All posts by Dr Chromo

Dr Chromo is a researcher at work and in the garden. In his early career, he was locked inside a dark room for a few years studying human chromosomes. Seven years ago he saw the light and started working with human early life cohorts, which made his life much more interesting. He now blames epigenetics for every chronic illness, spouts forth such phrases as "you are what your mother ate" and is just starting to produce evidence to support these ideas. He believes that students, General Practitioners, and the public need to know about his crazy ideas and frequently speaks to them to get feedback to inspire his research. For those who think it’s important, he has over 80 publications and an h-index of 24.

The ten plus ten (plus a few more) commandments of how to be a successful student and scientist

*Update from June 2017: I have added a few extra ‘commandments’ from Twitter and Facebook friends at the end**

This week, three Honours students and one PhD student are starting in my lab. In the back of my mind I have always wanted to pass on my accumulated “wisdom” at the start of their research careers. I haven’t got around to it until now. Earlier this week I put the word out via Facebook and immediately got a response from an old friend that inspired me to write this. Professor Darren Griffin from the University of Kent, UK put together ten commandments for succeeding in academia.They outlined, succinctly, virtues such as persistence, imagination, strategy and just being a decent human being.

I concur and took the liberty of adding another ten – numbers 11 to 20.Many thanks to colleagues past and present including Drs Jane Loke, Nick Wong, Sara Hassan and Joe Sarsero, for their inspirations and suggestions.

11. Network, network, network

Talk to people from outside your group at the water cooler, tea room and at work functions. You will make friends, but importantly, they will be contacts who may be able to help you out some day (see Commandment 12).

12. Beg, borrow or “steal”

You never really run out of a reagent or broken piece of equipment. If you know the right people, you will be able to beg or borrow it when you need it the most. And return the favour when the boot’s on the other foot. And no, don’t steal; it just sounded like a good phrase 😉

13. Say ‘No” to plagiarism

A good idea is worth developing but good text should act as inspiration only. If you like it so much, paraphrase it. If you want to know more about plagiarism and how to check for it, see Turnitin.

14. Write early and write often

It is never too early to start writing your Honours/PhD thesis or your manuscript. Start with something simple such as Materials & Methods. Get feedback and write some more. I also strongly recommend writing the odd blog post. There is no good and bad; there is only read and widely read. Try IFLScience and The Conversation for inspiration. And even Tweeting can sharpen your writing skills.

From PhD Comics

15. Ask

Never be afraid to ask questions, whether of your supervisor, Postdoc or in a seminar. Lab heads respect and notice those who ask questions and there really aren’t any stupid questions. On the subject of seminars, try going to ones that don’t match your area of interest – you may be pleasantly surprised. If you are not, you could always play Seminar Bingo.

16. Discovering why an experiment didn’t work is almost as satisfying as getting it to work first time

Self explanatory.

17. Be honest

If you break something, always ‘fess up. You will be respected much more than if you don’t.

18. Ask not what your institute/department can do for you, ask what you can do for your institute.

Try volunteering at an institute or departmental event. If you ever go asking for funds for a project or a student group and they don’t know you from Adam, you will have less chance at success. Furthermore, volunteering is good for your health.

19. Find a good mentor apart from your supervisor

Whether a shoulder to cry on or just general advice, get yourself one of these. In fact, get 2 or 3. They can be Postdocs, lab heads, inside or outside your institute.

20. Last but not least, look after yourself

Make sure you top up regularly the three things that could save your life one day: exercise, a healthy diet and spending time being mindful (such as taking part in yoga, meditation or prayer). They all change your epigenetics for the better.

From PhD Comics:

21.The Black Jack

Yes, you will hear that being a researcher is not a financially rewarding career and comes with little job security. Both of these can be true but following these commandments should help you be resilient and stay near the top of the pack.

Have a happy and healthy research career!


