scientist in lab

Star Scientist of the Month -Mark Hunter

"My career in science goes to show that you can climb the ladder through hard work, persistence, and loyalty"

17 February 2021

Star Scientist of the Month, Mark Hunter, who didn't take the traditional route in becoming a scientist, continues to make leaps and bounds in electrophysiology over his fifteen years here at the Institute.

Mark Hunter with Prof Jamie Vandenberg

Congratulations Mark, you’ve been nominated for this month’s star scientist award. Professor Jamie Vandenberg nominated you for this award, why do you think he chose you?

Well, I guess we would have to ask Prof Vandenberg! But I think it’s probably because I’m the guy who always puts my hand up whenever Jamie is looking for help. I’ve been working for Jamie for 15 years now, or thereabouts. I think I’ve always been keen to go a little beyond what is required, helping out with administration tasks or offering to do things that others maybe didn’t enjoy, for example, presentations.

Fifteen years at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute! Wow! Tell us more about your scientific career.

I actually studied microbiology, and I originally wanted to work in a diabetes lab but at the time it wasn’t possible, there weren’t as many great Type 1 diabetes labs out there. That’s changed now but it influenced my decision at the time. I didn’t do a PhD, my personal circumstances just didn’t allow for it, so after University I took some short-term contracts, first at Pfizer and then at ANSTO.

Mark Hunter and computer

After that, I was lucky enough to work at AMR, in cancer. It was such a successful lab with great funding and that’s where I met Dr Adam Hill, a good friend of mine. He ended up leaving AMR to come over to Jamie’s laboratory, he encouraged me to take a leap and go out of my comfort zone by coming over to Jamie’s lab too. Fifteen years later, I’m now a Senior Research Officer.I’ve learned a lot and grown so much being at the institute for 15 years, that comes down to having a good mentor who allows for growth and Jamie has been top-notch there. When I first came into science, and I think this is true of most people, you are so interested in experiments and getting things to work, to become a technical expert rather than understanding science. Now, I hope to try and do a little of both.

Do you think that was the best decision for you, not to do a PhD?

Yes and no, the greatest benefit of doing a PhD is you can study whatever you want, choose the path you want to take and be your own boss. If you are really interested in something you can pursue that. But it’s also a lot of responsibility. And it can be hard when funding is down, people can lose their jobs, unfortunately.

I think my career in science goes to show that you can also climb the ladder through hard work, persistence, and loyalty. My father was an incredibly hard worker, I think he definitely passed that work ethic on to me.

Do you have any advice for scientists just starting out in their career?

Without any risk, you don’t succeed. If, for example, you aren’t able to do a PhD don’t let that stop you. It’s almost a bit like being a poker player, you need to take gambles. I think a lot of people don’t realise science is about creativity as well and embrace new technologies. You can’t wait for them to be fully characterised before you jump on board or you could miss the boat. Take that little bit of evidence you may have and think, what does this really mean? Look in the opposite direction to other scientists and what they are doing.

Is that what you’re doing with your research? What are you working on right now?

What we are looking at are ion channels, which are a unique protein. As Jamie calls them the ‘gymnasts of protein.’ Which basically means they can shape themselves in different orientations, which we call gating mechanisms, which then determine how these channels affect physiological responses. So we are trying to identify those different gating processes.

Particularly, we are studying the hERG (Human ether-a-go-go gene) and trying to work out why it is such a problem for cardio toxicity.

We’ve been using imaging equipment in the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute’s Innovation Centre, including a 200 kilovolt Cryo-EM microscope (pictured below) to try and solve structures of the hERG potassium channel.

Cryo EM

This could help answer why drugs block this channel and cause acquired Long QT syndrome. This life-threatening, electrical disorder in the heart kills 12% of Australians by stopping the organ from pumping blood effectively – causing sudden death. Understanding hERG isn’t just important for cardiovascular health, drugs that are affected by this hERG block extend to treatments for cancer, schizophrenia and psychoses. If we can work out how the proteins do this, we can help a whole range of people with different health problems.

It sounds fascinating! Has any particular paper or journal really inspired you this past year?

Funnily enough, Jamie has just asked that same question. This year has been a tough call, instead of saying simply what the best paper was, I try to look at it as what’s been the major advancement, what have we learned, what’s the significant piece of education in that journal?

For example, a Chinese scientist, Nieng Yan, has published an amazing amount of papers. She works on incredibly difficult protein sodium channels and the remarkable thing about sodium channels is that they aren’t just involved in the heart, they are involved in pain, amongst other things. So the possibility of studying these channels could be understanding how we sense pain. It’s just phenomenal.

Mark Hunter at Patagonia

What about when you aren’t working? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love to travel, going to places with history like Russia, Hungary, and Bulgaria - the people there are fascinating. They’ve been through so much; they’re hardened by that I think and it's surreal to see them just soldier on through minus 35 degree days. Closer to home, I love taking road trips and I’ve been able to discover more of NSW country this past year. I love music and plays, and the ballet. I don’t mind cooking. I recently got engaged - I cooked a nice dinner and decked the place out- that was a good thing to come out of the past year! Overall, I live a pretty uncomplicated life I must say.

** Mark Hunter is a member of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years