Q&A with Associate Professor Gareth Denyer

March, 2012

Gareth Denyer

Associate Professor Gareth Denyer currently works in the areas of molecular biology and genetics, and nutrition and metabolism, and was appointed Deputy Head of School under the guidance of current Head of School, Professor Iain Campbell. Gareth did his undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford and stayed there to do a PhD under the supervision of Professor Sir Philip Randle. He was appointed as a Lecturer in Metabolism, in the Department of Biochemistry in 1990. He was the recipient of the University Excellence in Teaching Award in 1995, and was part of the ELATE Committee that won the group award in 2010. In 2012, he won the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Teaching Award. He was over 70 publications over a wide range of discipline areas including metabolic regulation, microarray analysis, glycemic index testing, nutritional analysis, and molecular biology. His lab is currently investigating how fat cells (adipocytes) change in their behaviour as they get bigger and smaller.

Do you remember when the idea first crystallized that you would become an academic?

I always wanted to have a job in University teaching and research. After finishing my PhD in England, Ian Caterson offered me the chance to come to Sydney to work at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital as a Postdoctoral Fellow. During that time I was lucky enough to get a spot as a demonstrator in Biochemistry and was able to build up a good reputation for teaching. I was about to become a medical writer when a Lecturing position came up in the Department!

Who do you think has been your most influential mentor(s) during your scientific career?

Greg Cooney from the Garvan Institute was my Honours supervisor and continues to have a massive influence on me. Not only did he teach me the art of patient teaching, he drilled me thoroughly his philosophy of methodological rigour. Ian Caterson has been very supportive and given me lots of opportunities throughout the last 25 years. Len Storlien’s excitement for science and his breadth of knowledge are inspirational but he’s a role model for me in his kindness and encouragement to other researchers. Gerry Wake, our ex-Head of School, was a great leader and strongly looked after his staff and instilled in me a great sense of service to others. Dale Hancock and Jill Johnston are role-model teachers; everything they do is student-driven - they recognise student needs, command confidence by organising courses with military precision, show compassion and fairness at all levels and deliver meaningful classes and assessments.

What discovery, related to your research, would you most want to be awarded the Nobel Prize for? That is, what do you think is the most pressing and exciting question in your field?

I am currently trying to work out why fat cells misbehave as they change size. The health implications of obesity are something that we do need to understand better but working out why fat cells don’t like being super-sized is also a fascinating intellectual problem.

What are the most exciting things happening in your lab at the moment?

We’re trying to manipulate the size of fat cells by knock-down and over-expression of genes. This is exciting because I’ve been a metabolist and bioinformatician for a long time and haven’t employed these methods before. And we’ve also got some evidence to suggest that fat cells may have memory – and that has massive implications for the consequences of weight cycling.

What do you enjoy most about being in academia?

The most enjoyable thing about academia is the tremendous freedom that it provides; I could choose to research on anything, and, if I spot a teaching initiative that switches me on, I can go with it – it is a real privilege.

What would you do differently in your academic career if you had your time over?

I often think that I should have done more molecular biology in my early career but it is funny that people are now turning to those with a knowledge of the way that everything interacts. The point is that you never know what is for the best. And it all depends on how you judge a successful career. Sadly, for most people the scale is calibrated only in research output – but I’m pretty proud of the contribution I’ve made to teaching. In the current climate that probably was a bit short-sighted!

What are you most passionate about outside the laboratory?

Bushwalking and snorkelling are the two things I mainly like to do with my spare time. I watch an inappropriate amount of comedy and science fiction. I enjoy learning Chinese but I am rubbish at it. Similarly with all sports – I really love to play, the talent is just lacking! I’d love to be able to paint and I’m really envious of people that can do so.

What achievement outside science are you most proud of?

Getting my wife to fall in love with me.