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Star Scientist 
of the Month

"I couldn't see myself doing anything other than science, every other endeavour would have seemed like a dead-end to me."

May's Star Scientist, Paul Rohde, described as "the soul" of the Mechanobiology Lab, discusses his lifelong love of science and his commitment to the lab he has managed for 12 years at the Institute. 

Paul Rohde in the lab

How long have you been working here at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute?

I started working here in 2009 so it’s been a long time, but it really doesn’t feel that way. I’m the lab manager in the Mechanobiology Lab and I have worked with Professor Boris Martinac for many years, before Boris even came to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. I really see myself as fortunate to have been able to work at the Institute for so long. It’s a cohesive, world class research Institute and all the labs know each other here which is really nice. It makes me feel really proud to know that I'm working at such a prestigious Institute, that makes a difference helping people suffering from cardiovascular diseases. I hope that I can help contribute to maintaining its prestige. Younger people, or people from overseas may not realise that Victor Chang was a household name within Australia, so for me, it's always a happy moment to be asked where I work.

So you have had a long career in science, do you feel like you are making a difference in science?

Yes, definitely. Our lab has traditionally focused on basic science so immediate results are not always apparent. In science often people think of the word ‘breakthrough’ but more often it is a ‘creep-through’, a phrase Norman Swan realised. It’s about building up a body of knowledge that can then also be built on by others in the future to keep making progress.

You and Professor Martinac have been building up this incredible ‘body of knowledge’ now for many years. When did you first start working together?

I started working for Boris in 2006 which was my first role after coming back from living in India.  This initial role with Boris was up at The University of Queensland. When Boris was invited to work at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, I came with him. 

Boris is very generous, interesting and a good friend, here we are still here putting up with each other after all these years.

What was it like living in India?

Honestly, sort of like being down on the farm. It’s just chaotic, hands on and very enterprising. Everyone just gets on and does things there, definitely no work health and safety hurdles to get through.

I actually lived in a terrorist area in Northeast India, I went there because I was volunteering in conservation efforts in the area. One month you would hear a bomb in one direction, the next month there would be one coming from the other way! People thought I was crazy for staying there, but it was my home at the time.

Paul volunteering at a conservation centre in India

Professor Martinac described you as the ‘soul of his lab’, what an incredible tribute to your work. Tell me more about your role?

Thank you, I am the lab manager of the Mechanobiology lab, I am loyal to the position and I always want to do my best for the lab, but I must say Boris is the true soul of the lab.

The role is varied, and my first commitment is always to the lab. I put that ahead of my own work, making sure things are running smoothly so the lab is as productive as possible. Even the simplest thing, like if something runs out, can hold the research up.

Some days it’s hands-on research and discussions with overseas collaborators about projects and other days it’s more lab management, it’s adapting to what the lab needs that day. 

One of my roles in the lab includes making materials in the lab for people to use in their research. That’s not necessarily routine for my role and it takes a certain level of innovation.

What are you working on at the moment?

Our laboratory namely focuses on channels (cell surface molecules that allow materials or messaging in or out of cells) that respond to physical forces.  Recently realised mechano-sensitive-channels are now revealing their roles in heart muscle, red blood cell responses, and similar broader roles & responses in the body. 

The project we are working on at the moment is trying to find the structure of a particular channel. This channel is actually responsible for a billion-dollar industry of amino acid production in bacteria. Despite its importance, the structure of the channel is still largely unknown. It’s turned out to be quite troublesome compared to other bacterial channels due to its uniqueness.  That’s what happens in research, sometimes it can become unexpectedly challenging.  

The project has been internationally funded, and when completed will help with developing more efficient food production.  Medically, this will also expand our knowledge of potentially similar structures in the body as well as influencing significant intestinal microbes.

Have you always been interested in a career in Science? 

Yes, even before I went to primary school. When I was younger, the natural world fascinated me. I was always watching nature shows and collecting dead insects.

For me, I couldn’t have seen myself doing anything else because it’s important for me to understand how things work and to push the progress of knowledge and understanding, every endeavour other than science would have seemed like a dead-end to me.

Actually, when I was really young, I had a short time where I wanted to be an actor! But I thought it seemed too easy, science seemed harder! I actually look at science a bit like show business, you’re only as good as your last movie. I think it’s so important to keep looking forward and focus on the next goal.

What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?

I wish I had more spare time as there are so many hobbies I would love to do.

I just recently bought a proper camera, which was my birthday wish back when I was 9. All these years later and I finally have one so that’s been great to learn. I’ve been doing some microphotography in the lab.

I also like to keep fit and healthy but not just going to the gym. I like to do something that has an extra dimension to it, so I have trained in Aikido which is a Japanese martial art. It’s quite an interesting art because unlike other martial arts you don’t injure your attacker.

Paul at an Aikido gym

What are you looking forward to in the future?

I feel we're making good progress in our key project so that's good. And I'm looking forward to being able to work on multiple research projects at the same time, that’s more what I’m used to instead of focusing on just one like I have recently. I’m looking forward to that challenge again.

Learn more about the mechanobiology labRead more stories from behind the discoveries