This month we’re hearing from Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, group leader and Snow Medical Fellow at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Melanie is also a research fellow in Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Melbourne.
What brought you to the world of epigenetics, development and cancer? How did it all begin for you?
While I had my first taste of research when I was still in high school, it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that it occurred to me you could have a career doing research. I’ve always been fascinated with how things grow: How do you get from one cell to many? What shapes cell fate? I’m amazed at how complex yet reproducible development is and since school have been excited about developmental biology. It was during my PhD that I entered the world of epigenetics – it just made so much sense that a large part of controlling and shaping cell identity would be regulated at the DNA level and I was desperate to understand how this all worked. So while I’ve had a long interest in development and epigenetics, my interests in cancer came much later on. Towards the end of my postdoc I started to take notice of how many of the processes and molecules we were studying from a developmental aspect were deregulated in cancer. And so when I started to put together a research vision for my own lab I realised that understanding how cell identity becomes deregulated in cancers could be an area of research where I could bring a different perspective and potentially make significant impact.
In your career to date, of what are you most proud?
I’m really proud of persevering through the hard times and having enough stubbornness to keep chasing my dreams and vision for my current research. It’s not been an easy journey, but there have been some amazing people who believed in me along the way. More recently I’m really proud of bringing together a wonderful group of enthusiastic and talented researchers who have great ideas and a passion for uncovering new discoveries. My team make doing this job even more rewarding than I imagined it could be.
Can you tell us about a couple of things happening in your lab right now/what in particular are you excited about working on?
The lab is still relatively quite new and it’s really only been this year that I’ve been able to recruit some amazing people and projects have started to get off the ground. We have a set of projects centred around defining epigenetic plasticity at a molecular level and how different molecular signatures of plasticity are regulated in both developmental and cancer contexts. Other projects are looking at the dynamics of cancer cell plasticity and what drives cancer cells to adopt a more aggressive immature state. I’m really excited about all these projects and can’t wait to see what they uncover in the coming years.
Would you like to tell us a bit about the Eckersley-Maslin Lab and/or Peter Mac?
Our lab explores the concept of epigenetic plasticity using both developmental and cancer cell models. The earliest cells of the embryo are so unique in that they can become any adult cell type. One arm of the lab aims to understand what makes these early embryonic cells so special at an epigenetic level, because this plasticity is lost as cells commit to lineages and cell fates. In normal healthy adult cells this plasticity is supressed, but we know it can be reawakened in cancers. So the other arm of the lab is trying to understand how cancer cells may be hijacking these pathways of early embryonic epigenetic plasticity. This is a powerful way of approaching cancer and one that we believe may uncover new pathways or targets that could be exploited for diagnostic or therapeutic applications.
If funding and time were unlimited, what big/dream projects/ideas would you like to develop?
As a Snow Medical Fellow I’m extremely fortunate that we have the time and resources to do exactly this and pursue big ideas, and I am so grateful to the Snow family for their vision and investment in our research program. Hopefully we will see a time where many more researchers are supported in this manner as I believe it’s the best way to realise the potential that so many researchers have that’s sadly too often suppressed by bureaucracy and short uncertain funding cycles.
Outside your own lab, what research developments in the field are you excited about (or recent publications or technology advances)?
The past few years has seen an incredible explosion in the single-cell space. We can now profile and understand individual cells, often in situ, at unprecedented detail at multiple genetic, epigenetic, transcriptomic and proteomic levels – sometimes simultaneously! We’ve also seen technology develop to the point that we can measure past events at the same time and understand the trajectory a cell has taken to get to this point, and its relationships with other cells in a population. I would love to get to the point of understanding that we could start to infer the future. If we knew enough about an individual cell could we predict what it was going to do? Just imagine what could be possible!
How important has collaboration and/or international travel been to your research and/or to your career?
My career and research has been significantly influenced by international travel. I’ve trained in 5 countries over 3 continents and the insight this has given me into how different people do research in different ways has been eye-opening. It’s also left me with an incredible international network of friends and colleagues across the globe which I can not only tap into for my own research, but also use to connect local students and researchers with contacts that can help advance their own research and careers.
Can you give us one piece of advice for early career biomedical researchers (or two or three if you like)?
Believe in yourself and your ideas. Part of being a researcher is venturing into the unknown and this takes courage. I still struggle with this but what helps is surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and your ideas to help you get through the times that you doubt everything. And then lastly don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. As a student and early-postdoc I really struggled with reconciling being both a mother and a scientist. I lacked appropriate role models and it felt like the world was telling me this could not be done successfully which is certainly not true! It took a good friend to tell me that if I wanted it I could have it and not to let other people tell me otherwise. Fortunately I listened to her and am now leading a research group while raising two lovely little boys – something I never thought would be possible!
Outside of work, what do you like to do?
I love all things outdoors and so when I’m not playing duplo with my sons, I like to spend my time gardening, hiking or walking on the beach. I’m also quite crafty and like to build things so usually have some sort of home-improvement project on the go – recently I built a front fence and now I’ve moved on to sewing curtains for our new home.