Matthew Call: science infrastructure

4 December

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.

 


 

This time we sit down with Dr Matthew Call.

Matthew moved to Melbourne from Harvard Medical School, USA, to take up the position of Laboratory Head within the Structural Biology Division of The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. He was awarded a veski innovation fellowship in March 2011.

We ask him for his opinions on Victoria's science infrastructure and how it stacks up internationally.

What do you think of science infrastructure in Victoria? Good, the bad and the ugly?

The obvious things first… What really strikes me about Parkville in particular is how similar it is to the medical and educational precinct in Boston where there is the concentration of Harvard Medical School, universities, and research institutes, hospitals and industry that makes it easy for collaboration and a powerhouse for medical research. Intellectual critical mass is also key and you only get this when you're affiliated with a major research university and here in Melbourne, we have two. Availability of students is another key thing. Then there are the less obvious things… You need that critical research activity to support the infrastructure purchases required to do today's cutting-edge research and we have enough people doing that cutting-edge research here in Melbourne to attract infrastructure funding. Shared resources, like those in the Bio21 Institute, which houses scientists from several different universities and research institutes close by, as well as CSL research labs, are also a major advantage. 

Did it help 'seal the deal' about returning to Victoria?

Within Australia, most people would agree that Parkville is the powerhouse immunology centre because it has that critical mass of major research institutes, hospitals and high quality infrastructure. That played a major role in bringing us to Victoria.

Tell us about the synchrotron? How do you use it and how does it support your research?

The synchrotron also made Victoria an attractive destination because it allowed massive expansion of our structural biology capabilities. Building this sort of infrastructure takes a really dedicated funding structure combined with strong government support to make it happen. Before it was built, researchers in Australia and New Zealand had to travel to Japan, Europe or North America to use a synchrotron. For some of the work my group does, in order to get the atomic-scale images we require, you've got to have the power of a synchrotron’s light source.

How do you use the Australian Synchrotron?

We use it to understand the shape and structure of molecules and how those features relate to the functions they perform in cells, and we use it on a monthly basis – often in the middle of the night to make full use of available time. There's a lot of excitement in our group around what we are able to do with the synchrotron so easily accessible.

What do you show off to colleagues visiting from overseas? What do they say?

When Kai [Prof. Kai W. Wucherpfennig, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School and Department of Cancer Immunology & AIDS, Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston] visited Melbourne in 2013, we showed him the protein crystallisation robotics set up out at Monash University. That really blew him away. We also have easy access to a similar facility just up the road from WEHI at the CSIRO Collaborative Crystallisation Centre (C3). They don't have anything like that at Harvard – we were actually sending samples to C3 from Boston before we even relocated here because the setup is so powerful.

Why’s it such an important asset?

The reason robotics are so important is that they let you do a lot more with a small amount of material which is expensive and time-consuming to make. It’s another example of how important it is to be in close proximity to the big infrastructure needed to support our work.

What are three interesting things about the c3 robotics?

The most important one for us is called a mosquito because it has a very small needle which very precisely dispenses tiny amounts of really viscous liquid. The way it works is actually the reverse of how a real mosquito works. That's important because some of the most cutting edge techniques for looking at membrane proteins require handling these super viscous, fatty liquids. Knowing C3 had that robot made us think of trying some new techniques and a couple of our projects were among the first ones in the new system. Once the experiment is set out, you would normally have to control its temperature very carefully and inspect it regularly but at C3, they have a great system where plates are set up (there are 100 conditions on a plate) on to a rack and the robot takes individual pictures which can be viewed remotely. We can sit at home with a glass of wine and look at how the experiment is developing. It’s a really good record because it takes a picture every few days and you can look back through these online. It’s an amazing resource that is becoming more common now but C3 was ahead of its time.

What other pieces of Victorian science infrastructure do you use? How does it compare to overseas?

There is more of a culture of forming consortiums here in Australia than there is overseas and I think this is really powerful because good things come from encouraging local collaborations.

Why do you think we see more collaboration and consortiums in Australia?

Australian science and Victorian science is in a unique position of having really high calibre researchers, great infrastructure and still just enough need to combine resources that it forces us to collaborate more and form consortiums. You've got all of these people who know how to do good science and because of resources and geography, we’re more likely to collaborate with people next door than people overseas. It’s a subtle difference that I hadn’t thought about before.  That collaborative culture is a big part of what drew us here to Victoria. We were coming from a place which is much more about individual science to a highly collaborative place and that was very, very attractive. You feel that whenever you walk into these new institutes because they're being built with large, open-plan spaces and essentially, a whole department is sharing resources and equipment. It's great for day-to-day collaboration and it lays the groundwork for bigger multi-collaborations.

 

Next time, we will be in conversation with Dr Gareth Forde about the Victorian science infrastructure he uses in his research.

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