Day of Immunology – in the midst of a global pandemic

We caught up with Professor Andrew Brooks, Head of the School's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, about this critical area of biomedical sciences.

Now, more than ever, immune system health and function is under close observation.

As we mark the 2020 Day of Immunology when the world is responding to COVID-19, we ask Professor Brooks, Deputy Director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, what’s ahead and the importance of ongoing research in his area of biomedical sciences.

Q: Describe the current era of biomedicine and what lies ahead for your field?

A: 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.

Q: What impact is the ongoing research in immunology at the University of Melbourne and Peter Doherty Institute having at the moment?

A: Some of the earliest reports of what immunity to SARS-CoV-2 looks like coming out of UoM. This work has provided a glimpse as to what effective responses to the virus look like and there is now a lot of activity dedicated to understanding what sort of immunity is protective, and what sort of responses there are in patients who don’t do so well.

The University is also very active in efforts to generate a vaccine. There have been fantastic collaborations at both local and national levels that have facilitated sharing of reagents and analytical approaches to fast track both the development of vaccines and our capacity to understand exactly what sort of antibody responses these vaccines elicit, as well as their potential to neutralise the virus.

I suspect the legacy of this will be the creation of a whole set of highly functional collaborative networks that not only have the potential to impact the way we approach other highly infectious viruses, but can just as well be applied to a wide range of other settings.

Q: In a COVID-19 world we’re seeing scientists as heroes, what does this mean for younger generations interested in science, public health and medical research?

A: I think this situation has really highlighted the value of science to society and the potential of scientists to not only 'discover things', but to actually to have a profound impact on our life. What we are seeing is that 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.

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.

Q: What inspires you about your work?

A: We are fortunate to have a large group of absolutely stellar researchers and educators in both the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and in the Doherty Institute. For me, it’s a privilege to get an inside view of their work as people make great discoveries or develop new ways of teaching particular concepts or subjects.

It is certainly not restricted to the established or senior staff. In many ways its more inspirational watching a PhD student or an early career researcher develop or transform before your eyes. There is often a raw passion about their approach to the work that can be infectious (no pun intended)!

Q: What is life like as a biomedical scientist in 2020?

A: It’s a remarkable job where you can be the first person in the world to know something. The really exciting thing is when you think you know how something must work and can then design an experiment or series of experiments to test your ideas. Next, is the feel good factor when you discover you are right! That said, I think some of the biggest thrills have come from working through that process and getting a surprise answer – one that wasn’t predicted or obvious from the literature.

My first job was as a secondary school teacher, not a scientist or academic. So, I still have a soft spot for education. In this case, it’s watching the lights come on in a student when they grasp some new understanding or concept. We have great teachers here, and it’s always inspiring to look at how different people approach and structure their teaching.

Q: Why is the School – and the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct – a great place to study and work?

A: That’s easy – great people. And, by that I mean more than simply super talented scientists, clinicians and educators. My time as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health (US) let me work among some of the best scientists in the world – it was an exciting vibrant place to be. However, upon my return to Australia and the University of Melbourne, what struck me immediately was 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 have continued to foster this sort of attitude and from my perspective this is now developing into stronger cross-department relationships. It’s why the School is becoming something stronger than simply the sum of its components.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

A: 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.

As told to Harriet Edmund. Find out more about Professor Andrew Brooks projects and awards at Find an Expert.