Pursuing excellence in any language

Passions for Japanese and science have made it possible for Dr Alexander May to pursue his medical research in distinguished company.

BY ANDREW STEPHENS

A confluence of circumstances led Alexander May to his impressive professional life. Now working alongside 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner Yoshinori Ohsumi at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Dr May has managed to align his two abiding interests – language and science – and is doing fascinating work using yeast as a model of human cells, with a doctorate and a string of awards behind him.

Dr May’s childhood interests set the tone, with curiosity and a love of nature motivating him to become a scientist. He began at Monash University doing a double arts/science degree in 2006, and went on to do honours in science and then a PhD, graduating last year. 

“I only studied Japanese because it was a compulsory subject at my high school, but I’ve always been interested in language and found the different means of expression really interesting,” he says. “And I’m still fascinated by both science and Japanese.” 

Dr May spent 2005 in a rural high school in Japan as an exchange student. “I was convinced that I’d need to spend more time in Japan to further develop my skill, so I went back again in my second university year through the Monash Abroad program and finished my Japanese language major sequence.” 

He needed little encouragement to study abroad again. “The year I spent at Waseda University during my second undergraduate year at Monash was excellent, and it’s great that Monash has programs like this available to students.”

Returning to Melbourne to finish his bachelor degrees and begin honours, he took to the research lifestyle, so proceeded to a PhD. He graduated last year, more than five years on, having spent two of those years in Ohsumi’s lab in Japan.

Along the way, his awards have included the Monash University Jubilee Honours Scholarship (2010), the Stuart Stone Medal for the top-performing biochemistry and molecular biology honours student (2010), the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Postgraduate Award (2012) and the Undergraduate Mobility in the Asia Pacific (UMAP) award for his study at Waseda University (2007). 

His work now focuses on the physiological role of autophagy, a degradation pathway that happens inside cells. “I think the fact that the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to Yoshinori Ohsumi at this stage of research is a reminder of how important basic science is …Truly groundbreaking findings always have their origins in basic research.”