewing panels and commend every student who applied to this competitive employment scheme.

We continue to be delighted by the breadth of research organisations that chose to employ a talented undergraduate student through the UROP scheme. In this round, the UROP@BioMedVic office matched the best and brightest with industry, hospital, MRI and academic research teams – reflecting Victoria’s vibrant and diverse health and medical research community.

The students will carry out research projects for six to 18 months, for at least 8 hours a week, alongside their undergraduate coursework. We look forward to hearing about their progress at the UROP Conference Day next year.

We wish all UROPs the best of luck!

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

CSL’s Principal Sponsorship of UROP to Continue

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Last Thursday, Melbourne Town Hall’s Portico Room lit up with passion for science as BioMedVic held the annual Welcome Forum for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). We were thrilled to have UROP students and supervisors share their research experiences and to hear from Dr Andrew Nash, CSL’s Senior Vice President, Research, that CSL will continue as Principal Sponsor of UROP for 2017-2019. Continue reading