Many of us have experienced the pain and discomfort of a middle ear infection, either personally or in our children. While most children outgrow these infections by school age and are unlikely to suffer long-term problems, the same cannot be said for Australian Indigenous children—from one year old, almost 100% experience middle ear infections which can last through the early years of their childhood development.
In the following Q & A, Dr Darren Grice, Research Leader at the Institute for Glycomics and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Medical Science, discusses his research on a vaccine for middle ear infections, the Institute’s collaboration with the Earbus Foundation of WA and what researchers can learn from early explorers.
Q & A:
What is your area of research?
I carry out synthetic organic chemistry research with a principal focus on carbohydrates (sugars) and their structures, and how these can be used for novel therapeutic treatments targeting diseases such as middle ear infections, leukaemia and cancer. The carbohydrates on the surface of the cells in our body and on bacteria are like barcodes—barcodes to an important language that we never really knew existed. The focus of my research, and an aim of the Institute for Glycomics, is to decode this ‘sugar language’ so we can understand it and discover how to use it—mimic it, copy it—in a beneficial therapeutic way.
One research project that I work on with collaborators is the development of a conjugate vaccine aimed at protecting children against the bacterial pathogens responsible for middle ear infections and associated respiratory diseases. This research primarily focuses on the carbohydrate molecules that are present on the surface of bacteria and are involved in middle ear infections. In September, we selected an international student who has now been awarded The Harvey Coates PhD scholarship (from the Earbus Foundation of WA) to progress our work on our middle ear infection vaccine.
What is the real life impact of your research?
To most Australians, the impact of middle ear infections doesn’t sound like a big deal but, as it turns out, Australian Indigenous children have what the World Health Organization describes as a Public Health Emergency in terms of the percentages of children infected with the bacteria. From one year old, almost 100% of Indigenous children have the bugs in their ears and suffer from middle ear infections. The disease aside, the social implications of the resulting hearing loss are lifelong as it impacts on almost every aspect of early childhood development—speech, balance, coordination, language and play.
Earbus Foundation WA travel by bus into regional Western Australia Indigenous communities to treat thousands of Aboriginal and at-risk children. Recognising the value and need for research to expand their cause, they recently agreed to work with us and provide funding for our middle ear infection vaccine development research project. This research is directly related to a real–life, everyday problem that children suffer from on a daily basis and this makes the research very meaningful.
The Institute for Glycomics is part of a unique collection of only a few research institutes worldwide solely dedicated to carbohydrate research focused on fighting diseases. Collaborating with like-focused scientists within the Institute is certainly empowering in the search for effective therapeutics.
Are there such things as set-backs in research?
Research is often like taking nine steps backwards and then ten steps forward because you are constantly trying to do new things and these often don’t work. PhD students can go for a year or two without coming up with a solution to a problem, so you need to develop the mindset of seeing the big picture.
I often tell my students that research is like conquering Mount Everest. Consider the number of attempts, the years of planning, the mapping of climbing routes, the number of dead ends, the ever–changing elements…but in the end a way was found and Mount Everest was conquered.
The knowledge and understanding gathered when something doesn’t work can be just as important as what is gathered when something does work. It doesn’t mean you haven’t achieved a result and it can’t be published—you have likely learnt what could and couldn’t be done. Like with Mount Everest, we stand on the shoulders of those before us.
What advice do you give students?
As an academic these days you need to learn how to multi-task, and this really is quite a different set of skills to those that you thought you would acquire working in one field of research.
Try and set reasonable goals for yourself and to extend yourself. Take on the challenges and don’t be afraid of these opportunities—in fact, these are the times when I have felt the most satisfaction.
I would also advise them to learn how to articulate their problem for themselves before approaching others. The default trend is to want to know the answer now rather than to dig into the problem first. But we can’t default to a quick solution all the time. Before using someone’s expertise, you first need to work through the problem yourself to understand the problem and the question, and to develop your best understanding of a proposed solution or approach. Then, when you approach someone for help, you are fully prepared for the guidance and the challenge ahead.
Who is your inspirational person from history?
I always have been very impressed with Ernest Shackleton. On an expedition to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole, the expedition ship became trapped and was slowly crushed in pack ice. The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice before launching the lifeboats to reach land. Shackleton left his men and sailed 800 km, in the worst possible conditions in the world, to South Georgia Island. There he crossed the mountains to a whale station, commandeered a boat and rescued all his men. Through it all he remained positive and he never gave up.
I admire Shackleton’s mental toughness and his positivity. And it is applicable to science—the determination and stickability to finding alternate solutions when needed.
Read more about the research being undertaken at the Institute for Glycomics in its fight against diseases of global impact.
Discover more about middle ear infections through our open access research on Griffith Research Online.