We’re delighted to introduce Dr Louise Bicknell, Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, and Co-Deputy Director of Genetics Otago.

Louise will be speaking at our first online Epigenetics seminar of 2022 on 15th March.  She has also taken the time recently to tell us a little about her career journey, her research and herself.

We hope you enjoy learning about her as much as we did.

What brought you to the world of epigenetics and genetics disorders? How did it all begin for you?
Marnie Blewitt
I am a molecular geneticist aka a gene hunter, so I search for novel disease genes through studying families with Mendelian disorders. One of the perks of this research is that we follow where the genes take us – in this case, into the complicated and fascinating world of histone biology.
In your career to date, of what are you most proud?

Professionally, I am incredibly proud of how many families around the world I have been able to help, it would be several hundred by now! Either it’s through discovering the genetic cause of their child’s condition which is a new disease gene, or through the routine testing we do where we find mutations in established disease genes. Our work also has the flow on, in that once a new gene is published, diagnostic labs around the world can use this information to make their own mutation identifications – spreading our impact. We are also very humbled at the number of families who agree to be a part of our research – we couldn’t do this work without them!

On a more personal note, I am most proud of my resilience, and finally getting a permanent job! We all know how tough it is to be funded by grants alone, so it was a life-changing moment when I was appointed as a Senior Lecturer last year.

Can you tell us about a couple of things happening in the Bicknell Lab right now that you’re excited about?

The histone project is really exciting – while we have just published the disease genes, this has now paved the way for lots of different research projects delving in histone H4 – what is the mechanism underlying the disease? Genetic variation is tolerated (rarely) in the H4 genes – do these still play a sub-clinical role in disease risk?

Bicknell Lab logo

We have a few other novel disease genes under study, including a spliceosomal component and a RNA-binding protein – that’s what is so cool about our research, is the breadth of molecular biology we get to investigate (although it also means I am forever playing catchup with the literature on diverse topics!)

Would you like to tell us a little about Genetics Otago?

Genetics Otago is a formally supported Research Centre within the University of Otago.

I am Co-Director, and we support over 300 researchers across all facets of genetics – our breadth makes this group unique.

Our motivation for the Centre is to bring visibility to the amazing genetics researchers we have at Otago and the interesting science insights they are making – through both academic/science routes, but also through a lot of public engagement and outreach. We also want to support these researchers to share skills and ideas, through our special interest group Hubs.

If funding and time were unlimited, what dream idea or project would you like to develop?

How long can the list be?! My ultimate goal is to bridge the research-diagnostic infrastructure divide in genetics in New Zealand. While on a personal level, we are a close-knit community, we can bring the most power and technological developments to medical genetics in New Zealand by working alongside each other, in a supported Alliance. This is happening in other countries, and we are trying a few things to get this going in Aotearoa.

If funding and time were truly unlimited, I would love to be able to explore the genome more. We see from our research the incredible power a mutation can have in altering the developmental fate in a person, but we are essentially limited to genes, and variants in the non-coding genome are generally put in the too-hard basket. There are big international efforts to understand the non-coding genome more, but some of us are not very patient!

Outside your own lab, what research or technological developments in the field are you excited about?

I am really excited about episignatures – bringing together methylation and mutations to help diagnose patients and classify variants (though it is a shame that the algorithms seem to be tied up in patents rather than being made available for the community to help develop).

How important has collaboration been to your research and your career?

We study one-in-a-million type conditions, so generally when we find a mutation in a patient, it is most likely to be the only patient in Aotearoa with this variant. So, by necessity, we have global collaborations to make advances in our work.

Are you attending any big meetings this year that you’re excited about?

I always get excited by the American Society of Human Genetics meeting – there is some very cool genetics research on show!

Can you give us one piece of advice for early career biomedical researchers?

If you want to have a long-term career in research, that keeping your head down concentrating on your research isn’t enough. You need to be visible, and seek out leadership and networking opportunities.

Outside of work, what do you like to do?

I love to spend time in the garden (preferably with a chainsaw rather than just picking weeds), organise DIY projects on our old villa, and spend time with my children.