Q&A with Dr Hannah Nicholas

March, 2011

Nicholas Group

Dr Hannah Nicholas (far left) with her research group.

Dr Hannah Nicholas joined the School of Molecular Bioscience in 2005 as an Associate Lecturer after completing her DPhil in Genetics at the University of Oxford. In 2006 she was awarded a University of Sydney Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to develop a C. elegans research program, using the nematode as a model system for understanding the biology of multi-cellular organisms, including humans.

She is now a Lecturer in the School, where she is continuing to expand and develop the nematode model system to study aspects of gene regulation in development and disease. Current projects focus on neuronal development and function. Dr Nicholas also currently co-ordinates the School's honours program, ensuring a first class learning experience for our fourth year students.

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

After four research-intensive years as a PhD student, I took up a largely teaching-focussed position for a year. I found that I enjoyed teaching and research in equal measure, making an academic career the perfect fit for me.

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

I have been fortunate to have been guided over the years by a number of very supportive teachers, supervisors and colleagues. One of them is Professor Merlin Crossley, now the Dean of Science at the University of NSW. His lectures on gene regulation that I attended as a third year undergraduate student at the University of Sydney first sparked my interest in this field and prompted me to complete an Honours research project under his supervision. His enthusiasm for research was infectious and he was very committed to the development of each of his students. Now, a decade later, we are continuing to work collaboratively on a number of projects.

What do you think is the most pressing and exciting question in your field?

The research of my group focuses on the regulation of gene expression. As humans develop, different cell types switch on and off different genes and it is these differences in gene expression that make, for instance, a muscle cell different from a nerve cell. One of the most interesting unsolved questions in the field is how these different states are passed on from one generation of cells to the next. Although some insights into these mechanisms have been gained in the past several years, we still have much to learn. Grasping these mechanisms is critical to us understanding how we each develop from a single cell, the fertilised egg, to our final adult form, with all its amazing complexity.

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

We use the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism. Although worms are obviously very different from people, many of the lessons that we learn about biology from C. elegans are also relevant to humans. We are studying mechanisms of gene regulation in a variety of contexts in the worm. One current focus is on how neurons develop, how they control behaviour, and what happens when things go wrong, leading to disease.

What do you enjoy most about being in academia?

Perhaps the best thing about my job is that I am always learning. Literally every day I learn something new about biology. Some days that is from the literature, and other days it is from an experiment that I or one of my research students has done. Learning and discovering is immensely satisfying. Having the opportunity to then share some of these insights with undergraduate students is a bonus.

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

I feel very fortunate to have ended up where I am so I wouldn’t want to change anything in case the outcome was different!

What are you most passionate about outside the laboratory?

I am really keen to get young people interested in investigative science and so am involved in a competition called Young Scientist, which is an initiative of the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW. Every year hundreds of school students from across the state carry out experiments and send us in reports of their findings for judging. I judge the Biological Sciences entries and am impressed every year by the innovative techniques that are used and the exciting things that these young people discover.

Outside of science, I am passionate about playgrounds and children’s books. I would not necessarily have chosen these passions myself but they are temporarily essential as the mum of a 2 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. My son recently told me that he wants to work in my lab when he grows up. His motivation? To wear coloured gloves!