Interviews with Scientists: Shane Hellyer
In the next in our Interviews with Scientists series we spoke to Shane Hellyer, a senior postdoc at Monash University, Australia. Last year Shane was a recent recipient of one of our Early Career Scientist Grants which he used to attend the virtual National Ataxia Foundation Ataxia Investigators Meeting and to purchase compounds in order to further his research.
Shane completed his undergraduate, honours and PhD studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. His PhD focused on understanding the mechanism of action of marine pinnatoxins, specifically their actions on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. In 2016 he moved to the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, into the lab of Dr Karen Gregory, where his postdoctoral work has been mostly based on understanding the function of metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGlus), specifically mGlu1 and mGlu5, and how the complex signalling of these receptors can be modulated by small molecules in the context of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. He also has a growing interest in the involvement of mGlu1 in spinocerebellar ataxias and the tractability of mGlu1 as a potential drug target in these rare genetic conditions.
We spoke to Shane to find out more about his current research, his passion for science writing, and his childhood fascination with pharmacists!
Thanks for speaking with us, Shane! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at Monash University?
I am currently a Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Endocrine and Neuropharmacology Lab within the Drug Discovery Biology theme at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (a mouthful, I know!). Under the guidance of Dr Karen Gregory, my postdoctoral work has focused on unravelling the pharmacology and function of the metabotropic glutamate receptors, in particular mGlu5, in the context of neurodegenerative disorders. We are trying to understand the complex signalling cascades that are downstream of mGlu5, and how different drugs and drug-like compounds that target this receptor can differentially influence these signalling pathways. If we can relate the signalling “fingerprints” of these different compounds to their clinical profiles in animals and humans, we can better design new drugs to target mGlu5 for the treatment of neurological disorders with better efficacy and fewer side effects. I am also interested in the closely related mGlu1 receptor and its role in some forms of spinocerebellar ataxias, which are genetic movement disorders caused by mutations in the gene that encodes mGlu1. The current work is aiming to understand how these mutations can affect receptor function, and whether small molecule mGlu1 modulators can restore normal signalling.
What was the focus of your PhD research?
I did my PhD at the University of Otago, under the supervision of Dr Steve Kerr and Dr Lesley Rhodes. I was studying a family of marine neurotoxins called pinnatoxins, specifically the novel isomers pinnatoxin E, F and G which had been isolated from shellfish in New Zealand. These toxins caused rapid death due to respiratory depression in animal models, so my PhD aimed to determine the mechanism of action of the pinnatoxins that led to this toxicity. Using a combination of classical pharmacological approaches (organ bath preparations, radioligand binding, electrophysiology), fluorescent labelling techniques and molecular modelling, I showed that pinnatoxins E,F and G were potent antagonists of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, both at the neuromuscular junction and within the central nervous system.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?
I think if you ask my mum, she would say that I told her I wanted to be a “chemist man” when I grew up. A chemist in New Zealand is another word for pharmacist, so I guess pharmacologist is pretty close? I always had a deep curiosity about the world around me, but I think for a while I had my sights set on either archaeology (thanks, Indiana Jones) or ecology (thanks, David Attenborough). I was big into science fiction and comic books as a kid, and I think the fantastical science in both of those mediums really sparked an interest into what science was like in the real world. I think my real love of science started in high school, where I really enjoyed both biology and chemistry, which led me to choose pharmacology as my major in University.
What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?
There’s something about understanding the fundamental processes of nature that has always fascinated me, and I count myself lucky that I get to be in a field that allows me to peer into this usually hidden world. Going to work every day and being surrounded by people who are making some pretty amazing and literally world-changing discoveries is a really fun way to be.
What has been your proudest achievement as a scientist so far?
This probably speaks a lot to the current state of academia and how big a part funding plays in the everyday lives of scientists, but getting my first grant was a really proud moment for me. It was only a one-year grant from the National Ataxia Foundation, but it really made me feel like I had won the lottery. It has allowed me to branch out a little from my current work and really start to forge my own path, which has been a really rewarding experience.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
Apply for everything and take the small wins where you can. Academia is such a competitive environment that it is so easy to feel insignificant and left behind, so even a small travel award or a bit of money to cover society membership or something similar is so important. We can’t all get big multi-year grants every day, but it does wonders for your self esteem and overall feelings of “making it” when you get rewarded for your hard work.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
As I alluded to in my earlier answer, the funding for science is currently in an abysmal state, especially here in Australia. We can only do what we do if our research programs are funded. The next biggest and best discoveries are out there, just waiting to be unearthed, but so many of the best young minds are being left out due to archaic grant schemes and a government that doesn’t want to invest in science. Another challenge that has become apparent over the last couple of years, very much exacerbated by the confluence of a global pandemic and social media, is a distrust for the scientific process among certain parts of the community. It is hard to communicate our work efficiently and effectively with so many disparate voices out there. I know a lot of those people are definitely on the extremes, but I think that scientific literacy among the general population is something that we should be pushing, educating people on and really encouraging, in order to have some more productive discourse between scientists and non-scientists.
You have worked as a medical writer - is science communication a particular passion of yours?
This kind of links in nicely to my previous answer in that I really enjoy the challenge of communicating some really complex ideas to the lay public. Being able to tell people about the latest and greatest scientific discoveries in an accessible, easily understandable and approachable way is so important, especially when it comes to health, disease and medicines. I find that this is also a really good transferable skill to every-day life, when you want to explain to your grandma what you do every day in the lab! Medical communication and science communications are such a visual medium too, and it is always interesting to look at different ways of presenting data and ideas in a visually engaging way.
Who has been your greatest role model in science, and why?
While he wasn’t a scientist, my grandad was probably my greatest role model growing up and really helped to make me into who I am today. He had a really unique way of viewing the world and stoked that fire of curiosity in me from an early age. I remember he used to do the cryptic crossword every morning, and I was fascinated by how he could find all these words from such strange clues. This type of thinking and questioning and seeking out knowledge in everything has really stuck with me.
How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not big on multi-year plans, especially given the volatility of academia, so I’ll be very pragmatic in my answer! Hopefully my current work on mGlu receptors, naturally occurring mutations and their role in movement disorders will develop into an ongoing research program. A lot of these rare disorders affect kids so I’d like to think that I can do something to help them, if not with new therapies, then at least with a fundamental understanding of the pathology of these disorders. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the big picture stuff when we work on such specific cellular and molecular projects, but I’m hoping that my research will evolve into an impactful and patient-centric program. If I can just help one person, I’ll be happy!
What advice would you give to a young scientist just starting out in their science career?
Ask questions, engage with the academic process and make yourself heard. The system is broken in so many ways, and it is going to take a lot of voices speaking up and being heard to change the way things are done. So many of the young scientists I work with are such talented and passionate scientists, I want them to be able to have long and successful careers without worrying about the deck being stacked against them on so many levels.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)
In my spare time I play bass guitar, have just started brewing beer and dabble with growing chillies for making hot sauce. I’m also a collector of tattoos (until I run out of space) and am slowly working my way through the amazing breweries around Melbourne (all for home-brew research, of course).
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
The microscope. It ushered in a brand-new way of looking at the world and is the foundation upon which is built so many more amazing discoveries that have followed it.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us, eg. specific issues or initiatives in science that you are involved with or are passionate about?
I think that sustainability in science is becoming more and more of an issue. I know a lot of my peers are astounded by the amount of waste generated in the lab, and so we are starting to look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of our research. Small things like lab plastic recycling are a great start, but always keen to learn more. We can’t change the world if there’s not a world left to change, after all!
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview Shane! We look forward to following your career as it progresses!
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