Q&A with Prof. Joel Mackay

July, 2010

Professor Joel Mackay

Professor Joel Mackay is a specialist researcher in the field of protein structure, function, design and engineering.

Prof. Mackay was awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1994 and moved to The University of Sydney the following year. Since that time, Prof. Mackay has established a vibrant research laboratory in the School of Molecular Bioscience and is respected internationally for his work.

His work has focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying gene regulation and erythrocyte development. He determined the first structures of protein complexes showing that zinc-finger domains can mediate protein-protein interactions. These findings revealed the molecular basis for several human genetic disorders.

Joel is the proof that you don’t have to be old and desiccated in order to make a contribution to science. In 1997 he won the Biophysics Young Investigator Award and in 2001 the Roche Molecular Biochemicals Medal from the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 2002 he won the Science Minister’s Prize for Achievement in the Life Sciences for scientists under thirty five, as well as the Australian and New Zealand Society for Magnetic Resonance Young Investigator Medal. He currently has over a hundred publications and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing his prolific output.

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

I'm not sure I ever did make that decision, but here I am! I have always just enjoyed doing research, and no one has stopped me yet, so I am still doing it!

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

Definitely my PhD supervisor, Dudley Williams in Cambridge. I don't think I really realised it at the time, but looking back now I can see that he shaped the way I think about a problem. He also always gave people in the lab every chance to shape their project themselves, which I think was a great opportunity for me at the time. I try to do that now in my lab (although you will have to ask people whether they think I do it enough or too much or not at all…).

Is there a discovery related to your research for which you would you most like to be awarded the Nobel Prize?

I think that one of the most compelling mysteries about gene regulation is the question of how – physically - transcription, splicing and so on can actually happen on a useful timescale, given the enormous complexity of the nucleus and the degree of compaction of the genomic DNA. I would love to get to grips with this problem and be awarded the big gong for nutting it out, but I have to think of some feasible experiments first!

What do you think is the most pressing and exciting question in your field?

The question of how the histone code actually works is a big one that is hanging over everyone's heads, and also the question I mentioned before of how transcription and so on can actually take place in the nuclear hubbub…

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

We are trying our hands at protein design – attempting to make a small army of designer RNA-binding proteins that will be able to recognise any chosen RNA sequence. If this works, we should become wildly wealthy and also spark a whole swag of pretty interesting science.

We are also trying to solve structures of some big protein complexes involved in gene regulation. We have already had some success with one of the subunits of one of these complexes, and have some promising data that is getting us excited at the moment!

What do you enjoy most about being in academia?

There is quite a long list! The freedom to follow your own path of research and to be your own boss is very liberating. I love the fact that you are continually doing things that no one has ever done before – every experiment is a world first! The opportunity to travel is a great bonus too, but perhaps more than anything I get a real kick out of seeing people in the lab take over their projects and drive them themselves – to see people becoming independent scientists before my eyes!

What would you do differently if you had your time over?

Hmmm – I might have spent a couple of years doing postdoctoral work in the northern hemisphere, working in a big protein structure lab, before coming back down under. And I would definitely have learned how to read music…

What are you most passionate about outside the laboratory?

That would have to be trail running and rogaining (the sport of cross-country navigation). It is very meditative to get out on the trails (and off the trails!) for a long run, and you see so much that you don't see if you stick to the city streets. It is amazing how much great singletrail there is around Sydney – we really are very lucky here in that regard, to have both bush and beach so accessible in such a big city.

What achievement outside science are you most proud of?

Let’s see –that would be a close call between winning the Great North Walk 100-mile trail run in 2008 and winning the Australian Rogaining Championships near Alice Springs a couple of years ago. If I can figure out how to play this saxophone I have just acquired, that might knock the other two off though!