Elizabeth New (BSc (Adv)(Hons) ’06 MSc ’07) was eight when she did her first science experiment at the University of Sydney. Her mother pricked her own finger, and together they looked at the blood under a microscope in her father’s lab.
“It was warm, so the cells were still moving around each other and it was fascinating to see all of the different types of cells that made up the blood,” she says.
Elizabeth, who is now an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney where her father lectured in microbiology, can draw a direct line between her childhood experiments and where she is today.
“My research is about microscopy; it's about seeing things at a resolution that we can’t normally see. That’s the first time I could see that. It's something that fascinated me then and it still fascinates me now.”
Elizabeth’s work takes her inside cells, the smallest unit of life. They are invisible to the naked eye, yet are themselves teeming with proteins, fats and other kinds of genetic information.
“If a medical researcher wants to understand where a drug molecule goes in the cell or wants to understand how a toxic molecule causes disease, we have this real challenge of being able to pick out the one thing we want from among everything else,” she says.
To that end, Elizabeth has developed fluorescent sensors that “light up” the relevant molecule, so the researcher can easily see the effects of drugs or disease on the body.
So far she has developed 10 sensors, including four for oxidation, which show how ageing affects the body, and one for cisplatin, an anticancer drug used in half of the chemotherapies in Australia.
“Cisplatin is very useful because we can't find anything better. But it contains a heavy metal and has terrible side effects and no one understands very well how it works. So we've made a fluorescent molecule that shows where cisplatin is in the cell. And for the first time we can see where it goes and what it does.”
These sensors are being applied across many fields of medical research and Elizabeth is thrilled that others are finding a use for the technology.
“We have many collaborators around the world who use our sensors, so the application is really advancing medical research. When we meet them and they say ‘we've been wishing there was something like this’, it’s really satisfying.”
When Elizabeth took up an Associate Professor position at the University, it was like coming home in more ways than one.
“I grew up going to the biochemistry building and doing experiments in my dad’s lab. I feel very connected to it.”
She graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Science before undertaking a Master of Science, then headed to the UK and the US for further study. She spent five years away from Australia and at first wasn’t sure she would come back. But then the Associate Professor position at the University came up.
“It was my dream job. I had always wanted to teach,” she says.
Elizabeth adores her work and relishes the chance to share her passion for discovery with the next generation.
“Having the chance to share what I find fascinating about science with students and seeing them make their own realisations about what's fascinating is so rewarding. It's great to see students advance and their understanding increase so much in such a short period of time. That's really satisfying.”