Theft, lies and medical breakthroughs

peter-pringleThis interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 49.

British-born Peter Pringle spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent, writing for magazines and newspapers such as The New York TimesThe Observer and The Atlantic. Now based in New York City, he has authored or co-authored eight books, most recently a story of a famous scientific rip-off that followed the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. He chats to COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael about the controversy. Continue reading

I looked physics in the eye and I did not flinch

Credit: CERN

I haven’t studied physics formally since year 10. I found it boring (really, high school physics is pretty dull, especially if your teacher isn’t engaging in the slightest) and I wriggled out of it at uni.

I had a vague sense that my chemistry at uni was suffering as a consequence, but I didn’t dwell on it as I moved further into biological sciences (ironically including a biophysics component, but I didn’t need to understand how the x-ray crystallography machine worked) and later out of research science altogether.

So it was with surprise and trepidation that I found myself not only reviewing two physics books, but also interviewing a physicist-turned-writer.

But as it turned out, I picked the perfect material to gently reintroduce me to what may be the most daunting field of science. Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe tackles people with alternative theories of the universe and everything in it. These outsider physicists are usually studiously ignored by the establishment, but in examining them Wertheim elucidated some uncomfortable truths about the state of the physics, particularly theoretical physics. Our interview touched on these topics and made me think about why I’d abandoned physics so long ago.

I also reviewed Einstein’s Jewish Science, in which Steven Gimbel – with grace and panache – took on the Nazis’ claim that Einstein’s science was unacceptable because he was Jewish. As well as the history and philosophy of science, he explains some of the Einstein’s trickier concepts in an approachable, understandable way.

All up, a big boost in my physics… but now I’m going to kick back with some sci-fi and give my brain a rest.

DIY physics: a conversation with Margaret Wertheim

This Q & A was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Margaret Wertheim studied physics and mathematics before turning to science writing, is the author of three books, and has written articles for COSMOSThe New York Times and The Guardian.

We talked about her latest book, Physics on the Fringe, and her hugely successful science engagement project, Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef.  Continue reading

Interview with David Bowtell

This article was originally published in issue 3 of the MMIM newsletter.

Professor David Bowtell is the Director for Research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Although Prof Bowtell studied veterinary science, he has never worked as a vet. Instead, he found himself in biomedical research, initially working as a cell biologist. Here he talks about his work and how the MMIM database can help.

The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, or ‘Peter Mac’, as it is affectionately called, is unique in Australia, with an all-inclusive approach to cancer treatment. It is a specialist cancer hospital, where research, support and care are fully integrated. As well as boasting one of the largest cancer research facilities, Peter Mac runs clinical trials and offers state-of-the-art services and care, including medical imaging. Peter Mac is the only centre of its kind in Australia, with very few similar institutions existing outside of the United States.

Prof Bowtell likens his position as Director to the ‘captain of a footy team’ – he has a leadership role but also needs to kick a few goals himself. As well as working in his own lab, he coordinates other aspects of the Centre, including writing grants for the research division as well as the genomics program specifically.

In addition to his role as Director, Prof Bowtell runs a large medical genomics laboratory, which has a focus on ovarian and gastric cancers as well as carcinoma of unknown primary (CUP). CUPs are cancers that do not have a known point of origin, but their sources can be detected by taking biospecimens and testing samples. One test that is extremely useful for CUPs is microarray testing, and it is this data that is present on the MMIM database.

Prof Bowtell became involved in MMIM through his lab. He feels that MMIM is important for cancer research as it allows scientists to gather clinical information, which can then be related to known genetic information. This facilitates the development of predictive models for oncology as well as for other areas.

His lab started working with spotted microarrays in 1999. They now use microarrays (specifically Affymetrix microarrays) to classify different cancers into patterns of gene expression. For example, the primary source of CUPs can be determined by using microarray technology to compare it to cancers with known primary locations.

Tumours from patients with the same type of cancer, but different outcomes, can also be compared to analyse for risk of reoccurrence of tumour formation after remission. This can help doctors plan long-term treatment, as an increased risk would indicate more aggressive treatment.

When asked about his thoughts on a ‘cure for cancer’, Prof Bowtell said that at Peter Mac, researchers are studying the molecular basis for different types of cancer. They are looking at the individual molecular pathways involved and treating each one separately. It seems that there are multiple cures for cancer, rather than the single one that we were previously searching for.

