Meet Professor Andrew Brooks
Head of Department and Deputy Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity
B.SC (HONS), PHD (FLINDERS)
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of science to society and the potential of scientists to not only ‘discover things’, but to actually have profound impacts on our life.”
Tell us about the Department of Microbiology and Immunology?
The Department comprises more than 120 academic staff, including 25 full professors, 80 graduate students and around 35 research groups that are actively involved in microbiology and immunology research and teaching. The Department prides itself on offering world-class training in microbiology and immunology led by teaching specialists and teaching-research academics. This research-led teaching in infection and immunity provides superb training for undergraduate and graduate students alike. The Department is also home to the Victorian Public Health Laboratory for Microbiology, known as the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit (MDU), which provides advice and services in public health microbiology. Perhaps most notably, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, MDU has developed a robust and rapid pipeline for sequencing coronavirus which has played a pivotal role in our understanding of the spread of the virus through the community.
What areas of biomedical sciences does the department focus on?
Our research focuses largely on understanding the immune system and on pathogens and infectious agents aiming to develop new ways to detect, control and treat infectious diseases or alternatively to manipulate the immune system to improve responses to organisms that cause infectious diseases or cancer. The Department is recognised internationally for scientific excellence and leadership across the fields of microbiology and immunology – and is home to a number of Australia's most eminent biomedical scientists, including Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty AC.
What are the advantages of being housed in the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity?
The Doherty Institute is a state-of-the-art facility that combines research and training in infectious diseases and immunology with laboratory diagnostic services, clinical services and infectious diseases surveillance and epidemiology. Perhaps the key strength of the institute is bringing together people with these really quite distinct sorts of expertise. This not only generates a breadth of knowledge across the entire spectrum of infection and immunity but critically it allows insights from clinicians and epidemiologists to inform and refine our experimental science and conversely allows the latest science or technology to create entirely new ways to elicit immunity or to diagnose or control infection. At no time has this been more evident than during the pandemic where the capacity to isolate SARS-C0V-2 from patient samples and to develop methods to rapidly obtain the genomic sequence of the virus from clinical isolates was paired with epidemiology and clinical insights to generate a real-time view of our understanding of an ongoing pandemic. This in turn formed the basis for a large body of basic and translational science aimed at understanding SARS-CoV-2 infection, the immune response it induces and how its impact can be contained through public health measures and the development of anti-viral drugs and vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways highlighted the value of science to society and the potential of scientists to not only ‘discover things’, but to actually have profound impacts on our life. High quality science, in this case medical and public health research, has been crucial for society to understand both how to deal with the pandemic in the immediate term, but also how to plan a way forward and more broadly to identify what measures can be put in place to minimise the impact of future pandemic threats.
As an immunologist, explain your research and what inspires you about your work?
I studied microbiology and immunology in my Bachelor of Science degree but really fell in love with immunology in my honours year when I got my first taste of doing my own research. I completed a PhD in immunology at Flinders University in South Australia and post-doctoral training at the National Institutes of Health in the USA. There, I developed an interest in the receptors used by specialised cells called natural killer cells that allow them to target tumours or virus-infected cells. Building on this, my work over the last 20 years has really continued this theme in many respects being largely focussed on immune recognition strategies, in particular how immune cells discriminate between healthy cells and those infected with viruses or tumours, something that I have continued to find fascinating.
In terms of inspiration, there are two things that really inspire me. Firstly, the privilege of getting an early and inside view of the development of new knowledge – its commonly a journey from seeing a result from an experiment that just doesn’t quite seem to be consistent with how we think something works at the time to doing more experiments, gathering more data until that lightbulb moment where you realise that you have found a new concept or mechanism. The second thing that inspires me is to see the response of students to new concepts and knowledge - be they undergraduate students or graduate researchers. I am incredibly proud of the work of our teaching academics. There is nothing better than watching students who are wrestling with trying to understand what can seem to be conflicting concepts, all of a sudden see the bigger picture and how everything fits together.
Why is the School – and the Biomedical Precinct – a great place to study and work?
Great people – more than simply super talented scientists, clinicians and educators. It’s the capacity and willingness of the academics, laboratories and educators to work together to share ideas, advice, equipment and skills. Over the years, Heads of Departments and our Heads of School have fostered this sort of attitude which is now developing into stronger cross-department relationships. It’s why the School is becoming something stronger than simply the sum of its component departments.
Describe the current era of biomedicine and what lies ahead for your field?
This seems a time of unprecedented expansion in our knowledge base, driven by the continual advent of new technologies and – perhaps most distinctively for this era – the increased use of interdisciplinary approaches that draw from physics and mathematics, through the biological sciences, to detailed analyses of clinical practice and outcomes. I think we are more likely to see basic discovery science rapidly tracking through to make impacts on health. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for pure basic research – rather that there will be significant incentives to make those translational links along with perhaps better infrastructure to support that transition.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I did so many things the wrong way, but you can learn a lot from your mistakes. I think I would say: ‘find good role models and mentors’, which is probably something I did without being aware of it. And remember, science doesn’t just happen. It really is the work of people who are skilled, passionate and in many instances tireless in their efforts to push things forward. If the younger generations want to look for examples of where their commitment and effort can make a difference, then now is such a time.
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