Where are they now?
Dr Jon Merlin (PhD awarded 2017)
Research Fellow, Servier Australia
What's your story?
I have always enjoyed the process of working out how to solve a puzzle. Coming out of school I wasn’t sure of the direction in which I wanted my career to go but I knew I wanted a puzzle, so I did a general science degree at the University of Melbourne focussing on maths and physics. At this stage, however, it was starting to wear on me that the problems that I solved were generally manufactured to have neat solutions – I wanted something messier, more applicable to the real world. I found the same issue in chemistry, while biology went too far the opposite way – no puzzle at all, just a memory challenge of how these systems work. I finally found the middle ground in pharmacology and loved it for its combination of established biological concepts with our biochemical modifications, measurements, and interpretations. I remember finding two concepts that clicked piece-by-piece with clarity in my mind: glucose/insulin regulation in metabolism, and cardiovascular control. I had found my puzzles. And they are often messy.
I am now a postdoctoral researcher with Servier Australia. I have worked on projects investigating the energy control of skeletal muscle and fat cells, metabolic disease and cardiac failure – extensions of the concepts I had initially loved in undergraduate pharmacology. Working from a basic science angle gives me an in-depth view of pharmacology, from the interaction of chemicals and proteins, to the induction of a response in a cell, and how this cellular response may affect a tissue or the body as a whole. Every step is a new, more complex, puzzle.
What led you to decide to pursue a PhD?
I had completed an Honours year at Monash University and taken on a Research Assistant role with Drug Discovery Biology, investigating concepts of G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signalling. While I was excited to be performing the conceptual puzzle-solving I enjoyed, there is little autonomy in that type of role and the work is spread thinly over many projects. It did, however, help immensely to build up my understanding in a broad range of experimental methods, concepts, and research approaches, which made pursuing PhD seem less of a daunting prospect. It also exposed me to several topics of research the lab was wanting to focus on, which gave me a rare opportunity for a prospective PhD student: an informed choice of topic for my PhD. I applied for, and was successful in obtaining, a PhD position at Monash University. I moved on to a new area for my PhD – the metabolic control of fat cells, which has therapeutic implications in treating obesity and type 2 diabetes. Suddenly I held the controls (obviously with help from my supervisors and colleagues) to spend several years investigating a single topic. Not only did I have a new puzzle, I got to mould the pieces!
Why did you choose Drug Discovery Biology at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences to do your PhD?
Drug Discovery Biology is well-positioned in the field of GPCR research. GPCRs belong to a large family of cell-surface receptors that is collectively the single largest target of current pharmaceutics. They have tissue-specific expression, functions and roles in a range of physiologies and pathologies. Their relatively easy access (at the cell surface) combined with the ability to create often highly potent and specific drugs for them, is what make these receptors so attractive for the treatment of many diseases. Drug Discovery Biology is simply the leader in this area of research in Australia.
Being at a leading institution gives many benefits to a researcher – access to equipment and techniques not available elsewhere, a smoothly-operating and comfortable lab space, the ability to complete novel and exciting research, and (something that becomes more interesting as your research career continues) many opportunities to collaborate and experience research being carried out with completely different aims and ideas.
A PhD gives you the chance to attack a puzzle from almost any direction you wish, but with Drug Discovery Biology the tools and wide-ranging expertise at your disposal make the puzzle more interesting and the pieces more impressive.