Issue: What is life?
10 May 2016 article
This is a regular column to introduce our members. In this issue, we’re pleased to introduce Suresh Mahalingam.
Where are you currently based?
I am currently a research professor at the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University on the sunny Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.
What is your area of specialism?
I am a virologist, with a particular interest in the pathogenesis and treatment of viral inflammatory diseases.
And more specifically?
In the past 10 years we have focused on understanding how viral infections cause disease in humans. We use animal models to dissect the mechanisms and we also work closely with clinicians to obtain human tissue samples so that we can bridge the gap between basic and clinical data. My work focuses on a number of viral infections in humans, particularly those that cause viral inflammatory disease, such as chikungunya virus, Ross River virus and dengue virus. We also work with respiratory viruses that affect young children, particularly respiratory syncytial virus and human metapneumovirus, for which we have very reliable animal model systems. Once we know the mechanisms that are involved, we can look at current drugs in the market that can be used against the virus. We are also developing vaccines.
Tell us about your education to date
I was raised in a small rural village in Malaysia near the east coast, with little surrounding it in any direction except the Malaysian jungle. It was a simple upbringing, without the distractions of big city life. The education system didn’t cater very well to students in remote villages, and so I was keen to finish school and head to Kuala Lumpur to follow my passion for biology. My second-year research project informed me clearly that my passion lay in biomedical research. I was fortunate to obtain a PhD scholarship at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University, which had a very high performing viral immunology programme, and I was inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning work of Rolf M. Zinkernagel and Peter C. Doherty that had been done there in the 1970s. This was an exciting time for me and confirmed that biomedical research was my true vocation.
Where did your interest in microbiology come from?
As a child, I was always fascinated by biology. During my undergraduate years in Kuala Lumpur, I came down with dengue fever (caused by dengue virus and transmitted by mosquitoes) and spent a very uncomfortable two weeks in hospital. The fact that there were no vaccines or specific antivirals for this virus stimulated a desire to work in the area of infectious disease, with a goal of helping people suffering from dengue and other infectious diseases. My goal remains to use my research skills to make a real difference, particularly for emerging virus diseases that affect poorer, developing countries.
What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?
The main challenge in research is funding, as the grant success rate is often very low and a lot of good grants don’t get funded. We have been very lucky to secure funding for our research from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. One other important thing is to be able to get interest from pharmaceutical companies. We are also trying to foster collaboration with biotechnology and big pharmaceutical companies, and at times this can be challenging as they may have different priorities and goals. I have found it most beneficial to meet with directors of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to discuss their drugs or vaccines, and apply them to my research as part of a collaboration. We’re also working hard to increase our collaborations with clinicians, so that we can take our research from the bench to the bedside. The best science comes about from being surrounded by the right environment – and it is particularly important to be in a strong intellectual environment, with a critical mass of researchers with overlapping areas of interest.
What is the best part about ‘doing science’?
I get enormous satisfaction from the scientific process. The thrill of conclusively proving (or disproving) a hypothesis is hard to beat, followed by the challenge of convincing the scientific community, particularly the reviewers of high impact journals! I also get considerable satisfaction from doing basic science that can influence change in clinical practice or provide a new pathway to therapeutic development.
I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities that have come my way, and I am passionate about giving back to the scientific community. I take special pleasure in nurturing the younger generation of scientists and the career development of scientists in my lab is a high priority. I am also on the national board of the Australian Institute of Policy & Science and serve this institute as a Tall Poppy Campaign Ambassador. This involves recognising Australian scientific excellence and encouraging younger Australians to follow in the footsteps of our outstanding achievers.
Who is your role model?
I greatly admire leading researchers in the field for their achievements. There are several that I look up to and aspire to follow in their footsteps.
What do you do to relax?
My wife Helen and I have two children, and these days it is family life that keeps me busy outside of the lab. One of my sons is autistic, which presents its own challenges, but he is still the sweetest and most lovable boy I know. My wife often teases me that I am married to my work, but the truth is that family life is the most important to me, and I work very hard to maximise my family time. I also enjoy watching tennis and listening to Indian classical music.
What one record and luxury item would you take to a desert island?
I would bring my drum to play and listen to classical performances of great South Indian musicians.
Tell us one thing that your work colleagues won’t know about you!
I am highly trained in Indian classical music, playing the mirthangam, a South Indian drum. My father taught me and I used to give numerous concerts in Malaysia and Australia.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
I can’t think of any job I would prefer, but perhaps a CEO of a large company, particularly one that supports the community and gives something back to the community.
If you would like to be featured in this section or know someone who may, contact Paul Easton, Head of Membership Services, at [email protected]