The University of Queensland
Kate loves animals and science and always wanted to pursue a career involving both and this is what ultimately lead her to her pursue a PhD. But research into venom is not what she originally pictured for herself. After she finished a Bachelor of Science she decided to investigate the possibility of research as a career path and loved the way it challenged her and made her ask the hard questions. Science is not just about just being the laboratory in a white coat, but involves so many different aspects from fieldwork to collaborating with people from other countries and travelling.
What got you into science?
There was no one moment that made me decide to pursue a career in science. I had always enjoyed science subjects at high school, in particular Biology and Chemistry. I was also lucky to have teachers who were enthusiastic and passionate about the subjects they taught. What did you do when you finished school? When I finished school I did a year of Equine Science. I thought Equine Science would be interesting given that I have always loved horses, and have my own horse! And it was interesting, but ultimately not for me, I found out that I liked the more inquiry based side of science, I liked asking questions and then looking for the answers and hopefully finding them, so I applied for an Honours research year and this is where my love for research really took off.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing science?
Study a broad range of subjects both at school and at university, allowing you to find something that sparks your interest. Get involved in everything, science is about asking questions and being inquisitive. It might not be a straightforward path but the places you could end up are limitless.
What does your research involve?
My research is about the evolution of Hymenopteran venom. Venoms are complex cocktails of toxins that are delivered by stingers, fangs, modified teeth and other specialised apparatuses. The delivered venom acts on prey or predators to produce devastating effects. The particular venoms that I am studying are Hymenoptera or stinging insects including bees, ants and wasps. They are one of the largest and oldest groups of insects, comprising of roughly 10% of species diversity on Earth. In my research I use a multidisciplinary approach integrating ecological, evolutionary and functional genomics, to provide a better overall picture of how venom systems work.
How does your research apply to day to day life?
Stinging insect venoms along with food and drugs are the most prevalent cause of anaphylaxis in humans. As a result it is important to understand how the venoms work and how we might improve treatments of allergic reactions, this is done by studying the structure and function of the toxins and allergens in the venom. The structure function relationship is also important as a point of bio-discovery and potentially utilising venom components as therapeutics. Snake venom has already been used for this! The first drug derived from a snake venom toxin was developed to treat high blood pressure.
What is the most challenging thing about your work?
Doing my PhD can require long hours in the lab repeating experiments that didn’t quite work out the first time and a fair amount of time at my desk reading up on the latest discoveries. But in the end it’s always very rewarding and something I love doing.
What breakthroughs do you predict in the next 10 years?
Structure-based drug design is a relatively new approach to pharmacology, but already it has been a huge success. Using venoms in drug design development we could develop treatments for disease that we previously thought incurable such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and even cancer. We don’t know where the next miracle drug might come from.