6. Lucie

The first time I met Lucie our legs had been tied together and we were running around a lake, drinking beer. From that misguided moment at a university orientation camp to many bottles of champagne with her Mum, cheap Monday movies and one too many Cat Empire gigs, we’ve shared a lot over the years. But, one thing I’ve never been able to share with Lucie is the research she has dedicated her life to and I wanted to learn more about it. From her new home in New York, Lucie explained her work to me in layman’s terms and I was reminded how incredibly intelligent and determined my dear friend is!

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“When I was a kid I wanted to be a lawyer- or a fighter pilot. Both would have been a disaster!

There definitely wasn’t a particular moment when I decided science was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But, different areas fascinated me over the years and kept me going.

Getting into what I do now seemed somewhat serendipitous.

I was always interested in how the world works and how different micro-systems come together to create a functioning organism.

I was originally studying biochemistry, looking at how proteins signal inside immune cells. From there, I became really interested in immunology. My supervisor at the time gave me some articles about these rare immune cells in the intestine. Nobody knew much about them because they had just been discovered and didn’t appear anywhere else in the body.

So, during my PhD, I explored the building blocks required for these rare immune cells to develop in the gut in order to protect parts of the body from infection.

There were moments when I’d be sitting at a machine and I’d discover something that supposedly no one else in the world knew. I can’t really describe this feeling- it was such a thrill.

And so began my fascination with the gut!

The gut is one of the most dynamic areas of the body. It harbors trillions of good bacteria but is also constantly exposed to bad bacteria.

My research brought me to New York a couple of years ago, where I am looking into how this good and bad bacteria in the gut can regulate the immune system. This impacts on not only our health and weight, but also our mental state.

By understanding all of the factors that cause the gut to go awry, we can figure out ways to intervene and bring it back to normal. This is the ultimate goal for me and my research.

I get a real kick out of contributing to the knowledge base that is moving us closer toward finding cures for diseases in the gut.

One of the main diseases we look at in our lab is irritable bowel syndrome. While we don’t really know exactly how it is caused, we imagine it has a lot to do with our genetics, diets, the environment and changes in our life style.

Irritable bowel disease is an increasing problem in the western world. In contrast, in the developing world, there are very high incidents of worms infecting the gastrointestinal tract (parasitology is another area we work on in our lab). These parasites are actually immuno-suppressive, which means they can dampen your immune system. Given irritable bowel disease occurs when the gut is over- activated, there is a much lower occurrence in the developing world and we think part of the reason is because of these parasite infections. I find that pretty fascinating!

Repetition is one of the keys to science, so there is also a lot of really laborious and repetitive stuff to do.
But a lot of the time, I walk into the lab and I don’t know what the outcomes of that day are going to be. What a lot of people don’t understand is the amount of failure that comes with being a scientist. 90% of the time, the experiments I’m conducting don’t work. There’s a lot of trial and error and this can be incredibly frustrating. You can spend months on an experiment and gain nothing.

Operating with such unknowns is hard. A lot of science is about luck and if you chance upon something, your career can sky rocket. On the other hand, if the circumstances aren’t right, you can be the best scientist in the world and still be overlooked.

But it’s all about taking risks. If you don’t take the risks you’ll never find the really interesting stuff.  There’s always another question, there’s always another hypothesis. Putting together the little bits and pieces of success is what propels our research forward.

Sharing ideas is really special. Often scientists work in a bubble to protect their research, but in my mind, if you can’t share knowledge, what’s the point? The more people you can share your science with, the more input, ideas and expertise you are exposed to and the better it gets. I think it’s a treat.

I guess what we all do day to day impacts on the way we view the world around us and for me, I know a lot about how our bodies work. I try not to be too critical when people start talking about things like fad diets or being against vaccination. I don’t want to be that annoying person who challenges everyone, but I am always up for a discussion and love to share the knowledge I have on gut health and immunology.

In fact, I’m really passionate about spreading scientific knowledge to the greater community. There is a lot of misinformation out there- from the pros and cons of vaccination to the reality of climate change- it makes it very difficult for people to make informed decisions about their health and lifestyles. 

In the future I’d like to run my own lab, direct my own research and have a group of young scientists I can mentor. A number of people have really inspired me and I hope I can pay that forward some day.”

 

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