And a few more from Twitter buddies

  1. Your supervisor is your supervisor, not your boss – Dr Emma Beckett @synapse101
  2. Run your own race, everyone has a unique PhD experience – Dr Emma Beckett @synapse101
  3. Push the boat out as far as it will go, and always be guided by 2 Qs: Is it true, and who cares? – Clare Llewellyn‏ @Dr_C_Llewellyn
  4. Don’t rely on anyone handing you answers on a silver platter. Be curious, ask questions and seek answers beyond the ivory tower. – Nathalie Martinek‏ @Chitananda
  5. You’re LEARNING, everyone knows this, no one is judging you. Seek help as you need it. Don’t wait. – Kristal Sorby‏ @KrisDoesEcology
  6. Be self-reliant ! You’ll need to be … 😉 Belinda Weaver‏ @cloudaus
  7. Always question the ‘facts’ stated by your supervisor – Terence Pang PhD @seriouspalates
  8. ‏ Depending on the topic, read Been Goldacre’s Bad Science. Also do a timeline – Felice Jacka @FeliceJacka
  9. Get into habit of putting together a slide for each paper they read that will go into your lit review – Felice Jacka @FeliceJacka
  10. Read the article ‘A PhD is not a Nobel prize’ – Fiona J Clay (via Facebook)



Kit for kitty: how cats’ genes have changed during their domestication


Last year I co-authored why so many domesticated mammals have floppy ears for The Conversation for The Conversation. Since then, a recent paper has tracked down changes in specific genes that are associated with domestication.

As a reminder, the hypothesis was that functional and genetic differences in a specific group of cells – the neural crest – during early development, arose through domestication.

Cells in the neural crest, which forms just under the newly formed neural tube (precursor of the spinal cord), gradually migrate to the upper body where their descendent cells help to shape the brain, face, head, neck, intestine, adrenal glands and skin. Minor defects of neural crest cells, such as slower migration, were hypothesised to unite the main features of domesticated animals: tameness, smaller jaws, curly tails and floppy ears.

Current evidence points to the domestication of wild cats between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago. In the late Stone Age, when we were developing our skills in farming of plants and animals, it is likely that wild cats were attracted by food scraps we left around. They were also likely to be attracted to vermin who fed on stored grain, which you can guess, may have led to a mutually beneficial relationship between cats and us. The ancient Egyptians were so grateful to cats for controlling mice and snakes and so much in admiration of their grace and poise that they elevated them to gods.

In the recent paper, researchers compared the gene sequences of wild cats with a number of different breeds of domesticated cats and the results support the domestication hypothesis. Using stringent criteria, they found over a hundred genetic regions that differed markedly between domesticated and wild cats.

evolution of the cat

Looking through these regions, they found genes related to neural crest survival and migration, fear, reward and pigmentation. Most are active in the brain. Fittingly, the gene responsible for the white pigmentation is called KIT, which is essential for the growth and migration of pigmented cells of the skin known as melanocytes. Genetic differences in the KIT gene often result in inefficient migration and maturation of melanocytes during development, resulting in white patches over the body. This condition is known as piebaldism and is seen in humans and in horses (such as pintos), dogs, birds, pigs, cows and even some snakes. In cats, various degrees of white spotting have been produced in the last 200 years by selective breeding. The paper highlights the Birman cat (below), which has quite a high proportion of white fur.

A Birman cat. From

What makes the cat sequencing paper fascinating is how the researchers linked specific genes to specific functions of tissues and organs derived from the neural crest. In addition to taking a guess at a gene’s function from the structure of the protein it produces, they looked at data from animals such as mice and frogs which have been bred in the lab to have one or both copies of a genes either defective or missing altogether (so-called “knockouts”). Comparisons have also come from human medical conditions such as piebaldism, mentioned above, that have had their genetic defects sequenced.


The cat sequencing paper also compared cats to other carnivores such as dogs and analysed the genetic differences in a similar way. They identified gene variants that are likely to provide cats with a superior sense of night vision, hearing and sensing of sex hormones, or pheromones.

What the paper did not answer was why do cats NOT have floppy ears? Maybe not all the boxes of domestication syndrome need to be ticked for each animal. Or maybe floppy ears may have been selected against because it would impair cats’ acute sense of hearing?

What all this means is that we are further along the road to understanding how cats and other animals were domesticated. The information gathered from the hundreds of cat genomes sequenced means that we will be better able to understand and treat cats when they get sick. An understanding of early mammalian development will also help us understand our own development and disease predisposition.


