NYSF 1987 Alumnus, Dr Jason Smith, talks about his varied career path

I attended the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF), formerly known as the National Science Summer School (NSSS), in 1987, some 30 years ago – that does make me sound old! It was the first time I realised there were lots of other kids like me who really enjoyed science, and it was fantastic to make friends across the country with others who shared a similar outlook. I was in the Human Biology group at NYSF/NSSS, which gave me a great insight into the world of health care and science within it.

Following Year 12 I studied Medicine at University of Queensland (UQ) and after working as a hospital doctor for a couple of years I started work as a GP. I then studied Civil Engineering as it was another area of interest for me, and I worked in that area for a short while before coming back to Medicine. After more time working as a GP, I undertook specialist training to become an anatomical pathologist, which is my job now and I love it.

In high school my favourite subject was biology and at the NYSF/NSSS I was amazed to see the possibilities that science was bringing to this field. The emerging knowledge of genetics that I first became interested in at NYSF/NSSS is now part of my regular work in regards to the different genetic mutations in tumours that we test for. A better understanding of these mutations allows for more accurate diagnoses and treatment with newer targeted therapies. This area of medical science is still changing at a rapid pace!

The NYSF/NSSS had a profound effect on me. It gave me the motivation to keep studying hard at school to get into university and opened my eyes to the wide range of jobs and careers that are based on the different sciences. It also gave me self-confidence – even if my school mates thought I was a bit of a nerd, I now knew there were others just like me all around the country who I’d met and made friends with.

I still keep in touch with fellow students from NYSF/NSSS 1987, both as friends and work colleagues. And although I’ve lost contact with some of the other students I met there, I’m sure many of them have also found their way to a happy and successful life somewhere in the sciences.

Event: The Science of Life + Death: Life in Perth – By the Australian Academy of Science

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On the Thursday 10 November 2016 (6:00pm start) the Australian Academy of Science will be running an event in Perth as part of their series, “The Science of Life + Death”.

The evening’s discussion will cover some of the key research in the field of epigenetics and the social and ethical considerations around this.

“The instructions for life are written in our DNA, but what if you could help the next generation to be stronger, taller, smarter, slimmer, free of birth defects and generally healthier later in life – would you use that power? Should you?”

“LIFE in Perth aims to discuss this rapid evolution of genes, the origins of life and if altering developing cells is really the right thing to do.”

The host for the evening’s epigenetics discussion will be science broadcaster Bernie Hobbs. Guest Speakers to include:

  • Dr Hayley Dickinson, Embriology and Placental Biology, Hudson Institute for Medical Research
  • Professor Ryan Lister, Lister Lab, University of Western Australia
  • Dr Brenda McGivern, Law School, University of Western Australia

Tickets for the event can be purchased here – $20 for general admission or $15 student concession.

 

“… by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science”

Seven years ago I was lucky enough to go to NYSF, Session B, 2006. What followed was a two week blur of science, chanting, laughter, confidence building, friendship and that inevitable final day when you realise you have to go back home.

I was in Rutherford, being a chemistry enthusiast at the time, and wore a postcard sized golden-yellow nametag around my neck. The name on my golden-yellow nametag was Nicholas Blackburn and funnily enough that still is the name on the tag around my neck right now, except that it’s an ID and access card attached to a red lanyard that indicates the research institute I study in. I’m a PhD student in Hobart, Tasmania at the Menzies Research Institute. My area is human genetics / bioinformatics and I work on a large blood cancer project where we conduct whole genome sequencing of related blood cancer cases.

Before NYSF, I had been pretty keen on studying music at university but by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science. Being in that NYSF environment with all these other young science enthusiasts really showed me how much fun science can be. 

 by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science 

So fast forward a few years, I graduated from UTAS with a Bachelor of Science in 2009 with a Biochemistry major and then completed an honours research year in 2010 in Neuroscience. In my undergraduate degree I worked with a research group at Menzies for the second and third years of my degree, which really exposed me to the world of medical research and drove my passion to work in that field. After the end of honours I began a PhD in Cancer Genetics in 2011. My PhD project started off in the lab at the bench but over the last few years it’s transformed into a more computationally based bioinformatics research project as I trawl my way through whole genome sequences to identify inherited mutations contributing to disease. I am working at the ‘cutting edge’ of research in a rapidly expanding genomics field. It’s damn exciting stuff, and a bit overwhelming at times.

