Dr Liam St Pierre came to QIMR Berghofer as a PhD student in 2002 on a research project to identify new therapeutic drug leads from the venom of Australia’s deadliest land snakes.
He went on to do eight years of postdoctoral work in laboratories, and now introduces high school students and their teachers to the exciting field of medical research through QIMR Berghofer’s Education Program.
We asked Dr St Pierre to share a bit about himself and his journey as a medical researcher.
I first cut my teeth on research into novel drug leads from the venoms of snakes, in particular those toxins that cause blood clotting in their mammalian prey. Since then I’ve dabbled in a wide range of research projects, including:
The toxins of venomous animals are such a rich resource of unique and extremely potent biologically active molecules. It’s amazing, when you think about it, that these reptiles have evolved proteins in their venom which specifically target and alter the functioning systems of mammals.
I initially had a deep interest in blood coagulation in general, and it was this that led me to research the blood clotting proteins of snake venoms, with the idea that they may make great blood coagulation drug leads. From there, the project expanded to cataloguing through genetic means, as many toxins from the venom may one day be of novel diagnostic or therapeutic use.
I was initially drawn to science as a student as I perceived it to be a fact-based subject. Like maths, I enjoyed science as there is often a clear-cut right and wrong answer. I particularly loved biology as it underpins so much of our knowledge on how the natural world works.
At university I completed a straight applied science undergraduate degree covering a broad range of subjects including biology, physics, chemistry and maths. It was the biology subjects, particularly the physiology and molecular biology subjects that I enjoyed most and found easiest to do well at (both facts of which probably feed off each other).
As a medical researcher, I quickly learned that biological systems governing our body and the natural world are unimaginably complex. As a researcher, every question answered would open the door on a dozen new, unanswered questions.
One of the great things about science is it always affords an opportunity to learn. I’ve always felt that concepts are most clear to me when I try to teach them to someone else.
In addition, the role of Education Coordinator means that I interact with literally thousands of school-aged students each year and share my passion for science, with the knowledge that hopefully some of them will be inspired to take on STEM based learning (particularly that related to medical research) in the future.
I appreciate that not every student I work with will go on to be a future scientist, however I feel it is vastly important that the general population of Australia has a healthy base of scientific literacy.
At this stage, I couldn’t image a career outside of science. I guess the thing I love most about science is that it gives you the base knowledge underpinning how so many things work in our lives, and yet new knowledge is constantly being acquired that can sometimes alter this knowledge. It’s a very dynamic career.
Dr Rowena Long joined QIMR Berghofer in 2018 to help lead the Education Program.
She has 6 years of postdoctoral research experience in plant ecology and molecular biology laboratories and is a registered teacher.
We asked Dr Long to share a bit about her journey to joining QIMR Berghofer.
I started out in weeds research – a field that is seemingly foreign to medical research. My work focused on developing a laboratory-based method for predicting how long weed seeds can survive in soils. I wanted to improve the way invasive plants are managed and thereby help to tackle the financial and environmental costs they impart.
I’ve since been involved in a range of plant research projects, including:
In my research to date, I have endeavoured to understand how plants respond to their environment. For example, after screening seeds of a range of weed species to understand how they aged or responded to fire chemicals, I dug my teeth in to unravelling the specific environmental cues and hormonal changes that led to their responses.
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a scientist. I grew up on a farm in country Queensland and was forever setting up my own experiments using seeds, plants, ants and ingredients I could scrounge from around the kitchen and farm. By the end of primary school, I knew I wanted to be an entomologist or vet. Unfortunately mosquitos and dogs had a tendency to bite me, so I settled on working with non-carnivorous plants.
The thing I enjoy most working with school students is their curiosity about the world and unbridled creativity. Students ask some of the most profound questions and offer some of the most insightful explanations. I love getting to know their understanding of the world, and then working together to find new understandings.
There’s a real thrill to be felt in asking a question about the living world that no one knows the answer to, then creatively designing a way to investigate it that I find addictive. Add to that the intellectual freedom of science and the amazing people I’ve been able to meet all over the world during my research travels, and I’d say it’s an occupation that’s hard to beat.
Do you have a question about careers in medical research or science? Contact Dr St Pierre and Dr Long to ask, or find out more about participating in our Education Program.
Dr Liam St Pierre (Mon–Wed) T (07) 3362 0307
Dr Rowena Long (Mon & Thu) T (07) 3362 0453