Alyssa Barry: beginnings

10 July

Regularly, veski takes you in conversation with our innovation fellows. We talk to them about a range of topics from where they got their start in science to what happens in their lab today.



For this 'in conversation' we chat to Dr Alyssa Barry who was awarded a veski innovation fellowship in 2006. 

Alyssa returned from postdoctoral training at the University of Oxford and New York University School of Medicine to build a team within the International Health Research Group at the MacFarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health. She is now a laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. 

We ask Alyssa about her beginnings in science including animal dissections, the '40-Hour Famine', and lots of serendipity. 

When did your interest in science begin?

I was always interested in biology and medicine in school and I naturally gravitated towards biology. I was actually really good at maths but I hated it. That’s interesting now because a lot of my research involves maths and statistics, so it’s kind of come full circle.

Did anyone particularly inspire you?

My science teacher, a PhD, was very smart and supportive and she opened up the world of science to me. I was always the student helping her when we did animal dissections and she really encouraged me. I would never be able to do that sort of stuff now - I’d be too queasy - but back then in my school life I loved doing that sort of stuff. 

You wanted to study medicine at university but settled on science instead. Why didn’t you move into medicine when you had the chance?

By the end of my second year at Uni, I had decided I wanted to stay in science because I discovered I really liked biochemistry and specifically, the molecular biology aspect of biochemistry. I was fascinated by all of the things that go on inside the cell, DNA and genes and genomics and all of those areas. And that’s how science piqued my interest.

 What interested you about molecular biology? 

Medicine is a whole-body approach while molecular biology is looking at the cell on a really fine scale. You’re actually going inside the cell and seeing what’s happening and what causes diseases at the DNA level. That world, working at the smallest possible scale, really interested me, rather than physiology or anatomy. There’s also an aspect of science, the creativity side of it and being able to think outside the box and think of new ideas that I really liked.

You say you weren’t thinking about science as a career but you “followed your nose”, did what you liked and serendipitously, ended up at what's now called the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Tell us about that.

I saw an advertisement on a wall for PhD students in human molecular genetics at the Murdoch Institute. I applied, got a place and a scholarship and that’s how it all began. It was all a little serendipitous because if I hadn't seen that poster on the wall I might not have taken that track.

What inspired you to focus on malaria?

When I was about 18, I watched the '40-Hour Famine' special on television and I was appalled by the conditions I saw. I wanted to do something in that realm so I sponsored a child from Ethiopia. Towards the end of my PhD, I started thinking about what I was going to do postdoc and decided on malaria because it was a huge problem and it's still a huge problem: one of top three killers (infectious diseases) worldwide. 

You have worked in Oxford, Harvard and in New York. How did this come about?

I went to the Director of Murdoch, Bob Williamson, and told him I really wanted to work on malaria. He said I had to meet Karen Day, an Australian woman based in Oxford. We met in Australia and got on really well. I had experience in genomics and she needed someone with that expertise so she invited me to come over and visit and then convinced me to work with her, and researchers from Harvard, on a big project into malaria genomic diversity. I worked with her for six and a half years: four and half years in Oxford, and then two years in New York. I had lots of autonomy in New York, running my own small group. It was great because I got a lot of experience and fortunately wasn't under a lot of pressure to get funding.

What drives you in your current research? 

Whenever I visit places like PNG, the kids have absolutely nothing but they’re so happy. And as long as they’re healthy, they’re happy. That’s a real driver, even more so now I’ve had my own kids, because now I can see how lucky they are and how spoilt. If anything happens to them, even the smallest thing, it has to be checked out. It shows how starkly different our societies are. That’s a driver, so is the passion for science.

Next time, we will be in conversation with Professor Marcus Pandy about his start in the field of biomechanical engineering.

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