Nick Blackburn NYSF 2006

So, seven years on from NYSF, what are the key influences I still draw on?

I was a bit of an introvert pre-NYSF. Admittedly I still am and I’m cool with that. But NYSF developed within me a level of comfort in my own skin that enabled me to step forward more, take more opportunities and speak up for myself. It took a number of months for me to grow into this new confidence but I use it every day now as a researcher, be it throwing my hand up to ask a question at a seminar (you’d be surprised at how many PhD students where I’m from don’t), talking for an hour in front of my group about my research, speaking off the cuff to community groups that tour our institute, as well as regularly visiting high schools and primary schools to get my science out there.

I think in many ways, my love of science communication also began at NYSF. Seeing people passionate about science has made me want to inspire that passion in others. And let me tell you, explaining your work to early primary school kids, at their level, and seeing them excited about science is a truly rewarding experience.

Also embedded within me from NYSF is this feeling of whatever I do and wherever I go in science I should be excited and passionate about what I am doing. If I don’t, it’s time to figure out why not and consider that I may need to move into a different area and re-spark my imagination. Thankfully, as a third year PhD student I still get excited about my project, it gets me up and going in the morning and keeps me up late at night.

A final piece of NYSF I still carry with me is the amazing network of fellow NYSFers we all possess. As well as keeping in touch by social media, occasionally you’ll see someone in a crowded room of scientists and think to yourself ‘wow, you look so familiar’ and then it’ll click and you’ll soon be reminiscing and catching up as if no time at all has passed. I look forward to the day when I bump into a fellow NYSFer in my field of research (any other geneticists / bioinformaticians out there?).

For me, right now, I’m past the half way mark of my PhD and heading towards the end of it. My work has recently taken me to San Antonio, Texas to work with colleagues for a month. Then I’ll be thrown into the midst of an American Society of Human Genetics’ conference in Boston alongside thousands of other researchers. After that, sometime next year I’ll finish this PhD and head off into the big wide research world as a postdoctoral researcher. Who knows, maybe I’ll bump into a few NYSFers along the way.

Taking the Next Step in Brisbane

From speed dating with a working scientist to speed breeding — of plants, not scientists — NYSF’s Next Step Program in Brisbane in April this year had it all.

The Next Step Program offers students who attend the NYSF January sessions of the National Youth Science Forum with a follow up opportunity to learn more about future study and career options in science in their local area. Next Step programs are held in other capital cities through the course of the year.

Hosted by NYSF partners in Brisbane, 108 students visited a wide range of facilities allowing them a valuable insight into just what is possible in a career in science.

QUT Sc Eng Centre

The Queensland University of Technology’s state of the art Science and Engineering Centre, provided students with an overview of the Centre and what it can offer.

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Workshops at Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute, where pharmaceutical discovery research is undertaken, was a highlight for many students, who commented that it was, “Great to hear about science collaboration,” and “I really enjoyed visiting Eskitis facility as it was in an area (drug discovery) that I’m really interested in.”

UQ Labs1

The program’s second day provided an array of workshops and presentations at the University of Queensland, including talks about Scanning Electron Microscopy, Genetic Blueprints, Fuels for the Future, Animal Diseases, “Speed Breeding” and Plant Diseases, Medicinal Chemistry, and a trip to the world of quantum weirdness! And then it was off to the Anatomy Museum, also on site at UQ.

Feedback from students that attended the Brisbane Next Step program was positive, with many grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with people they had met at NYSF sessions in January.

“Interesting, especially to hear from the guy who got the pictures of the atom’s shadow and also to see the layers.”

“Amazing to see real physics lab. Would have loved more time. Speaker was cool.”

Next Step programs are operating with NYSF partners in Newcastle, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth in July in 2013.