Seth Masters: beginnings

24 April

This time, 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 week, we’re in conversation with Dr Seth Masters from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Seth returned to Victoria as a veski innovation fellow in 2012 to continue his groundbreaking research into inflammatory diseases.

We talk to Seth about why he selected academic research as a career, and what influence having a father as a scientist had on his decision.


What do you like about research as a career?

There is a creative outlet that science gives you that you don’t get in other fields. I like that you can easily validate things and quite often you'll find new knowledge that may seem inconsequential at the time but down the track it becomes something huge that leads to new treatments and therapies. It’s remarkable really. Think about it. These days, anytime we go to hospital we take it for granted but it’s all due to medical research. It’s incredible to think about the advances over the past century, and many of them have occurred right here in Melbourne.


With a father in science, was research always on the cards?

I’d have to say, it was never a particularly conscious decision to enter into academic research. Even though dad was a scientist and I can remember looking down a microscope from a young age, it didn't cement a career in science. I was good at maths and actually thought of engineering as more of an option, which everyone said would be good. Medicine was also something that could have been good.


What subjects did you enjoy at school?

I’m not sure I enjoyed any subject in particular. As I said, I was good at maths, but when I got to University it became very abstract and it was difficult to see how it related to the real world. Since then I have found that being good at maths gives you an underpinning, which lets you see when things are right or wrong as soon as data comes out of biological experiments. So these days it helps me troubleshoot during my research.


Tell us about your teachers, did any inspire you?

I had a really good chemistry teacher. She was someone who was genuinely enthusiastic about chemistry. Which is hard in years 11 and 12 because they don't always have the most exciting experiments to play with. But she managed to do interesting things using common household elements and encouraged us to look at how things worked around us. I think it's really important for teachers to be enthusiastic about real world applications.


So what made you choose academic research?

I can’t say it was the money or job security that really got me thinking about it as a career. But if you're going to spend your whole life doing something you better do something that you love. It was while I was studying for my PhD that I realised this was something I was passionate about, that would keep me interested over a career.


Tell us about doing honours and your PhD?

I really enjoyed the honours year and after that knew I could do a PhD. Throughout both I felt empowered and on the cutting edge of medical research and I love working on stuff other people haven't seen before.


What do you remember about the people you went through university with?

I went through with a really nice group of people. They were great people to have as part of study groups and lab groups. And it was particularly important, because I didn’t always do my homework. Many of my colleagues ended up doing honours in chemistry and biochemistry but most have ended up in engineering. It shows the different pathways you can take, and many of them have taken advantage of some really great business opportunities. Then there are others who have gone back and done completely different things like working for the EPA.


Was it challenging starting out in science?

It can definitely be hard to get jobs in academic science because there are so many people for a limited number of jobs. And it’s easy to become a bit disillusioned, which is probably why there’s such a large attrition rate. Thankfully, I have been lucky and got a few breaks. And overall I thought I could make a go of it. Then overseas I really found my niche!


What was it like being a young researcher in Melbourne?

Melbourne was a really good place to be as a young researcher. There is a really good community and the PhD community at WEHI, particularly the group I went through with, was spectacular. It was a really close group and I learnt a lot from them and respected them all. But it wasn’t just what happened in our labs. We regularly participated in inter-institute sports with all of the big institutes and universities competing against each other. And it didn’t just foster camaraderie but also discussions about science and collaborations. It’s often the off the cuff remarks on a Friday night that lead to best science. And there’s research to prove it – I promise you!


What had changed in Melbourne when you returned from Ireland and the US?

I left Melbourne thinking WEHI was one of the best places to do research and I continue to think that. Melbourne today has a fantastic and diverse research community and its great that a lot of it has been consolidated in the Parkville precinct. Hubs are great because they get the most out of international speakers, increase collaboration and result in informal stuff as well. And because we’re all together we get to see what other people are working on and get a better understanding of what other researchers are going through.



Seth returned to Victoria from Trinity College in Dublin to join WEHI's newly formed Inflammation Division as a Laboratory Head. He had previously spent three years in Bethesda, USA at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease where he helped discover a new, rare inflammatory disease that affects young children, and a therapy that totally resolves it. His partner, Dr Lisa Mielke, returned to Australia with him and works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Molecular Immunology division at WEHI.

Next time, we will be in conversation with Dr Alyssa Barry about her passion for malaria research and where it all began.


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