Twenty years ago, Professor Mark von Itzstein established the Institute for Glycomicsthe only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere and only one of a few in the world.  

In the following Q & A, discover how an inquisitive nature, expert mentors and broader study took him from a potential career in veterinary science to establishing the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University. 

Q & A: 

What started you on the path from animal husbandry to Director of the Institute for Glycomics? 

Coming from a farming backgroundmy parents were dairy farmersit was logical that my starting point was to study animal husbandry at the Queensland Agricultural College (Gatton), now part of the University of Queensland. After graduating, my plan was to leave Australia and study veterinary medicine at an esteemed college in the US. Prior to leaving, however, came the recommendation from the college to first study a broader science degree; the aim was to deepen my understanding of science prior to studying veterinary medicine. 

Studying science at Griffith opened up a whole new world for me. Imy foundation year, I was learning about astronomy, geology, deeper chemistry, etc., for the first time, which was intriguing to me But what I really enjoyed was the fact that the professors were passionate, not only about the material, but also about engagement and deliveryIt was just amazing to experience and gave me the great opportunity to meet a number of significant mentors who changed my path and my life forever.  

I was in the third intake of a young university and they were genuinely remarkable years at Griffith. The uni was small and on one campus but was set apart from other universities due to its interdisciplinary approach; its ability to attract prestigious and influential teachersgrant winning researchers recognised across Queensland and the nation; and its ability to attract both students and teachers from diverse backgrounds. I really relished this sort of environment. 

By the time I had marched through second and third year, that passion had been instilled in me and by the end of third year I had done a triple major!  

What led to your proposal for the development of the Institute for Glycomics? 

The origins of the Institute stem back 20 years when Griffith’s then Vice Chancellor Professor L Roy Webb and the Queensland State Government approached me at Monash University. They wanted to know my vision in terms of research and in terms of contribution and to know what would bring me back to Queensland and GriffithSo I outlined a vision for a world-class Institute that undertook original and collaborative research across the country, and if necessary, the worldThe facility also would fit into Griffith’s interdisciplinary ethosintegrating aspects of science from all fields into one team to deliver translational outcomes for contractible diseases. 

After having those conversations, they attracted me back to establish what we now have as a remarkably unique facility in the country and a core facility for the world, for other Australian scientists and our international colleagues. We set up something that was going to be really attractive to anyone who didn’t want to be an expert in glycomics but wanted a solution that related to glycomics. 

What does translational research mean to the Institute for Glycomics? 

It means translating research into tangible benefits for the global community. Here at the Institute we are solving problems and identifying opportunities that can lead to new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines to help humanity fight disastrous diseases, both emerging and existing. Right now, the Institute is best known in the infectious diseases space, e.g. malaria, anti-viral drug discovery, influenza Significant studies with global impact are being undertaken and there has been so much interest from industry around multimilliondollar co-development programs. 

A more recent, but equally exciting, portfolio, in the Institute is in the cancer space. Over the next four years I anticipate as many major breakthroughs in that space as are currently are being experienced in the infectious disease space. For the first time, we genuinely are seeing real imaging of cancer cells – remarkable changes to glycomic patterns to these cells – that gives hope to new diagnostics and drug and vaccine discovery 

What advice would you give new students and researchers? 

Really it is all about life-long learning. I finished my first degree and discovered I knew nothing. At the end of my PhD I thought I knew a lot but discovered I certainly didn’t know much at all. Entering the post-doctoral world, you know specific things but still not much at all. Life-long learning really is a term that should be used more and more often.   

Critical nowadays is the selection of research domain and my advice is to not select based on hot spots. Pick a research area where you can do your best as an individual and make a world impactAlso, an area where you know you are going to be able to work over the next 10, 30, 50 years. 

Passion and a sense of social conscience, of really caring, are vital. We live in a much more complex world, so you need compassion and understandingAlso, tenacity and resilience. If you are entering into a research career, even academic, enter with your eyes wide open as it is a very competitive system. 

Also, I would advise that learning to communicate is key. It is vital to know how to translate your research in a way that engages with, and informs, the public and empowers them to advocate to government on your behalf. Scientists and researchers can’t be invisible to the public and this affects all fields of research. 

And finally, as I discovered, mentors play a critical role at certain points on your path, either to your career development or personal life. I was fortunate to have critical people along all stages from first year to now. 

Do you feel you have moved into a mentor role? 

Absolutely 100%. And you need to if you are going to be a research group leader. You cannot only be good at your own profession, but you need to understand that younger generations are dealing with things we never had to worry about, like earning money outside of study to live. 

Being a mentor is the best experience for a person in my positionor for any supervisor of any student or staff member. You get those eureka moments that all researchers go through, and you have to celebrate those moments; you really are applauding their outcomes. It is very rewarding to be working with young people and seeing how they mature as the next generation of scientists. 

More information 

Read more about the Institute for Glycomics and its mission to fight “diseases of global impact through discovery and translational science”. 

Discover more about glycomics through our open access research on Griffith Research Online.