We are pleased to introduce Dr Carol Wicking BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, Phenomics Australia Science Advisor. She has over 30 years of experience in academic research both in Australia and internationally. In addition to her role as a member of the Board of Phenomics Australia, she is Chair of the Scientific and Medical Advisory Committee and a non-executive Director of Australia’s peak organization for rare diseases, Rare Voices Australia.
Five questions with Carol Wicking: an interview with Phenomics Australia Science Advisor
1. How did you first become interested in science and research?
I was not one of those children who was fascinated with science and knew from an early age that was the path I wanted to pursue. In fact, I somewhat drifted into an undergraduate science degree at Melbourne University, and it wasn’t until I discovered genetics in the final year of that degree that my interest was piqued. It was then several years later, when the opportunity arose to undertake a PhD in the molecular genetics of cystic fibrosis in London, that I became passionate about science. This was the very early days of this field, and I was working in what was arguably the epicentre of human molecular genetics.
This was just as the human genome project was being proposed, and it was an incredibly exciting, albeit competitive environment. The technological advances I have witnessed across my career have been massive, and each stage has brought new challenges and new opportunities. I love nothing more than listening to young scientists with big visions and the skills and technologies to apply to solving problems in a way we could only dream of when I was starting out.
2. How do you think Phenomics Australia currently provides value to researchers, and are there any planned new capabilities which will be available soon?
The advances in technologies discussed above have brought fantastic opportunities and have changed the way science is done. There has been an inevitable shift away from the siloed type of research of the past to a more multidisciplinary, collaborative approach. It is no longer feasible for every research group to establish in-house the techniques they require. Phenomics Australia, and NCRIS more broadly, fill an important niche in the Australian research community by providing access to core platform technologies. Historically Phenomics Australia has been focused on providing access to the production and analysis of mouse models. However, increasingly Phenomics Australia is responding to the changing face of phenomics and genomics and its impact on the burgeoning field of precision medicine. Advances in cell-based technologies and the modelling of complex cellular environments in culture have led to recent Phenomics Australia investment in a new capability that will allow broader access to cutting-edge approaches such as stem cell and organoid technologies and the screening and analysis platforms that go hand in hand with these advances. Spanning multiple sites across Australia, this capability will work as one to provide access to cell-based technologies and the highest level of internationally recognised expertise and knowledge available in this field across the country. This capability in cell-based non-animal technologies will complement and value-add to Phenomics Australia’s existing excellence in supporting Australian research through access to animal models of disease.
3. Since joining Phenomics Australia, how do you think the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) has evolved and where do you see it heading?
Since joining Phenomics Australia I have seen much effort invested in promoting collaboration across the various NCRIS capabilities to provide a seamless pipeline to enhance the output and translation of the Australian research community. By exploiting the complementary and in some cases overlapping services and expertise provided by different capabilities, the true potential of the government investment in research infrastructure through NCRIS will be realised. From the Phenomics Australia perspective, this has been particularly evident in increasing collaboration and discussion amongst the group of NCRIS capabilities relevant to human health. I think this type of collaborative approach is essential and will only increase in the future, mirroring the large-scale multidisciplinary collaborations in the research community. Increasingly, the considerable scientific and technical expertise available within NCRIS-funded facilities will be pivotal in underpinning the success of such large projects. I think one challenge for NCRIS is the effective communication of the huge breadth of services, expertise and knowledge available to the research community, and the value to be gained in tapping into this valuable government-funded resource.
4. What do you think are the big challenges and opportunities in Precision Medicine from an infrastructure provider perspective?
Precision Medicine is an exciting arm of health care built on a person-centred approach to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease. To a certain extent, a personalised approach to medicine has been practised for some time in certain aspects of healthcare, but advances in genomics allow a more focused tailoring of treatments at an individual level. While early successes in the field have been focused on rare genetic diseases and some cancers, there is no doubt that the future holds broader application to more common diseases, including genetic risk prediction as a means of disease prevention through targeted population-based screening. These approaches will rely not only on access to physical technologies and relevant biological samples, but increasingly on massive amounts of highly curated data stored in a secure and accessible manner. The issues around data storage and accessibility are fundamental to the FAIR principles of research – findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability – that are core to the translation of research findings to healthcare. In the long run, a common interoperable approach to biobanking, disease registries and data storage, linked to electronic health data, will underpin the successful application of precision medicine across Australia.
5. If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing instead?
Something to do with design – maybe an architect or a jeweller. In all honesty, I feel very fortunate and privileged to have been able to sustain a career in research for as long as I did. While obtaining funding was always difficult and stressful, it has become increasingly hard for the next generation to contemplate a long career in science. These problems are enhanced for women, with inequitable gender-based distribution of opportunities and funding continuing to be an issue. Having now retired from my academic career, I enjoy the opportunity to help facilitate research through my continued involvement with organisations like Phenomics Australia and other groups I work closely with. In particular, my roles as a Director and member of the Scientific and Medical Advisory Committee of Rare Voices Australia, the peak advocacy body for Australians living with a rare disease, have given me a greater understanding of the importance of community involvement in research and a person-centred approach to healthcare. Retirement also affords me the time to indulge in other interests outside of science that in another world may have ended up forming the basis of a different career!