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Q&A- Katie Zyner

Q&A- Katie Zyner

Meet Katie Zyner who is a Senior Research Officer in the Computational Systems Biology Team.

What got you interested in science? 

Science piqued my curiosity when I was a young child. My earliest memory of this was in Year 5, where I was lucky enough to have a primary school teacher who was extremely passionate about science. So much so that she used to demo small scale experiments with us every Friday afternoon. This ranged from dissecting squid and frogs to bringing in cow’s lungs. All of this allowed us to gain a better, hands-on understanding of the biology we were learning in the curriculum. Furthermore, my mother’s experience working as a hands-on scientific demonstrator at NASA in the United States and CSIRO in Australia was also a big contributor. Overall, I would describe myself as a person who is fascinated by understanding how things work, especially when it helps to uncover what goes wrong in disease. Science is addictive, and one of my favourite aspects is that there is always something new to learn. The day-to-day activities are never the same, and as a research scientist, we are always trying to push the boundaries of human understanding.

What is your current role at CMRI and what does it involve?

I am currently a Senior Research Officer in the Computational Systems Biology Group led by Associate Professor Pengyi Yang. Using both computational and wet lab studies, the lab seeks to understand how stem cells can develop into the plethora of cell types, despite that fact that all cells of a multicellular organism carry the same basic instruction manual (or DNA sequence).

To achieve this, we take a holistic approach and study changes in: cell signalling pathways (phosphoproteomics, proteomics), gene expression (transcriptomics), histone and DNA methylation (epigenetics), patterns during pluripotency transitions, and cell differentiation.

As a cellular and molecular biologist, I mainly work in the lab doing tissue culture (growing stem cells and differentiating them to various cell types), performing bench experiments (e.g. recombinant protein expression and purification, western blotting and PCR); 3D fluorescence microscopy; sequencing experiments (e.g. ChIP-seq, RNA-seq, ATAC-seq), genome editing techniques (e.g. CRISPR), and genome-wide screens. I also plan to incorporate more data analytics in the near future.

What study path did you take to get here?

At the end of Year 12, I wasn’t sure of the type of career I wanted to do, but I knew life sciences had to play a role, so I enrolled in a Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Sydney. I found this degree to be extremely beneficial, as the core subjects included a combination of anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology, molecular biology, genetics etc, allowing me to have a broad understanding of all the different depths of life sciences and potential career trajectories I could take. During my third year, I attended a guest lecture discussing the hallmarks of cancer cells, which included their immortality. This was my first introduction to telomerase, a protein complex responsible for elongating the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres. As telomeres normally shorten every time a cell divides (leading to cellular ageing), expression of telomerase allows cancer cells to divide indefinitely. I was instantly captivated by this phenomenon, especially since this is one of the mechanisms cancer hijacks from normal stem cells. Luckily, I found that there are world experts in the Telomere field right here in Sydney, and so I decided to do a Science Summer Research Project with them at CMRI under the supervision of Professor Roger Reddel and Dr Lorel Colgin. Importantly, this 3-month project allowed me to gain valuable insight into the day-to-day life of a scientist to see if research would be a career I would like to pursue.

Motivated by my experience, I decided to extend my Bachelor’s degree and do an Honours year in the same lab under the supervision of Associate Professor Hilda Pickett. From there I joined the laboratory of Professor Tracy Bryan at the CMRI for my PhD in Medicine to study how telomerase interacts with non-canonical DNA structures called G-quadruplexes which can exist in telomeres.

Next, I travelled to Cambridge in the United Kingdom for my first post-doctorate experience in the multidisciplinary laboratory of Sir Shankar Balasubramanian (co-inventor of the Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA sequencing technology) at the University of Cambridge and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. Here I studied the biological role of G-quadruplexes in cancer and stem cells in controlling gene expression and gained valuable experience in performing and analysing large scale sequencing experiments. I joined the Computational Systems Biology Group at CMRI early this year and hope to start my own independent lab in the future.

Was there anything 'unconventional' about the approach you took?

Overall, I think I was very fortunate during my career path. I was able to work alongside world experts in the field every step of the way and live in different countries (which I recommend to everyone!). For researchers, I would say the major hurdle is obtaining money to do your research. For my PhD studies, I was able to utilise scholarships such as Australian Postgraduate Award and CMRI PhD scholarship, for both of which my supervisors were happy to provide advice with the application.

Anything you'd like to say to inspire the next generation of scientists?

I would implore them to find something they are passionate and curious about. Science benefits the most when the people working on it are enthralled with a particular subject matter and want to learn more. Take the chance on something you are curious about, no matter how difficult it may appear at first. You never know where it may take you!

Learn more about Computational Systems Biology Team here.