Blowing the trumpet: a year in review for Dr Chromo

This year, instead of posting disjointed highlights of Facebook, I’ve decided to go back to the old tradition of the “Round Robin” Christmas letter, upgraded to a blog. I still receive Round Robin letters along with Christmas cards from friends and relations and always enjoy reading so why not do something similar but different? Yes, they have been lampooned for being too long and uninteresting so I will keep mine short, and hopefully, interesting.

First up, some trumpet blowing for other people. A large toot for my wife Jane who ran 125 runs this year, most of them around an hour long. I ran the last  one with her this morning and I can tell you, she has definitely overtaken me in the fitness stakes. We’ve also been out to some great restaurants and can tell she has taken note by the standards of her home cooking.

urlNext, a salute to my parents, who  have remained active despite each going through health scares and coping with the loss of a daughter. It’s hard to imagine what they have been through. A further trumpet to my in-laws who are coping with their own troubles. It was nice to see both sets of parents in November.

A further parp for brother Rod in Canada for suggesting that we brothers swap answers to a Life Questionnaire – around thirty questions on who we are, what we are, what we have achieved and what we like. When our sister Sarah died last year, an outpouring of grief and praise came from her close friends and colleagues past and present and we were all deeply touched by that. Strangely, these people knew better as an adult than did the three of us, mainly because we are scattered to the four winds. A “Big-Up” also to Alex for getting into St Martin’s College in London. I enjoyed a brief visit and a drink or two or three to him in November; I vaguely remember getting my photo taken on King’s cross Station’s Platform Nine the Three Quarters by a pair of Japanese tourists. On the same trip I also met op with Brother-in-law Dfyed, a brilliant art teacher and with his amazing son Matthew, who now goes to high school, where he studies Minecraft among other things 😉 I also had a day out in Leeds (and a drink in Whitelocks) with Brother Jim, who’s also going great guns as a Community Arts Chaplain in Gateshead.

Art Show Will Challenge Perceptions Of Religion

Work trumpets go to my student, now turned Postdoc, Jane Loke, who graduated with a PhD this year. I had a great time at Graduation with Jane and her family. Sadly, I lost Linh Nguyen, to Singapore, and would like to thank her for her excellent work as a student and Research Assistant.  A Herald also for Theme Director Katie Allen and Institute Director Kathy North, for providing ways for me to top up my salary. I will repay in kind in 2015 when I have my whole salary covered, and hopefully beyond. Ana Yap was a great Honours student from MOnash Uni and I was impressed by the quality of all their students.

Next, what are my favourite movies and songs from 2014 (and 2013; sometimes I’m slow to catch on)? First, I filled in a few gaps in my favourite movie genre – time travel. Films I watched included FrequencyLooper, 12 Monkeys, About Time , all great in their own way, and finally the great but head-scratching  Predestination,  and the even more head-scratching and the low budget Primer. My overall favourite films of the year were the weird Under The Skin (filmed in Glasgow with Scarlett Johannsen in disguise) the brilliantly thrilling  Calvary, Read My Lips, and yes, the “Hollywood” but exhilarating Edge of Tomorrow. Other films worth a mention are Philomena, Boyhood and Lucy. Finally, a special mention to the movie Gabrielle, an uplifting drama/romance whose main characters (and most of the actors) all had intellectual impairments. I say “impairments” but the main character, having Williams Syndrome, was perceptive and super-friendly. Heart-warming.


My favourite albums of the year were “Our Love” by Caribou – brilliant Canadian  electronic artist and very catchy tunes; “Partly Fiction” by Harry Dean Stanton,  such a sweet voice from the veteran actor; “The Island of Dr Electrico” by The Bombay Royale, a great debut album by the Melbourne band with a hot Indian flavour. And a special mention for “All I ever wanted – The Anthology” by the late, great Kirsty MacColl.  So sad that such a talent has been lost.


I am finishing with my personal achievements of the year, as, someone once said “if you can’t blow your own trumpet, no-one else will”.  In the garden, I have tended every square metre, with failures and successes, the latter in potatoes, chillies (including the World’s hottest),  silverbeet, lettuce, carrots, zucchinis including the amazing Tromboncino.

