From statistics and maths to the world of infectious diseases and vaccines

Recent Honorary appointment, Professor Matthew McKay in the Dept Microbiology & Immunology explains the path he took to get here.

Matthew McKay is a Professor and ARC Future Fellow in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) – and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, located in the Doherty Institute.

Head of Department, Professor Andrew Brookes, warmly welcomed Professor McKay to the School and emphasised his expertise across the signal processing and computational biology disciplines.

The key strength of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology is bringing together people with distinct sorts of expertise, generating a breadth of knowledge across the entire spectrum of infection and immunity

Since his appointment to UniMelb last year, Matthew is making strides. His research earlier this year looking at the T cells immune response against Omnicron was picked up by 150+ media outlets – and his recent study on monkey pox has received global media coverage.

We spoke to Matthew about his career trajectory, his research and what it’s like to work in the Department.

You are an electrical engineer who works in the infectious disease space – how does that work?

I was originally focused on “core” EEE problems early in my career like developing statistical methods and mathematical theories to design advanced wireless communication systems - including next-generation Wi-Fi.

Working in biology and vaccines happened by chance. I saw a Distinguished Lecture from an MIT Professor describing how random matrix methods could be used for rationally designing novel vaccines against HIV.

I found this incredible. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that similar methods being used to design wireless communications could also help to design vaccines. This got me hooked. It inspired me to start working on infectious diseases and has shaped my research activities for over a decade now.

Many approaches to data analysis and modelling are used in infectious diseases and health analytics more generally, have a foundation in electrical engineering.  Take the example of the technical area of information theory, originally developed to quantify the performance limits of communication systems - but is now used pervasively in data analysis and modelling.  At the technical level at least, the gap between the fields of electrical engineering and infectious diseases is not as broad as what people may think.

What makes you passionate about research and education?

Early on, I was most passionate about technical things, like mathematics and statistics and their applications to engineering technologies. While I still think this is important, more recently what excites me is working on problems that can have a significant impact on health or society. These problems are large-scale and involve numerous disciplines and I really enjoy collaborating with people across different fields.

It is also wonderfully satisfying to work with students. I enjoy helping to broaden students’ views about science and engineering, while encouraging students to think critically and to be ambitious. Seeing students do well and go onto successful careers is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

SBS is one of the University’s largest and fastest growing Schools - what does joining us mean to you?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to come back to Australia to join the Department and, by extension, the Doherty Institute – it’s exciting to become a part of this and to explore ways to contribute.

I am blown away by the scale and depth of activities around infectious diseases and computational modelling here at UniMelb and more specifically, within the School and Department. Clearly, it is among the best in the world.

I’ve been inspired meeting colleagues from across SBS with diverse expertise in virology, immunology, vaccines, evolution, bioinformatics and modelling amongst others. Currently, I'm in the process of building a research group here and am very much looking forward to seeding new projects and collaborations.

Can you tell us about your previous role and the skills and experience you bring to the School of Biomedical Sciences?

Following on from my PhD studies, I went on to build my academic career at HKUST in Hong Kong and spent 15 years there working with the Dept of Electronic and Computer Engineering and the Dept of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

My research skills and interests involve the development of computational models and data science methods to study the evolution of infectious diseases and to look at new ways of rationally designing vaccines.

We have been involved with numerous projects related to modelling and vaccine design for different infectious diseases, including HIV, Hepatitis C, dengue virus, and most recently, Covid-19.

Our work on fitness models for the HIV envelope protein has now been used by collaborators at MIT to help rationally design new HIV vaccines that seek to direct T cell responses to those parts of HIV’s envelope where mutations are expected to be most harmful.

We have also developed predictive models and associated bioinformatics platforms to identify peptides of Covid-19 proteins that are good targets of T cells. This has spawned commercial products for use in T cell assays and has influenced the design of commercial Covid-19 vaccines.

Earlier this year we reported early results demonstrating that T cells induced by Covid-19 vaccines were likely to still recognize the newly emerging Omicron variant. This work received a lot of international news exposure including The Guardian, Fox News, The Australian and Tribune India.

As for our monkeypox work, there are important questions to answer regarding the efficacy of the recommended vaccines against the new monkeypox strain and emerging outbreak. Our work is a computational study that provides insights into this question.

Outside of work, what personal pursuits help you find work/life balance?

I have a young son, so naturally much of my personal time involves parks, playgrounds and scooters.

I also enjoy playing guitar, hiking and running. For several years I enjoyed learning to speak Chinese - but I’m pretty rusty these days!

What is your favourite coffee spot on campus?

House of Cards and Carte Crepes - can’t split them. They are both right next to the EEE Building, and both serve delicious coffees!

With the hindsight of having built a successful career what advice would you give to your younger self?

Research success is not quantified by how many papers you publish or even where you publish - but by the significance of the results in providing transformative knowledge or insight, and in delivering real positive impact to society.

Read more about Prof Matthew McKay