Launching an independent research career is a milestone for any young researcher. Developmental geneticist Edwina McGlinn's return to Australia to start her own lab next January at the Australia Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) at Monash University in Melbourne will also be a milestone for Australian science: 35-year-old McGlinn will be the first group leader appointed under a joint initiative between Australia and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).
"This isn't just about funding research; it's about the culture that develops with these free-thinking people, and for that you need critical mass." --Nadia Rosenthal
Australia became EMBL's first associate member in March 2008, thanks in large part to the leadership of American developmental geneticist Nadia Rosenthal, founding director of ARMI and now scientific head of EMBL Australia. The new relationship aims to link in the distant continent by capitalizing on the EMBL brand to attract elite young researchers to independent positions, which are traditionally very hard to come by in Australia. EMBL will set up four centers in Australia, eventually supporting 18 group leaders with enough funding to run a small lab for 5 years, with four more years of funding if they stay on track.
McGlinn will work within the supportive environment of ARMI, where 54 researchers are prying into the mysteries of vertebrate regeneration by studying sharks, mice, chickens, axolotls, and zebrafish. The appointment means that McGlinn will be able to focus on research, liberated from the pressures of grant-writing and short funding cycles. She can also count on the support of EMBL laboratories across Europe. "This is an amazing start to my career," McGlinn says.
Some people know from an early age that they want to be scientists. Not McGlinn: After completing an honor's degree in biochemistry at the University of Queensland, she wasn't sure she wanted to invest the 4 to 5 years a Ph.D. would take, and she was eager to do some exploring. She made London her base -- "like one-third of all 22-year-old Australians," she quips -- taking a contract job as a lab technician at Guy's Hospital. Between contracts, she explored the world, spending 10 weeks backpacking alone across Africa.
When McGlinn returned to Australia after 2 years overseas, she was still unsure about a research career. But then she took a technician job in the lab of developmental biologist Carol Wicking at the University of Queensland. "I took on development and loved it and have never changed," she says.
She started a Ph.D. in 2000, focusing on a bizarre mutant mouse with extra toes. The Wicking lab worked on a human genetic condition called Gorlin syndrome, which causes skeletal abnormalities and skin cancer. Both the mutant mouse's condition and the human disease, it turns out, are caused by a high-level disruption in the vertebrate body plan.
Just as a tailor lays down a chalk pattern on cloth before cutting and sewing a suit, certain genes lay down a pattern for the body on the canvas of a developing embryo before other genes start sculpting the limbs, trunk, head, and other features. When these pattern-forming genes are mutated, embryonic cells have an abnormal pattern to follow. They sculpt the wrong tissues, creating, for example, an extra toe, or skin cells that don't mature properly. In McGlinn's mutant mouse, the disrupted pattern-forming genes belonged to the molecular signaling pathway named Sonic hedgehog. "It's a pathway that is essential for the pattern of all our limbs and the face," McGlinn says. The proteins made by the sonic hedgehog gene lay down the pattern, and the proteins of other genes do the sculpting. McGlinn identified the sculpting genes -- Pax9 and Jagged -- during her Ph.D.
Upon finishing her Ph.D., McGlinn headed to the United States to work with Harvard University developmental biologist Cliff Tabin, who discovered sonic hedgehog. Tabin used elegant techniques for studying development in the chick that involve slicing off the top of an eggshell so researchers can surgically or genetically interfere with the embryo and observe the effects on development.
Using the chick model, she and Tabin made some remarkable discoveries about how patterning works. Sonic hedgehog lays down the pattern of the limb, but another set of genes, called HOX, lays down the pattern of the vertebral column. Researchers had long noticed that the pattern of HOX genes is coarse at first and gradually refined to single-cell resolution. McGlinn and Tabin discovered that this resolution is achieved through microRNAs, short RNA molecules that regulate gene expression. Tabin and McGlinn published this result in PNAS in 2009. McGlinn is now pursuing the same studies in mice, which is technically much more challenging. "This is risky work," says Rosenthal, the ARMI leader. "She's followed up a hunch that could have led to a dead end. Instead, it looks more like she's going to hit the jackpot."