After dabbling in slightly cushioned trainers and hurting my ankle, I returned to “barefoot” running with the minimalist Vibram 5 fingers. Despite some controversy as to their effectiveness,  I have been injury free since wearing them, I’ve run a half marathon in them and hope to run a full one in 2015. It was also joy to run again after a few months off due to deep vein thrombosis in late 2013. This year I’ve gone further and run totally barefoot on some great Autralian beaches: Ocean Grove, Rainbow Beach, Noosa, Apollo Bay and Sandy Point.


Highlights at work this year have included having lunch with a princess on behalf on the Australian Twin Registry,  of which I was appointed Deputy Director. I was also elected to the Board of the International Society of twin Studies. at the twins conference in Budapest.

As a Chief Investigator,  I was awarded eight research grants of various sizes, the largest being the five-year NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in twin Research (Chief Investigator B)  and an NHMRC Project grant asking whether we can predict long-term outcomes of preterm birth, and two that give me great pride:  new studies of epigenetic differences within identical twins discordant  for autism or cerebral palsy. Both are collaborations with hospital clinician teams. I now have the best team I have ever had, with whom I am sure I can at least match  our achievements from 2014.

In 2015 I am looking to secure my own salary in the form of an NHMRC Fellowship; hopefully third time lucky; it’s tough.


In 2014 I published 11 peer-reviewed papers, a short chapter about DNA in a crowd-funded book, two articles on twins for the Raising Children Network, and, with colleague Don Newgreen, “Why so many domestic mammals have floppy ears” for The Conversation which, via secondary sites such as IFL Science, was read by over 300,000 people. a year of blogging, I have written 15 posts, each one read on average over a thousand times  and posted over 2,500 Tweets in my first year on Twitter as @DrChromo and a few hundred for the Society for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Australia and New Zealand and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute . Social media is getting the message out about medical research quicker than ever, to more people and those researchers who don’t use social media will quickly become dinosaurs. There is also an amazing thrill when you Tweet at a conference as part of a group of Tweeters and get feedback from outside the conference including overseas. Try it.

I’ve had fun trying to get the message across to Uni students and “the public” about epigenetics, twins, the early life origins of chronic disease and medical research in general. This is an obligation for all medical researchers, so why not enjoy it. I lectured (unpaid) in the courses: Genetics; Poetics of The Body; Genetics, Health and Society; Societal Issues and Personal Genomics, all at Melbourne Uni; Nutrition and Dietetics and Monash Uni, and in courses at Victoria and Deakin Universities. I went as far afield as Brisbane and Warrnambool to give talks to GPs and in the latter, discovered a little gem of a place in the South West of Victoria.

I also went out and about to talk to Rotary, GPs, teachers, school kids, an, with colleague Richard Saffery, was filmed for a documentary about twins, recently aired in Canada and got to meet Dr Feelgood on radio station 3AW. Talking of radio, I continued in my role as a monthly panelist on community radio 3RRR’s Einstein A Go-Go science show. I also started listening to an excellent request show – Centrelinked – on community radio station NorthWest FM and even went on as a guest co-presenter on a hair-themed to coincide with shaving all my hair off for the Leukaemia Foundation’s World’s Greatest Shave. And coming soon you will get to see the results of the >30 blogs to be published on the new MCRI web site early in the New Year. I commissioned these from MCRI staff and students and interestingly, found that in general, the younger the writer, the better the quality of blog. These are the small mammals that will soon take over the territory of the dinosaurs when the social media meteor really hits. However, for an example of a well-written blog by a seasoned researcher, see Dr Jenny Martin’s blog Espresso Science.

Ultimately, in many ways I have had a good year and wish you all the best for 2015.

This immortal coil

DNA, they say, is the molecule of life. Its long threads can be found in almost every cell of your body. Every minute of every day, the many genes it contains are put through production lines to produce the bounty of proteins that are built into each cell type, from eye lenses to heart muscles.

