Professor Eileen McLaughlin has just joined UOW as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health. She recently spoke with Carly Evans and shares what attracted her to the role, her pathway into science and her latest research.
Can you tell us a little about your background, and why you choose to pursue a career in science?
Growing up in Scotland my father was a keen naturalist and encouraged a strong interest in the world around us. My childhood was filled by visits to the beautiful Scottish countryside – to rivers to watch salmon returning to spawn, exploring rock pools for crabs and anemones, climbing mountains to watch eagles and holidaying at wildlife parks and nature reserves.
At school I studied biology, physics and chemistry as I wanted to be a biochemist – my alternative career choice was physical geography. At the University of Glasgow, I coincided with the launch of brand new discipline - Molecular Biology and I was fortunate to be taught in a research led faculty which gave me hands on experience of DNA manipulation at the very beginning of the new world of genetic engineering in plants and animals.
My career as a scientist was then a foregone conclusion.
What attracted to you join UOW as Executive Dean for our Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health?
The University of Wollongong has a long standing and growing reputation for achieving fantastic outcomes for the Illawarra with impact globally. The Faculty comprises high performing staff and students who are tackling the wicked problems affecting the environment and the health and wellbeing of all peoples in our community. Never more than now has Australia needed such dedicated and talented clinicians, nurses, health workers and scientists to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century. And I’m delighted to be asked to join UOW as Executive Dean.
Would you be able to share some of your priorities that you’ll be pursuing in your new role?
We are living in an ever-changing world – one which the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health is ideally suited to be able to work as multidisciplinary teams in and with the community to deliver real world outcomes. This will be coupled with ensuring that our undergraduate and postgraduate students will engage in meaningful work with industry and business in a faculty wide internship and placement program. Our priorities will centre on ensuring student are equipped for lifelong learning and are career ready.
You are an internationally recognised reproductive and developmental biologist – could you share your current research focus with us?
Latterly we have been working with a multidisciplinary team to address the mechanism of chlamydial infection in males and the development of an effective male specific vaccine.
If successful then this would reduce the incidence of male infection and associated damage to sperm production and fertility, and reduce the effect of sperm DNA damage on the health and wellbeing of their offspring.
If males were protected from infection this would also protect unvaccinated female partners from infection and subsequently their need to access IVF due to tubal damage caused by chlamydial infection.
What research finding has most excited you recently?
The recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in predicting three dimensional protein structures was recently released by Google’s sister company DeepMind using a tool called Alpha Fold.
This knowledge is a paradigm shift in our ability to predict the function of a protein – and will enable scientists in all fields to test and confirm the mechanism of action of key proteins.
This will also enable the selection of proteins in plants and animals to protect against heat stress, drought and salinity all real challenges in climate change. And to produce highly active small molecules and drugs to influence the behaviour of proteins allowing us to treat infectious disease such as Covid in humans.
SMAH with IHMRI and Molecular Horizons is ideally placed to capitalise on these new publically available databases from Alpha Fold, as SMAH and collaborators host multidisciplinary teams in data science, physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science and medical sciences and they have the ability to translate their findings within a pipeline from discovery science to impact in clinical trials.
Who were your big influences as you were growing up and why?
My father who strongly believed in the power of education – one of my earliest memories is being taken by him as a toddler to the local library.
I was the first in my family to go to university and all of my siblings were also supported to enter tertiary education and the professions. This made a huge difference to our lives and the lives of my extended family.
In post graduate, my biggest influence as a scientist was Prof Mike Hull, Consultant Director of Reproductive Medicine in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Bristol. His desire to embed evidence-based medicine in the ever expanding field of Assisted Reproduction underpinned my education in the importance of randomised controlled clinical trials coupled to rigorous diagnostic and therapeutic testing.
He supported my PhD studies funded by the RCOG “Wellbeing” and strongly encouraged me to publish my work. His teaching on ethical research and patient care still influences my work today.
There are some incredible opportunities and challenges facing the world right now – are you hoping to drive a particular change or agenda?
I hope with every discipline in SMAH to develop multidisciplinary research and teaching teams who will equip our students to tackle the biggest problems facing humankind – including adaptation of our lifestyles to a sustainable future.
This includes embedding the sustainable development goals in all our programs, by exploring managing waste, pollution and water consumption, ensuring population health and wellbeing, harnessing the natural environment carefully to live sustainably and thus protect the future of our planet.
Do you have any particular interests outside of work?
Travel – I have had the most amazing opportunities to visit some of the most beautiful places worldwide. I take the opportunity to visit areas of outstanding natural beauty and cultural significance.
For example on a visit to Sicily it was possible to stand on the edge of a volcanic crater one day and the next to travel thousands of years back in history to see the influence of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans on the landscape, architecture, art, food, music and literature. The rich diversity of humanity never fails to impress and delight.