Graduate profile - Marnie Blewitt
Molecular Biology & Genetics Graduate
Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biology & Genetics)
Majored in Biochemistry
Completed Honours in Biochemistry in 1999
Completed her Doctor of Philosophy in Science (PhD) in 2004
Currently a Peter Doherty Postdoctoral Fellow at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne.
Marnie Blewitt’s Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biology & Genetics) took her outside the science realm when she first joined the workforce. In the end, this only confirmed that the laboratory was where she belonged.
Your current job in a nutshell?
I’m a laboratory scientist working in diseases of the blood. I also work in epigenetics, the regulation of gene expression.
How did you get there?
Epigenetics took me to where I am now – I first started studying epigenetics in Honours and continued with it in my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Science. ‘Epi’ means ‘above and beyond’, so ‘epigenetics’ is beyond what can be explained by genes. For example, genes can be thought of as letters arranged on a page from which words can be made. There’s no punctuation on the page though, so the sentences are open to interpretation. That’s what genes are like. This is why one identical twin might be born with a disease, but the other will be fine. We know their genes are identical and the environmental factors are the same, so the interpretation, or ‘expression’ of their genes must be the difference.
Within the laboratory where I studied towards my PhD, I developed the practice of a technique that’s used very little in Australia called ENU (ethylnitrosurea) mutagenesis. My current workplace already used this technique and wanted to expand into epigenetics, so I was a good choice.
Laboratory work can be viewed as dull, how do you find it?
It’s extremely rewarding work because we can determine which gene might be causing a patient’s symptoms. Currently, doctors can treat the symptoms, but scientists have the ability to discover what causes them.
Surprisingly, laboratory work is very social. I work in a group of 10 people and there is more opportunity for chatting while you work than in an office job! Science is also a portable career choice. I’ve already travelled heaps for conferences and I might choose to live overseas one day as there are many excellent laboratories in Europe and the US. Studying at the University of Sydney has already opened doors for me internationally. During my PhD I learnt techniques in Paris and at Oxford, and it made a difference that they knew my laboratory was from a reputable university.
Embarking on a PhD is a big commitment. How did you know that scientific research was for you?
Actually, I intended to study medicine, so my undergraduate degree, the Bachelor of Science (Molecular Biology & Genetics) was meant to be my stepping stone to the postgraduate medical program. During the course of my study, I discovered that I wanted to be at the coalface of research. I decided that involvement with discoveries would be more interesting for me, and more rewarding too, since the information I discover can benefit far more people than the patients I would have treated as a doctor.
My thoughts were confirmed by working as a management consultant for one year after finishing Honours. I got the job on the strength of my results because management consultants need to have diverse backgrounds in order to bring fresh ideas to solving a business’ problems. I enjoyed the work and interacting with my colleagues who were specialists in history and physics, but at the end of that year, I knew that I wanted to do my PhD. I find more job satisfaction in science because I’m doing something for people, not just for shareholders, but it depends on your outlook.
A particular personality is needed to cope with laboratory work as experiments only work about 5% of the time. Lectures don’t give you the whole picture, so if you are considering a career as a researcher, I recommend doing Honours, or at least summer research projects, so you can find out whether research is for you. Conversely, if sitting in a lecture theatre does not excite you, you may still like being a scientist.