This month, the Library spoke with Dr Linlin Ma about her research, what inspires her and what advice she has for emerging bioscientists.

Dr Ma is a molecular biologist and electrophysiologist. She is a lecturer in our School of Environment and Science and a member of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. Her major research interest is to understand the gating properties and functional features of interested ion channels in related pathological settings.

She began a Master of Science in Medical Genetics in China, where she worked on cancer research and trained in molecular biology and genetics. Dr Ma came to Australia to complete her PhD in Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences under two ion channel biologists, Prof Allan Bretag (University of South Australia) and Assoc Prof Grigori Rychkov (University of Adelaide). She received an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) granted by the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) to complete her PhD.

Learn more about Linlin’s research in the Q & A below and by exploring Linlin’s work in Griffith Research Online (GRO).

“I always think that ion channels are magic proteins.”

Q & A:

What is your area of research?

Since moving to Australia, I have been working on various ion channels and related diseases caused by dysfunctional ion channels, which we call channelopathies. Ion channels are transmembrane proteins expressed by virtually all living cells. They create pathways for charged ions, such as sodiumpotassiumcalcium and chloride ions, to pass through the otherwise impermeant lipid cell membrane.

I always think that ion channels are magic proteins. They not only build ‘tunnels’ across the cell membrane for different ions to travel through, they also have the ‘gate’ to control the opening and closing of the tunnel as a response to different physiological and pathological stimuli. In most cases, ion channels are selective.

Ion channels can be categorised by the type of ions they conduct. So far, I have been working on sodium channels, potassium channels, calcium channels and non-selective TRP (Transient receptor potential) channels. Currently, I am focusing on Parkinson’s disease, and studying how dysregulation and malfunction of related ion channels contribute to the pathogenesis of this complex and inscrutable disease.

What sparked your passion for this area of research?

I have always been interested in brain and neurological diseases. This interest was developed through my journey of studying ion channels. Think about the simple things that we have taken for granted in our daily life. When you run away from a snake, feel amused by a joke, feel moved by a blooming flower —all kind of ion channels are busy opening and closing their gates in your brain to send electrical signals, trigger action potentials and promote the release of neurotransmitters.

It roughly takes one day to accomplish DNA replication and cell division in our body. It takes one hour to achieve gene transcription and protein synthesis. Hormone regulation could happen on a time scale of one minute. Enzymes carry out their activities in the time range of one-tenth of a second to a second. But the electrical signalling carried out by ion channels takes place on a millisecond timescale. Isn’t that amazing? The many special and interesting properties of these biological marvels [ion channels] have kept me interested in the past years, and their significance in many neurological disorders that affect millions of lives have sparked my passion for this research field.

Why is this research important?

I believe every research field is important. Parkinson’s disease is attractive to me because it’s so complex, like a multi-faced secret box, and it affects our ageing society so badly. Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the world. It causes the loss of a type of neurons called dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain. The progressive loss of these neurons results in both motor symptoms—such as tremor, bradykinesia, postural instability and rigidity—and non-motor symptoms, such as sleeping disturbance, olfaction dysfunction and depression.

We now know that Parkinson’s disease is a multifactorial disease involving both genetic and environmental factors. But the detailed cellular and molecular mechanisms are far from being elucidated. Currently, available treatment can only release the symptoms to some extent. However, it could cause severe side-effects, so it’s still a big challenge for many scientists worldwide to better understand the pathogenesis of this disease to develop new and more effective treatment.

The total cost of Parkinson’s disease in Australia was approximately $9.9 billion in 2014 and quickly increased to over $12.3 billion in 2018. This trend is still ongoing because Parkinson’s disease is an age-related disorder and our society is ageing.

Who has inspired you?

Many people have inspired me but let me give two examples. One is Prof Jie Zheng, my mentor when I worked at the University of California. I have worked in six different labs since my Masters degree, and each lab head has a different style. Prof Zheng’s style is my most favourite one, so I’m now adopting his style in managing my own lab. He cares about each person in his lab: not only their work but also how they are learning, their career and even their life. He treats every student with respect, not because of the politeness, but from the bottom of his warm heart. He is a respectable scientist—curious, rigorous, hardworking and down-to-earth.

Another role model for me is Prof William N. Zagotta at The University of Washington. Prof Zagotta was my mentor when I participated in the 2018-2019 Junior Faculty Networking Cohort organised by the Journal of General Physiology and Society of General Physiologists (US), a program designed to support and connect junior faculty in the first stage of their independent careers. Throughout the year, he so patiently and generously shared his experiences and advice as a research leader. I have known Prof Zagotta since 2012 when Prof Zheng worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Prof Zagotta’s lab. What inspires me the most, other than his outstanding career pathway as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, is Prof Zagotta’s purity as a scientist. He would give honest and wise advice to his competitors, discuss science with his students tirelessly and provide every opportunity to his lab members to help them develop their careers. For an outstanding scientist like Prof Zagotta, success is just a by-product of satisfying his own curiosity.

“[M]y philosophy is you can’t wake up somebody who is pretending to sleep.”

What advice do you have for students and researchers?

Being a researcher is certainly not an easy pathway, so make sure that you choose this career pathway by following your heart. As my students know, my philosophy is you can’t wake up somebody who is pretending to sleep. One has to be self-motivated to be a scientist. With today’s fast progress in science and technology, each field has been divided into many smaller areas. I would suggest a student explore as broadly as possible to identify a sub-field that interests and motivates them before starting a PhD degree. I truly believe that interest is the best teacher, and people with internal motivation can go further.