In Clare Smith’s US hometown, it’s now “fall” and the leaves are turning orange and red. The snow, she says, isn’t far off either.
As a girl from Hobart, she’s a long way from home.
UTAS graduate Dr Smith is a medical researcher at the University of Massachusetts.
She is working for Professor Chris Sassetti, a world-renowned microbiologist, who she says is also “a top bloke.”
“That is what lured me over here. It was a chance to work in a fantastic collaborative lab and learn techniques that Chris helped pioneer. He’s very enthusiastic and encouraging and has allowed me the scientific freedom to pursue ideas that interest me.”
Dr Smith said UTAS “was a great start” for her.
In 2007 she was awarded her Bachelor in Biotechnology, achieving the distinction of First Class Honours.
“That first year at Uni I was so overwhelmed. I was never on the Dean’s Honour Roll. I was never one of those HD students. I got through, then I really loved Honours, and my PhD is where I really came into my own.”
She completed her PhD in Medical Research in 2012, and in the course of her research discovered that a drug previously used to treat fungal infections had the potential to cure malaria.
I never expected anything like that discovery, it’s just something I did as a job that I was passionate about. You can’t go into things hoping for prizes and awards- you just do it because you love it, she said.
Now, she has set her sights on another “nasty, infectious disease”, tuberculosis. While a mention of TB might conjure up images of a time long past, the disease is actually still a very real and current problem.
“It’s one of the world’s biggest killers. One in three people worldwide actually carry latent TB and they don’t even know they have it.
“I was surprised- many of us walk around with TB and don’t realise until our immune system is compromised, or we have other infections. It’s particularly a problem in Asia and Africa where there are co-infections with malaria and HIV. The combinations of those things are still some of the world’s biggest killers."
Dr Smith’s research is trying to understand why some people are more genetically predisposed to TB and why some people carry it latently and are perfectly fine, and others get very sick and die.
“I’m interested in the genetic aspect of it. It’s all about host genetics. It’s not just about the bacteria, and as we’ve also successfully shown with malaria, I think this approach can be applied to a lot of other diseases. Why do some people get certain types of cancers and not others? The secrets are in our own genomes, so how do we unlock that information?
“We’re just getting started, but I’ve just had a paper accepted for publication showing that different hosts have different responses to vaccinations for TB, meaning there may not be a ‘one size fits all’ vaccine to prevent tuberculosis.
It’s an exciting time to be in tuberculosis research with the genetic technology, with the funding over here, and the great collaborations. The Boston research community has been really welcoming.
Dr Smith said one of the best things about working in science is how multinational it is.
“I work with people from all over the world. In a way we’re all away from home, so we bond. It’s really nice to form networks for both science and life. Working in the US is a great adventure.”
Dr Smith was recently chosen as the winner of the University’s 2016 Foundation Graduate Award, an honour she said she was “blown away by.”
“Have you heard of imposter syndrome? Every day I question why I’m here, am I good enough? It’s very confronting to try and overcome your own self-doubts, especially in an environment surrounded by these amazing, intellectual people. I think it’s something all young scientists have to deal with.
“Even in research, when you’re publishing papers, being invited to give lectures all over the world and other people keep nominating you for awards, you keep thinking- hang on, this is just my job, this is what I love.”
In grade 10, Clare had “a great teacher” send her to the Menzies Institute for Medical Research for work experience.
It really sparked my interest in research. That appealed to me more than medicine itself, doing the research into why people get sick and coming up with new treatments. We could actually make a difference.
“I was so inspired by that one week. It all clicked. I wasn’t particularly good at science but I liked good questions and understanding things. I also liked the people aspect of it.
“I was very lucky in that I found a passion, something I really wanted to pursue.”
While she loves the US and the science experiences she has encountered in Boston, Dr Smith is keen to return home one day.
That would be my dream; to publish a heap of papers here, make a name for myself, and then come home. The research that happens in Australia is truly of a great standard. I love Tassie so much.
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