Q&A with Dr Nick Coleman

September, 2011

Dr Nick Coleman

Nick with extra hair. Bushwalking trip 1997

Dr Nick Coleman was appointed Lecturer in the School of Molecular Bioscience in 2006, with teaching and research responsibilities in environmental and medical microbiology.

Nick has lectured to 2nd and 3rd year students across many degree programs including B.Sc., B.Med.Sci, B.Pharm., B.VetSci. and B Ag.Sci, and he has been a course coordinator and prac class coordinator for MICR2022, MICR3022, and MICR3042.

Nick did his PhD in Trevor Duxbury's lab at the University of Sydney, studying explosives-biodegrading bacteria. This was the first work to investigate the aerobic biodegradation of the energetic compound RDX, and we discovered that a cytochrome p450 enzyme was responsible for this activity. After graduating in 2001, Nick worked as a postdoc for 3 years at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, USA. The highlight of this work was the isolation of the first and thus-far only known bacterium able to grow on dichloroethene as a carbon source (Polaromonas strain JS666) - this bacterium has now been genome-sequenced.

Nick returned to Sydney and worked for 3 years as a postdoc in Andy Holmes' in SMB, studying mobile genetic elements in Pseudomonas stutzeri. This led to a new
method for quantifying integron activities that could be applied in environmental bacteria.

Nick's research has been supported by ARC Discovery grants, by a NSW
Environmental Trust grant, and by collaborations with industry partners (eg. Orica).
His excellence in research has been recognised this year by the Selby award.

Do you remember when the idea first crystallized that you would become an academic?

When I decided to apply for a job as lecturer in this School in 2006 - I don’t think I really thought about it before then - it seemed a natural progression from PhD student to postdoc to academic. However, it is a little strange that I now teach classes that I took as an undergraduate at the same University, as well as running a research lab in the same space (Room 566) where I was an Honours and PhD student.

Who do you think has been your most influential mentor(s) during your scientific career?

Different people teach you different things. My postdoc supervisor Jim Spain had many excellent pieces of wisdom. My favourite was related to research strategy: A bull and a calf are standing on a hilltop, observing a herd of cows. The calf says “Dad, lets run down the hill and kiss one of those cows.” The dad replies “No son, lets walk down the hill, and kiss them all”.

What discovery, related to your research, would you most want to be awarded the Nobel Prize for? That is, what do you think is the most pressing and exciting question in your field?

I think the whole area of bacterial culturability vs. non-culturability is exciting. We have known for 20 years now that there are whole divisions and phylum-level groups of bacteria which cannot be cultivated in the lab. In many environments, these ”unculturable” bacteria are the dominant species. Yet very little progress has been made in taming these bugs, bringing them into culture, and making them amenable to research. A general solution to this problem of the unculturables would be worth a Nobel, in my book anyway.

What are the most exciting things happening in your lab at the moment?

We are working on many fronts with hydrocarbon-oxidising Mycobacterium strains, both fundamental (genome-sequencing, gene cloning and expression, protein purification, molecular ecology) and applied research (bioremediation, biocatalysis, other biotechnologies). We are close to a patentable invention with some of this work, so I shouldn’t reveal too many details. We have had a breakthrough recently in our work on integrons in Pseudomonas, eg. we have shown for the first time that integron gene cassettes can be taken up by bacteria by natural transformation – this has important implications for how traits like antibiotic resistance move through bacterial communities.

What do you enjoy most about being in academia?

It is a diverse and challenging job. I need to wear many different hats eg. undergrad teacher, postgrad mentor, researcher (incl. thinker, reader, writer, inventor), businessman (incl. salesman & accountant), politician (incl. strategist, diplomat, general), safety officer (incl. backup first aid officer) etc – this can sometimes seem overwhelming, but it certainly keeps things interesting. I like the university environment. It is refreshing to be surrounded by young people. They provide energy to an institution.

What would you do differently in your academic career if you had your time over?

Nothing. I am happy with the choices I have made, with the opportunities I have been presented, and with the many great people I have been able to work with.

What are you most passionate about outside the laboratory?

Gardening, fishing, bushwalking, bike-riding, seeing bands, playing Magic the Gathering (it’s a card game for nerds, you graduate to this after Dungeons and Dragons).

What achievement outside science are you most proud of?

Raising two sons, who have turned out OK so far.