McGlinn was looking for an independent position in Europe when, in mid-2009, she heard about the EMBL-Australia program. It seemed like an ideal fit: She could return to Australia and have the freedom to take her research into uncharted territory. "I'm now thinking of experiments I never considered possible before," she says.
McGlinn won a place on a short list of eight candidates from all over the world. Her adventurous spirit and willingness to take on a risky project pushed her to the list's top, Rosenthal says. "We try to sense the potential of the person for creative and original ideas," Rosenthal says. "It was clear that [McGlinn] had what it takes."
In Australia, scientists often have a hard time starting an independent research career. Obtaining research money is very competitive at every level, says National Health and Medical Research Council Chief Executive Officer Warwick Anderson, but the squeeze is particularly tight for postdocs who want to run their own labs. Young researchers often end up as long-term postdocs in someone else's lab or choose to build their careers overseas.
"It's a peculiarly Australian disease," says Peter Currie, deputy director of ARMI. Currie spent 13 years in the United States and the United Kingdom, including 5 years leading his own lab at the U.K. Medical Research Council, before returning to head a laboratory at Sydney's Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. "I tried at every stage to come back, but I simply wouldn't come back as someone else's postdoc. The [Australian] system is weighted against young researchers achieving independence."
Rosenthal made a similar observation on a research trip to Australia in 2002. She noticed similarities to Europe in the 1970s: fiercely independent states with limited collaboration and the best young minds heading overseas to build their careers. EMBL was an attempt to overcome these problems: Individual countries (now 20, plus Australia) provide public funding for five research units across Europe that today house 85 independent research groups that give the brightest young scientists their own labs. In 2001, Rosenthal left her successful Harvard lab to take over the directorship of the fledgling EMBL mouse research unit in Monterotondo, Italy, transforming it into one of EMBL's star performers. (Science Careers profiled Rosenthal in 2003.)
"It's a marvelous system that reversed the European brain drain, and I thought it might work for Australia as well," Rosenthal says. So, when she moved to Monash University in 2007 to start the regenerative medicine institute there, she had two goals: to build ARMI and establish a home for EMBL in Australia.
Rosenthal envisions 18 labs at the four EMBL centers: ARMI, the University of Sydney, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Queensland. The centers exploit the core infrastructure of the chosen institutions, such as ARMI's zebrafish facility. EMBL Australia is also establishing a AUS $4 million bioinformatics institute at the University of Queensland that will mirror the content of the European Bioinformatics Institute. "This isn't just about funding research; it's about the culture that develops with these free-thinking people, and for that you need critical mass," she says.
The EMBL group leader positions are meant to equip early-career researchers to explore biology's frontiers during nine luxurious years unencumbered by grant writing. The funding provides 5 years of salary for McGlinn, a postdoc, and a technician and includes overhead costs and lab supplies. McGlinn has secure funding for the first 5 years of experiments in Melbourne; Rosenthal has been given tacit assurances that the rest of the funding will come. A second scientist, Marcus Heisler, an Australian plant developmental biologist, has 5 years of funding to support an independent lab at EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany. He will then return to the University of Sydney to set up a laboratory for four more years, with funding from the University of Sydney.
There are high hopes for the program, but it's not without its risks. McGlinn and future Australian EMBL fellows must eventually win non-EMBL funding; their success seems likely, but it's not assured. Also, it's not yet clear how quickly the network of EMBL-Australia labs can be expanded. But Rosenthal has no doubt about what Australia stands to gain. "The EMBL training model is seen as world's best practice," Rosenthal says. "These young scientists will be leaders of biomedical research; they'll be the ones who identify new trends and develop the cutting-edge technology to pursue them."
Science writer Elizabeth Finkel lives in Melbourne, Australia.