But where did that DNA come from? Let’s take a trip back in time. Before every cell divides, it replicates every one of its 46 molecules of DNA, or chromosomes. When egg met sperm at the moment you came into being, two sets of chromosome came together, one from Mum, one from Dad. As your parents reproductive cells developed, your grandmother’s and grandfather’s chromosomes came together and for the only time during your parents’ lifespans, they swapped genetic information. The chromosomes then divided twice, again for the only time, to produce sex cells with only 23 chromosomes. The earlier shuffling meant that each chromosome wasn’t just Grandfather’s or Grandmother’s; it was a bit of both. This genetic shuffling has increased genetic diversity and has provided grist for the mill of natural selection.

Gaining reverse speed, going further back in time, this division and shuffling has happened as humans have evolved from less complex organisms such as fish-like creatures, multicellular organisms and single cell organisms. Where it all began is still a mystery, but the message is that molecules of DNA have been passed down all this way to you. Sure, they have been shuffled a lot on the way but they are effectively immortal. How will they continue to evolve? Who will they inhabit? Time will tell.

Richard Dawkins wrote a book on evolution he called “The Selfish Gene”. Although he regrets the title because some have interpreted it as giving genes a sense of purpose, he meant that the gene was at the centre of evolution and not the organism or social group. Dawkins suggested that in the beginning, a DNA molecule he calls the “replicator”, managed to reproduce itself and thus gain in number. He proposed that somewhere along the line, it gained the protection of a cell around it; a survival capsule. As the cell’s environment changed, DNA molecules needed to adapt to these changes or the organism would die and it would lose its protection. So it kept mutating until one version of itself helped the cell adapt to its new home and start dividing again.

Sometimes in their rapid charges to survive, genes survive but organisms don’t. Think about the species of spiders in which the male is eaten by his mate just after mating and passing on his genes. It has been argued that only recently tables have turned. We can now choose birth control and end its billion year life in your body when you die.

So maybe those of us who choose not to have children should give quiet thanks to our DNA and those that mourn for us when we go, should mourn for our DNA too, for it will have lost its immortality.


Radio without the ga-ga: why I love local, independent radio

“I’d sit alone and watch your light/ My only friend through teenage nights / And everything I had to know / I heard it on my radio” – “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen

radioI remember the day the music was born. It was December 25th 1978 and my parents had just given me a cassette recorder for Christmas. I tried recording theme music from the TV but soon gravitated to my little transistor radio and the local independent radio station – Pennine Radio – in Bradford in the North of England. The DJ was one Julius K Scragg; I have never heard of him since but he rocked. He was reviewing the year’s music: Grease had been the Word and Love had been Unkind. I was hooked. I’m sure I still have that first tape today locked away in an attic somewhere. You can even hear my dad in the background yelling at me to turn the music down.

cassetteFrom them on I’ve surfed the airwaves wherever I’ve been. Why radio? Well, it’s not as distracting as TV (I did my homework to it), it’s more portable and leaves more to your imagination. Being in the UK, I listed to BBC Radio One – to David “Kid” Jensen and to the Late John Peel. I also found the pirate radio station Radio Luxembourg and remember one particular occasion when listening to Stuart Henry, who unbeknown to me had multiple sclerosis. I knew that he slurred his words and that his slurring was getting worse, but one night he just stopped talking mid-show and never appeared on radio again. Up until earlier this year I had assumed that he’d died on air, but he actually died a good few years’ later.

johnpeelOther radio DJs I admired were Andy Kershaw, who first exposed me to world music and Annie Nightingale, who DJ’d an eclectic request show is currently the longest serving female DJ on British radio. At university in Manchester I listened to Piccadilly Radio, supplementing my “homework” on a Sunday evening listening to the emerging House music scene and the Hip hop show. In my first job in London, I tuned in to another pirate radio station, Kiss FM, the only station at the time playing Acid House.

My cassette recorder had evolved into a radio-cassette recorder. I accumulated hundreds of tapes of my favourite music, enabled by pressing “play “, then “pause” then “pause” again when I heard a tune I liked. Many of them I would edit out the DJ’s intro and “outro”.

