Why is Japan a good bet for scientific co-operation?
Sparrho Researcher Prize winner Steven Heaton is obsessed with the eternal fight between viruses and cells. The PhD candidate in molecular life science from Monash University in Australia is speaking this week at the Consortium of Biological Sciences (ConBio2017) in Kobe, Japan. We quizzed him about the importance of coding for scientists, the character-forming experience of a PhD and why he picked Japan to spend his Sparrho travel money on.
Steven: This conference is a really significant opportunity for me because I would like to take my career and my research overseas, in particular to Japan. One of the reasons is the labs, because they’re leaders in AI and coding, but also the way they do science, the cultural significance of that country in science, are all things I’ve completely fallen for. So I’d like to be able to go there to facilitate more collaboration over the next two to four years.
Sparrho: You mentioned coding, does a researcher need to be good at programming?
Steven: Well, I’m not a coder myself, but I would recommend anyone to learn a bit of code if they can. But, it doesn’t matter too much, because an enormous part of science is collaboration. That is why I’m going to this conference, that I applied for through Sparrho. Me, I’m more of a bench scientist that does experiments and I’m happy to talk to the coders.
Sparrho: What are you currently researching and what you’re trying to find out?
Steven: I’m looking at two main aspects of the human immune system. First of all, when cells become infected, what are the trafficking mechanisms that push proteins into different parts of the cell — why does a protein go to the nucleus or to the mitochondria? This happens almost irrespective of any kind of virus: when a cell becomes infected there are different signalling mechanisms and movements of proteins.
Secondly, I work on quite a few different viruses — influenza, measles, I used to work on dengue virus — these are quite different, but have some something in common. My plan is to determine these commonalities and come up with a broader-spectrum or very effective antiviral medication in the future.
Sparrho: What’s so fascinating about the ‘duel’ between viruses and the cells they are trying to infect?
Steven: A human cell has tens of thousands of different proteins, so proteins are what enable a cell to elicit certain responses over time and in a regulated manner. At the same time a virus only has about 12 or 10 proteins and yet it needs to achieve so many different outcomes on a cell in order to replicate. That’s what I’m interested in, figuring out how these very small numbers of proteins are able to manipulate so much of the host cell.
Sparrho: How is research advancing in getting a better understanding of these processes?
Steven: The traditional approach was to get a PhD student and set them to study one particluar protein to figure out how it works. But because there are so many different variants, it’s just impossible; there’s not enough time in the universe to look at every single combination and make sense of it all. So, I think the main events that will be coming up in the next twenty years will be advances Artificial Intelligence, in looking at whole pathways and how they interact with each other, not just individual components of individual pathways.
“I’d like to collaborate with people who can do machine learning — so that all that data will be available for me or other scientists to be able to come up with ideas about how to target specific pathways.”
Currently, a lot of the tools that we need to analyse huge amounts of data either don’t exist yet or they’re in development. I’d like to collaborate with people who can do machine learning — so that all that data will be available for me or other scientists to be able to come up with ideas about how to target specific pathways.
Sparrho: Speaking of your PhD, what made you go for it?
Steven: Before I started my PhD, I did my honours degree and then I worked for a bit as a research assistant. Initially it was fun but you realise that at some point you can’t get higher — you can maybe be a senior research assistant, but you’ll usually be second fiddle and work on things that you’re told to, even if you don’t necessarily believe in them.
“For me doing a PhD was a way forward, a way […] to be able to take control of my research program and to be able to believe in my own ideas”
For me doing a PhD was a way forwards, away out of that mindset, to be able to take control of my research program and to be able to believe in my own ideas — and you have to find the right supervisor that will do that as well. I was lucky — I was looking for a supervisor who would let me have some freedom in that sense.
Sparrho: And how did you cope when the going got tough?
Steven: There are different stages, so most PhD students will have encountered a lot of disappointments along the line in terms of experiments and colleagues. But I think one of the most important things in a PhD is to acquire the mental toughness to be able to deal with those sorts of things. Science can be disappointing. Learning the skills to be able to deal with that is important , and having gone through a PhD you’ll gain those skills. Look at it as mental training, because that’s going to help you overcome a PhD and help you in your career.
“I think one of the most important things in a PhD is to acquire the mental toughness […] Science can be disappointing. Learning the skills to be able to deal with that is important.”
Sparrho: What are your other passions beyond science, what help you unwind?
Steven: If I didn’t end up being a scientist, I would have been an investigative journalist. I’ve always maintained an interest in that side of things — I do a bit of photography on the side — my favourite photographer is Robert Capa — and also writing, that’s my passion as well. Some people see scientific writing as stifling but in fact it’s a creative role — I think it can be exciting.
Sparrho: So you might find an outlet as a science journalist in the future?
Steven: Maybe — I would do that as a hobby or something on the side, absolutely.
Sparrho: There’s also a photo of you trekking in Vietnam — is that another passion?
Steven: A little bit — I’ve also been to Mexico, climbed a 4600m mountain up there, and those two experiences were two of the best of my life. Mexico was a physical challenge but very fulfilling and one that I hope to continue.
Sparrho: Do you get ideas when you’re away from your research?
Steven: Definitely, even on a day to day basis — I’m in the middle of writing my thesis, for example. Even just getting up and coming back to it the next day, sometimes that’s enough distance. If you can take a week away, then that magnifies everything. You come back a week later, and it’s all rubbish, and you start again! But then you improve, and that’s what it’s about.
Sparrho: What is on your bucket list as a scientist?
Steven: Well, I’ve seen quite a few scientists talk about how they’ve spent forty years studying,so they can say, ‘that is my contribution — this one cytokine that we can now target for therapy’. For me, I’d hope to be able to take a step further and hopefully discover not just individual proteins or cytokines, but how entire pathways interact with each other, how viruses attack whole pathways.
Sparrho: And that would probably lead to the Nobel prize?
Steven: Well, ask me again in fifty years!
Steve won £500 towards his conference in Kobe through the Sparrho Early Career Research Prize.