Molecular genetic information can help at all stages of cancer development: diagnosis; staging (determining how advanced the cancer is); planning treatment; implementing treatment; assessing family risks; and managing these family risks.

Peter Mac is involved in cutting-edge research into chemoprevention, which can be likened to vaccination – chemotherapy can be used to prevent cancer ever forming in high-risk patients. And while early detection of cancer is important, genetic information can indicate how aggressively to treat a tumour that has been found promptly. This type of individualised treatment may be the way of the future, and comprehensive organisation and sharing of the information, in a format such as MMIM, is a vital tool for this type of research.

Career profile: Dr Bryce Vissel

This article was originally published in OnSET.

Dr Bryce Vissel is a scientist who believes that if you make smart choices, you can guide your own destiny. Rather than taking the ‘easy route’, he has consistently chosen to work in the place where he felt he could do the best science.

Vissel decided to get into research after a year as a pharmacist, mainly because he felt dissatisfied with the work, but also, he says, because “I was not very good at wearing a tie”. He completed his PhD at the Murdoch Institute in Melbourne, which lead to major fellowships at the Garvan Institute and the Salk Institute in California, where he received the prestigious Hereditary Disease Foundation Lieberman Award for his work in neuroscience. Vissel now runs a lab in the Garvan Institute that conducts stem cell research and research into synaptic plasticity, the ability of neurons to modify their connectivity in response to experience, which is important in learning, memory, drug addiction, and thought to be significant in schizophrenia.

For Vissel, his career is rewarding on both scientific and humanitarian levels. Teaching is fun and it is always gratifying to have research published in high-impact journals and recognised by other scientists through citation. However, the best part is the opportunity to interact with the community. His work relates to people with spinal cord injury, stroke, and Huntington’s disease and he finds it “rewarding when you can tell them things that may have a real impact for them in the immediate future”.

Nevertheless, a research career also has its downside, particularly when things do not work. A drawback is that funding depends on good results. Often, the lack of results is no one’s fault, but rather due to the tricky nature of science itself. “Science is not something that you just do as a job,” says Vissel. “It is a passion, and if you have invested yourself in something personally, when things fail, it is more personally frustrating and disappointing.”

Although those times are daunting, “determination, hard work, commitment and doing things a bit out of the ordinary can get you through”. Once sufficient basic knowledge is gained, science becomes a progression of thinking creatively about what discoveries are needed to push a field forward and then beginning to think laterally about what needs to be done, rather than rushing ahead and doing the first thing that comes to mind. “Doing that forced creative thinking can save of time and get you through some great hardships,” says Vissel.

Science in Australia

Many people travel overseas thinking that being at a top institution will turn them into a great scientist. However what they fail to realise is that people do better there because they work harder. “The reality is that you will be working 12 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week and you will be exhausted and straining yourself. But after three or four years of that, you will come out with a major publication that will impact the field,” says Vissel.

The same results can be achieved in Australia provided the commitment and conscientiousness is there. According to Vissel, funding for research science in Australia is slowly improving in response to public pressure and the quality of science here is comparable to other leading countries. Often people say that Australians “punch above their weight” because they do so well with so little. Also many people here put their social lives first, whereas “investment early on and hard work pays off enormously”.

In any case, the key to a financially rewarding career in research science is being good at what you do, as in any career. “If you are good at what you do, once you are at a more senior level you will be asked to consult, or be on committees or boards of pharmaceutical companies, and these things add to your salary,” says Vissel.

Science Education

A key part of enthusing young people about science is letting them know that getting to the truly exciting phase of the field takes time. It is important to get the basics in place first no matter how tedious compared to cutting-edge research.

“Science is first taught as a series of facts, and the truth of science in practice is that it is a series of unknowns,” says Vissel. There are many ambiguities and contradictions in science, because no one knows the right answers to any question. Although science is assessed with multiple choice questions even at university level, experts in the field are constantly debating what is the right answer.

Vissel believes that students need to be taught that once they get past the stage of learning the boring “alphabet” of science (the basics), they can start “reading” by understanding the scientific process of studying the unknown, and getting involved in it. Once that stage is reached, science becomes fascinating.

“Unfortunately, many scientists do not transmit this excitement effectively,” says Vissel. “But many of scientists don’t get to experience the excitement of it – they get bogged down in the realities of the day-to-day experiments. But I think it is important, if you are going to be a scientist, to find people who inspire you and who are inspired.”