Fast forward twenty years to the present and I’m living in Melbourne Australia and listening to independent community radio station Radio 3RRR. It is commercial-free and plays an eclectic range of music, from lounge to hip-hop, together with a variety of chat shows. Triple R started in 1976 within RMIT University in Melbourne and has since grown to one of the largest independent, subscriber-based radio stations in the world. It does not receive any government funding. Once a year in August, it holds a week-long Radiothon subscriber drive which begins this year on the 15th. The theme for this year’s Radiothon is “Local and Vocal Radio” to emphasise its place in the Melbourne community. Having said that, anyone in the world with a digital radio can listen to current or past shows. My favourites are The Skullcave with Stephen Walker on a Friday evening and Vital Bits with Tim Thorpe on weekend mornings.

3RRR-logoOccasionally, while trapped in a taxi, I am reminded what the alternative is: commercial radio with its short, repetitive play lists, opinionated DJs and endless banal advertisements. You can keep it; I’m going local and independent.

I am also playing my own small part in the 3RRR family. In addition to being a paid-up subscriber, I am a regular co-presenter on the Sunday science show Einstein A Go-Go. I am a tiny part of what I love. I also recently found a great, themed request show on another local community station – Centrelinked on North West FM and like the in old days, I still get a kick out of hearing them play my song.

And do I have a “secret” ambition to host my own show one day? You bet. However, for now, I’ll stick with listening to the radio. Morning, afternoon and evening.

You had your time, you had the power / You’ve yet to have your finest hour.” “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen

Fact, fudge or fiction: understanding medical research news

Every day we are bombarded with stories of medical “breakthroughs”, cures for cancer and claims that substance X causes disease Y. But how do we know which reports to trust? Are we being fed the truth or has it been bent beyond all recognition by PR departments, journalists and headline writers? Below is a rough guide to getting to the bottom of news stories about medical research.

Cartoon by Jim Borgman, first published by the Cincinnati Inquirer and King Features Syndicate 1997 Apr 27; Forum section: 1 and reprinted in the New York Times, 27 April 1997, E4

Where is the study reported?

Whether the study has been reported on television, radio, print or online, you must first judge the quality of the media outlet on which the story is presented and whether bias may be present. Gone are the days in which “mainstream” media was more reliable than online media but you can still choose a news source you know to be trustworthy. Sites such as Newstrust and mic can help you identify these. Examples of trustworthy sources include the New York Times, Reuters and BBC News. In addition, The Conversation is an independent source of news and analysis written by academics and research scientists. It features topical stories and corrects misinformation emanating from less rigorous media sources. Specific medical research institutes may also have blog posts written by their own experts in the field.

At what stage is the study?

Sometimes researchers may issue a press release before they start their research, when research is in progress or before their work has been reviewed and published. These situations are the least reliable. Ideally we will know whether the researchers are the first to find such results (they will definitely say if this is the case). If so, it’s possible that a single study may not be able to replicated by others. As a research area matures, researchers will spend time writing a “systematic review” or conducting a “meta-analysis”. Systematic reviews are “studies of studies” which identify, appraise, select and synthesize all high quality research evidence relevant to a specific research question and make conclusions about whether sufficient evidence exists to support a research finding. Among the most trusted examples of these are Cochran reviews. New treatments for diseases must go through these processes before entering the clinic.

What organism has been studied?

This may sound like a strange question but medical research often starts with human cells in a dish. Showing that a drug can kill cancer cells in a petri dish does not mean it will kill cancer in a real person. And new drugs require testing on animals before humans and surprisingly, news reports may sometime fail to mention whether the study is of mice or men.

Is sensationalism used?

Studies labelled “breakthrough” and “cure” rarely are. Research takes years and the vast majority of research is achieved in small advances. See also “what stage is the study at” above. Check the language used; researchers often suggest that their research “may lead to” a cure.

How thorough and critical is the news report?

A bonus if an independent expert is quoted; this provides a valuable independent assessment. Lazy news sources may not even speak to the original researchers and will quote the original press release verbatim, so if in doubt look up the study.

