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26 Oct 2018

People conducting research: Dr Hui Fern Koay

This article first appeared on the Convergence Science Network website. 
Written by Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, PhD student at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Science Communications Officer, Convergence Science Network. 

Meet my mate, Dr Fern Koay: a postdoctoral fellow at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) who studies MAIT cells. (The “MAIT” pun is abundant among scientific papers.)

A large part of the immune system is comprised of T cells, specialised cells that distinguish molecules as self or non-self. When they detect non-self, such as molecules from bacteria and viruses, they coordinate immune responses or efficiently kill any infected cell to contain and eliminate infection. A significant proportion of T cells are classified as mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells, which are located predominately in the mucous barriers of our body: the respiratory tract, intestines, and liver. There have been links found between abundance or absence of MAIT cells in circulation, or varied MAIT cell function and poor health outcomes in diabetes, irritable bowel disease, and other autoimmune diseases, but researchers are still trying to elucidate their exact role in these cases. In terms of studying T cells, MAIT cells are the new kids on the block and not much was known about their development and function; this is where Fern comes into the picture.

When Fern was young, her parents bought a telescope from Toys “R” Us for her sister, and she received a microscope – little did they know at the time that a microscope would become one of her daily tools in the future. Fern has liked science since high school and has always studied biology. She completed a Bachelor of Biomedicine at the University of Melbourne, mostly because she was unsure of what exactly she wanted to do in the future, but her Honours year cemented her path. Honours was a “make it or break it kind of year” for Fern, during which time she learned what research science is all about. Deciding that she was “too lazy to be a real doctor” and study medicine, she continued on to complete a Doctor of Philosophy with Professor Dale Godfrey and Dr Daniel Pellicci at the Peter Doherty Institute studying MAIT cells.

Fern uses mouse and human samples to define the development of MAIT cells. Like all other T cells, MAIT cells develop in the thymus, a hub for T cell development and maturation. The thymus is predominantly active in children, when much of the T cell development occurs, but in adults it shrinks in size and is tucked away between the lungs. Fern tracked the development of MAIT cells in mice to discover three developmental stages of MAIT cells, which she likens to “primary school, high school, and university”, where the cells mature and develop their ability to fight infections before entering into the blood to circulate around the body. She also observed these same three developmental stages in human thymuses, with only MAIT cells that had progressed to the final stage present in the blood, and to reach each successive stage, there were certain factors that the cells need to receive and checkpoints to pass. Knowing the links and checkpoints between these developmental stages will allow Fern and her colleagues to pursue methods of manipulating MAIT cells, especially in the context of disease.

In her discovery of the MAIT cell developmental pathway, Fern believes she has had an “element of luck”. At the beginning of her PhD, there was a breakthrough in field that provided researchers with the tools to identify and study MAIT cells, and from there, her own research progressed well, so she “stuck with it”. The University of Melbourne and her laboratory group have given her opportunities that she never thought she would have, including important research projects, funding, independence, and growth, all of which she is grateful for. She has also taken her “luck” into her own hands by seeking out leadership opportunities as a member of the working group to advise to the Victorian government initiatives for the Medical Research Future Fund, and with the Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences faculty Early Career Researcher (ECR) committee, which organises networking and professional development events for ECRs within the faculty. She also takes part in the organisation of the annual Day of Immunology, which includes a vaccination café for members of the public to receive a free influenza vaccination and coffee, public lectures, laboratory tours, and workshops for high school students.

While academia is “not always smiles and laughs”, Fern believes that it’s worth it so long as you “know what you’re getting into” (the experiments that don’t go to plan, the long hours, etc.) and has increasingly realised that “you can learn on the job” without having to necessarily “tick all the boxes” first – something that many women can struggle with accepting in taking on new roles or tasks. She has found inspiring mentors over the years, and keeps up a few hobbies - while you won’t find her at the gym, she does enjoy hiking and exploring the Victorian bushlands, an amazing aspect of Melbourne that she is aware shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Fern is only “fresh out of [her] PhD”, yet she already has an outstanding track record: she has received multiple awards for her work to date, including the prestigious Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research (Basic Science Researcher), and is already supervising students. She is continuing her research of MAIT cells in health and disease while juggling the new phase in her career, further exploring how these cells develop and how they can be manipulated. Coming from Malaysia, where a career in fundamental science is not as common, she has found it novel and incredibly rewarding to work in research, and she encourages everyone to not take the “generic path” set by others but to find “something that works for them”. Thankfully for the field of immunology, Fern did become a doctor – not a medical doctor – and is unlocking the secrets to these novel immune cells.