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Star Scientist
of the Month
- Dr Amy Nicks

Dr Amy Nicks knows her work is like searching for a needle in a haystack

Our Star Scientist for September, Dr Amy Nicks from the Molecular Cardiology Laboratory, is determined to hone in on the gene that could be the key to unlocking heart regeneration. She’s already narrowed down the search from 14,000 genes to 500, buoyed on by the sheer beauty of these incredible structures that she’s studying every day.

Dr Amy Nicks in her lab

Dr Amy Nicks counts herself lucky on many fronts. Since joining Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute eight years ago she’s completed her PhD, travelled the world with her work and been involved in global collaborations.

She’s also working on a project that not only ignites her passion but excites that of her family and friends.

“My main focus is on heart regeneration and how we can regenerate new cells to help with heart function. We are looking at the special ability of a baby’s heart which can repair itself because its cells are still growing and dividing. Adult heart cells can’t divide so when a heart attack occurs and part of the heart dies in the adult, you can't replace those heart cells and the heart is permanently damaged. Heart growth is massive from a baby to an adult. It requires heart cells, called cardiomyocytes, to divide and when that stops, the heart continues to grow larger by the enlargement of these cells. 

“We are trying to find clues for the cell division in a baby’s heart by studying normal heart growth to see if we can switch that process back on in an adult after a heart attack.

“The challenge is that there are 14,000 genes expressed in heart cells, so we’ve been trying to narrow that number down by grouping genes based on function using bioinformatics.”

Studying cardiomyocytes

In the Molecular Cardiology Lab, Dr Nicks gets to study these baby heart cells at incredibly close quarters and see how intricate these cells are.

“Not many people know anything about these cells and they're really beautiful. They’re these rod-shaped cells that look like bricks. 

Dr Amy Nicks standing beside her research poster for AHA; Image of cardiomyocytes P2, 10, 13, and adult with labels.
Dr Amy Nicks presenting her research poster at AHA; Image of cardiomyocytes P2, 10, 13, and adult.

"We've developed a new method to isolate the cells and capture them as they would be in the heart. And, when you isolate them from the heart, they still continue to beat, even though it's not in the whole organ, which is very cool to see. When I tell my friends and family about what I am doing, they’re pretty amazed.”

Once the cells are isolated, Dr Nicks can analyse all the genes that are expressed. She found that there are around 14,000 genes expressed in these hearts, and about 4,000 of these will change as we age.

“That's nearly a third of genes expressed that are changing from a baby heart cell to an adult heart cell. We have to look back at all these genes to figure out which pathways are being turned on and turned off, and why are those specific 4,000 genes changing.”

Dr Nicks has so far discovered there are around 500 key genes in heart growth. Now it’s about focusing on in these specific genes to try and identify their role as transcription factors, a protein that can turn genes on or off.

“It's really difficult, because depending on the nature of the transcription factor, they will have completely different biology. So, it could be a hormone receptor we’re looking for or it could be an enzyme amongst other types. For example, with the thyroid hormone receptor, you can just administer thyroid hormone to regulate gene expression. Whereas for another, it may require a lot more work understanding the mechanism of action to target for treatment. So, it really depends on the nature of the gene that we think is responsible.”

Scientist travelling abroad

Dr Nicks has been able to not only work with colleagues in her lab and the broader Institute on this work, but also with an international collaboration – a network called the Leducq Foundation.

“Professor Graham secured funding for me to be part of this network. Having this opportunity has been amazing as you are working with scientists from all over the world and have the ability to present ideas and collaborate. This brings together multiple approaches of scientists from different continents to develop our work and gain a better understanding of heart regeneration. We can also look at heart regeneration in different species such as zebrafish.”

Being part of this network has allowed Dr Nicks to travel to USA, Japan, and Croatia. It’s also helped her work on her presenting skills.

Dr Amy Nicks enjoying the sunshine on a trip abroad

Overcoming presentation nerves and early career advice

“I was very nervous presenting but it’s an incredibly important skill for any researcher. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and started by entering competitions, like the Three Minute Thesis comp.

“I froze during that first competition, and I didn't speak for 10 seconds.  I just went bright red but I made it through. I definitely worked on improving my skills in this area and a year later I put my work forward to present at St Vincent’s Precinct Postdoc Symposium and won the people’s choice. I now really enjoy having the chance to present and engage with different audiences. 

“The better you get the more you are invited to speak, and opportunities open up.”

Another key area for any emerging scientist is getting published, so whilst Dr Nicks would prefer to be in the lab, she’s now focused on writing two papers. The first of which is about the methodology involved in her work, and another the results thus far.

“For early career researchers it's a big tick on your CV to get your work published and this determines your ability to get funded. You must be able to show that you have papers. It also helps to build up a reputation in a particular research field. For example, if my methodology becomes helpful to other people, they'll come to me for my expertise and will want to collaborate further.

“It also helps to be able to say I am working alongside someone like Professor Bob Graham and have his support.  That’s incredibly important at this stage of my career.”

Dr Nicks says it’s not just the world-class faculty heads that keeps her at the Institute. It’s also the mix of international students that make it feel like a family.

“I came straight from university in the UK to do my PhD and found most other students were also from overseas. I think that's a big positive about science as we’re a diverse bunch of people united by science. It’s like we were all a family away from home together.”

Future plans

Until Dr Nicks can get back home, and hopefully visit her grandmother who turns 90 in Cape Town this year, she’s keeping sane during lockdown by trying to get outside as much as possible by walking and running. 

Once lockdown lifts, she will be back to hanging out with her expat community, travelling overseas, and attending and presenting at conferences in person once again.

Learn more about the Molecular Cardiology LabRead more stories from behind the discoveriesRead more Women in Science Stories