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A life in science: student Q&A with 2017 Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim

June 01, 2018

Science legend meets the toughest audience—kids and teenagers—at the World Science Festival Brisbane


Professor Alan Mackay-Sim

Award winning stem cell scientist Alan Mackay-Sim has had a life filled with curiosity, science, a variety of hobbies, and occasional swearing!

In March this year, Alan talked with students at the World Science Festival Brisbane. Here are some of the highlights.

Sanchit (Year 8) How was your school and university life? What were your aspirations and interests as a student?

Alan: I love to learn. From a very early age I wondered how the body works, and how the brain controls the hands to do this, that and the other, and so on. That’s what I did on the academic side. Outside that, I played football, sang in the choir, acted in plays, ran in the athletics carnivals and lapped it all up.

When I got to university I still studied hard, but also danced a lot and listened to a lot of music and enjoyed university life.

Host: If we could interview 5-year-old Alan and ask what he wanted to be when he grew up, what would he have said?

Alan: A fireman. It was when I was 8 or ten that I got interested in the body.

Towards the end of school, I was heavily interested in the brain and I wanted to contribute to people’s health. So, I chose science as a career.

Host: Tell us about the nose cells you’re interested in.

Alan: In the nose we have stem cells. As we breath in, we’re breathing in nasty chemicals, viruses and bacteria. The sensory cells die, partly as a response to protect ourselves, because we have a direct line from the nose to the brain. So, the cells die, and the stem cells are there to replace them.

Olfactory ensheathing cells are made from the stem cells in the nose, and they are the support cells for the nerves. Someone had the idea that maybe those cells could help the nerve cells regrow after being cut in the spinal cord. This turned out to be true.

Claire (Year 10): What did you try before using nose stem cells and how did you think of using them to treat spinal injuries and brain disease?

Alan: We didn’t start trying other things. My interest had always been in the biology of how we smell—the sensory part of the nose, the olfactory organ. It was other people’s research that directed us towards using nose cells. They were using cells from the same nerves from where they enter the brain. We figured that if you want to have a human therapy you have to get the cells from somewhere more accessible than the brain. We were already taking bits out of human noses, so we were in the right place to do this.

Michael (Year 9): Did you encounter any difficulties in your work and how did you overcome them?

Alan: Science is experimental, so there’s always difficulties. You just have to think through it until you get over those technical problems. Sometimes you do the experiment and the answer is not what you expect. You might call that a difficulty. On the other hand, that’s the way science works. Often you get surprised by the answer and that leads you on to something even more interesting. Difficulties are just part of the job.


Alan Mackay-Sim with students at the 2018 World Science Festival Brisbane

Kalinda (Year 11): What advice would you give to high school kids you would like to pursue science?

Alan: I can only speak from my own experience. If you want to do science, you’ve got to be really passionate about it. And have one of those brains that asks, “why is that?” instead of just accepting information. It has to be inside you.

Pria (Year 8): How do you see stem cells being used in the future?

Alan: With stem cells, the first idea was to use their ability to make all sorts of other kinds of cells to make cells for repairing the body.

Actually, this will be a lesser contribution than using the stem cells from people with a particular disease to tell us more about that disease. And hence, they might be able to use them for finding drugs for that disease.

This ‘disease in a dish’ research is what I’m concentrating on now.

For example, 10 years ago a patient support group for hereditary spastic paraplegia—a genetic disease where people get increasing spasticity and muscle weakness and they end up in a wheelchair—asked what we could do for them. So, we took cells from people’s noses and looked at the them, compared the biology and the differences between them, thought of a way to manipulate that with some drugs, and now we have a drug that we’re going to take to clinical trial.

All this work was done through studying the cells in the dish. I’m committing myself in that direction because I think that’s the REAL future for stem cell biology.

Jack (Year 5): Everyone has done something that is particularly exciting, interesting or amazing at least once in their life. Tell me about something you have done that would make your grandchildren say, ‘Wow! I never knew that!’

Alan: Apparently, being Australian of the Year is not enough for Jack! (laughs)

When I was younger and at university, I spent a lot of time hang-gliding when I wasn’t studying. That’s pretty exciting—flying at about 2,000 feet above the ground. But it led to me crashing into a tree and almost killing myself. That was also pretty exciting. I ended up in hospital with a broken knee and was in plaster for nine months.

Harshini: Professor Mackay-Sim, your research into the use of adult stem cells for medical applications is truly remarkable. However, from what I understand this took years of studying the topic, many trial and errors to finally reach where you are now. I imagine this must have been a gruelling but rewarding journey and my question to you is, what was the drive behind your consistent persistence in your research?

Alan: It’s not gruelling. You might have difficulties; you swear a bit. You might get comments from journal referees, and you’re swearing again. But it’s just part of the journey.

Curiosity keeps you going—wanting to know more. And knowing that what you’re doing has a potential benefit. That’s why I got into it. I wanted to contribute to knowledge and contribute to the health of people. You also know there are other people doing the research, and you want to get the idea out there first! It’s a combination of cooperation, collaboration and competition.

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