Where are they now? – Dr Julian Stevenson

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

Monument Valley

What years were you in the Brown Lab?
Various times from 2007 – 2014.

What memories do you have of your time in the Brown Lab?
To mention a few, they ranged from the routine, such as working in the red light of the dark room for old style Western blotting, or watching for the electrode bubbles from running countless gels, to the exceptional, with high points including being one of the first people on the planet to uncover some new detail to help understand human biology, followed by final acceptance of resulting publications. Excitedly discussing science with Andrew and colleagues was always a joy. Andrew made a great effort to hone our skills as scientists while often injecting a good dose of humour into proceedings. One of the most memorable periods during the PhD period was when I was not actually in the lab; I told Andrew I had a strange question, and he perceptively anticipated that I was considering going on the reality TV show, Beauty and the Geek Australia. It was an amazing experience, and I was happy that the journal cover for one of my key papers was included in the final quiz, seen by more than a million TV viewers. 

For $100,000, in which of these three journals did the Brown Lab publish?

What are you doing now?

After completing my research in Andrew’s lab, I moved to the San Francisco Bay area to conduct further research in lipid metabolism and proteostasis at the University of California, Berkeley. This was a very stimulating experience, where research could often be done faster and more cheaply than is common in Australia. Often, world leaders in some particular technique were literally around the corner. I used cutting-edge genetic engineering to visualise the fat in cells and worked on developing some potentially extremely powerful new approaches, which unfortunately likely need quite a few more years of technological advancement to bring to fruition. It was an amazing place to do science and great country to visit, but not a place I would want to call home permanently, in part due to the starker level of inequality in the US as compared to here in Australia. Post-doc salaries are only a bit higher than that of PhD students, about half that of an Australian post-doc salary, but living expenses were similarly high to Sydney. Many of the labs at Berkeley focussed on publishing dramatic stories in the highest impact journals, which meant that some excellent graduate students had no publications for long periods. In contrast, multiple publications for a student is common in Andrew’s lab, still in very respectable journals, but without exclusively holding out for the unlikely exceptional blockbuster, which I think is a much better model for students. Now, I am back home in Australia and have transitioned into healthcare, doing more directly practical work with a stronger human element, with the aim of becoming some variety of MD, after becoming a proper Doctor in scientific research already in Andrew’s lab.

How did you choose our lab?
I knew Andrew was an excellent teacher, writer and supervisor from taking his classes, including a short stint in his lab in third year. I was particularly interested in regulatory mechanisms at the molecular level in human biology, and Andrew had an excellent pitch to sell me on doing my Honour project in his lab, showing me some very exciting real data. It suggested the presence of an important novel control point in cholesterol synthesis, which was exactly the kind of thing I was keen to work on. A similar observation had been made by leaders in the field decades earlier, but fortunately for us, they did not decide to actively pursue it. Funnily enough, for the actual Honours project I then focussed much of my attention on protein structural information instead of its regulation, so just had to continue my research with Andrew to look more at the regulation side by completing my PhD in his lab. We were right, revealing that cholesterol causes the rapid degradation of one of the enzymes in its synthesis pathway, squalene monooxygenase, a classic example of end-product feedback inhibition. As part of the PhD I also worked on optimising the cloning and site-directed mutagenesis techniques that had eaten up so much time during Honours, throwing out the primitive 1970s techniques to replace them with much faster and more efficient methods. I believe our paper on this is essential reading for any molecular biologist who needs to do DNA manipulation in the lab. 

Any other thoughts to add?
I would encourage other budding researchers to be assertive and have confidence in their well supported ideas, whatever your level of experience. Also, to often take the time to stop and reflect, especially when progress seems slow, as careful original thinking can save immense amounts of time and yield important breakthroughs, although hard work at the lab bench is of course always essential too.

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