Go to the source

Another bonus if the source of the news story is quoted. Journalists may include just the journal name but if you are lucky, the story will link to the article itself. However, there are a couple of barriers to overcome once you have come this far. Firstly, if the study is not freely available, you can search for it. Most journals are, however, still pay-per-view but at least you will be search for and read the summary or “abstract” for free. Once you have done this, there are excellent guides that can help you understand and evaluate research papers.

“But I don’t have time to do all this checking!”

In this case, someone may have already done the checking for you. The searchable Behind the Headlines from the UK National Health Service’s NHS Choices web site is the one site you need. It breaks down each story into sections of where the story came from, what kind of study it is, what the basic results were and how they were interpreted. Each short article ends with a conclusion summarising the strengths and weaknesses of the study followed by links to the original research article and examples of how the mainstream media has covered the story.

Finally, if I were offering two pieces of advice: start skeptical and if you disagree with the way the story is covered, write a comment on the story’s web site or complain about it. After all, every news outlet should share the motto of the New York Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print”.



Many thanks to Anne Byrne for proof reading

Science: uncovering Nature’s secrets

It was a wet Saturday afternoon and I was sat in a dark room looking down a microscope. Then I saw it – something that no-one had ever seen before. This was my “Eureka” moment and encapsulated what it’s like being a scientist of the natural world.

The Ancient Greek Homer knew a thing or two about science; he said that it was the knowledge of nature, true for every community, as opposed to local customs and superstitions. Since that time, science has gradually uncovered more of nature’s secrets one by one.

This uncovering of secrets using science is basically detective work. We sit and watch nature for hours, days, and months. Maybe we see nothing for a long time; maybe we see more than we bargained for. And at the end, our equivalent of a defendant being found guilty is the publication of your research findings that results following peer review.

science-10For my first job interview, one of the panel asked me whether I liked to do crosswords. Funny question, I thought, but a lucky one, as I had started to learn about how to crack cryptic crosswords. I said yes and got the job. The interviewer was really asking whether I was patient and did I have the deductive thought processes to progress though a scientific investigation.

You don’t have to be a working scientist to do science. When I was a child I kept mini worm and butterfly farms and made unwritten observations every day. When I was at high school, this came in useful when I had to think of a biology project. I stuck a brick in our garden at home, monitored what I found underneath it every day and called the project “Life Under a Brick”. I won.

The scientific study of nature can take many forms – from chemistry to physics and biology. With medical research, we use all three, but mainly biology, to uncover how humans develop and age and what can go wrong and result in disease. In my area – the early origins of disease – we have found that the time spent in the womb in the most formative part of life because our bodies are at their most vulnerable. Together, those who study our DNA and the proteins that it codes for, work together with doctors who see the patients, collect their samples for study and return the favour by applying newly-discovered treatments.  

A few centuries after Homer, another ancient Greek, Archimedes, stepped into his bath, saw the water rise and realised that he had found a way to measure the volume, and hence the density of a gold crown that a friend of his had suspected wasn’t pure gold. This thought caused him to yell out “Eureka!” (“I have found it”) and promptly ran to see his friend, not realising he was naked. For scientists, the thrill of discovering new things is the same. When I had my microscope moment, I immediately ran (with my clothes on) to tell a colleague down the corridor. Today, I guess, I would have Tweeted it. There are other ways to celebrate a discovery. A colleague wanted to make her mark on the gene she discovered and called it “RING” – short for “Really Interesting New Gene”. This gene is now known to be part of a family of genes all sharing a particular characteristic in their protein called the “RING finger”. Scientists do have sense of humour too.  

Archimede_bainEureka moments can also come before the discovery. They can be the time when you put together your thoughts with those of others and come up with a hypothesis that can be tested. In a way, this was similar to Archimedes’ experience.

Back to my specific area of research. Like all my colleagues at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, I want my research to lead to the detection, prevention and treatment of childhood disease. Maybe it was seeing my sister cured of childhood leukaemia that inspired me to start my career in medical research? It certainly made me aware that every step of her journey, from her diagnostic blood tests, right through to her chemotherapy were all products of medical research. In the end, “breakthroughs”, such as the dramatic increase in survival for childhood leukaemia, mostly come from years of work by many researchers. I want to be among the number.