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 315 academic staff, including 26 full professors, 105 graduate researchers and over 37 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.
What areas of biomedical sciences does the department focus on?
Our research focuses on mechanisms of infection and immunity and the development of new ways to control and treat infectious diseases. Current research programs include the molecular analysis of bacterial and viral infections as well as understanding the development and function of the immune system. 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. Each year the Department attracts around $20 million in competitive funding for its research programs.
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. For me, it’s a privilege to get an inside view as people make great discoveries or develop new ways of teaching particular concepts or subjects. The Department is also home to the Victorian Public Health Laboratory for Microbiology, known as the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit, which provides advice and services in public health microbiology to inform public health policy and practice. 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. High quality science, in this case medical and public health research, is 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 indeed to identify what measures can be taken to minimise the impact of future pandemic threats.
As an immunologist, explain your research and what inspires you about your work?
I am interested in immune recognition strategies, in particular how immune cells discriminate healthy cells from those infected with viruses or tumours. Before establishing a laboratory in the Department, I completed a PhD in immunology at Flinders University in South Australia and post-doctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, USA. There, I developed an interest in the receptors used by lymphocytes called natural killer cells that allow them to target tumours or virus-infected cells. Since returning to the University, my research has continued to focus largely on receptors that regulate lymphocyte activation.
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 and laboratories to work together to share advice, equipment and skills with other laboratories in ways that were not so common in my past. Over the years, subsequent Heads of Department and our inaugural Head of School Professor Fabienne Mackay 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 components.
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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