scientists in lab

Star Scientist of the Month - Teagan Er

“I've always had this affinity to science. I can't really pinpoint how it came about; it's just how I'm wired.”

23 January 2023

After being diagnosed with selective mutism and a heart valve disease as a child, it’s not surprising that Teagan Er has a fascination with how the body works. Spurred on by the support of her family and teachers, Teagan realised her dream of becoming a scientist in 2021 when she took up a research assistant position at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute’s hub at The University of Western Australia.

Teagan Er in the laboratory at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute's WA Hub

In a short space of time this rising star has become a leader and trainer within the lab, with big goals for the next few years - including undertaking a PhD, getting published and presenting at conferences. It’s a far cry from Teagan’s childhood, but with each milestone comes more confidence in her abilities and a strengthened determination to understand the unknown.

You’ve always had an interest in how the body works. What inspired you to follow the research path versus becoming a clinician?

During my masters I realised that being involved in research that investigates how our bodies work and how diseases come about is what really interests me. In the lab you get to do things that are quite novel and you never know what you're going to find. In a clinical setting, while at times some interesting cases pop up, you’re not actively searching and trying to understand how something works. Research is about generating results and then looking at what these results can tell us about a condition.

One of the projects you’re involved in is a collaborative chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) research project with Griffith University in Queensland. What is the focus of that work?

The team at Griffith University is looking at CFS because it's quite unknown and it's hard to identify the cause because it affects so many parts of the body. Over here in Western Australia we are focusing on supporting their work.

Unfortunately, there are still some clinicians that think that chronic fatigue syndrome is all in the patient’s head. But Griffith University has shown in its data, and we're starting to see it in the data I'm generating here, that this is not the case. It is rewarding when you are able to speak with patients affected by chronic fatigue and tell them about your research. It gives them hope that they might benefit from our findings in the future.

We are looking at patients’ natural killer cells, which are a type of cell in your immune system. We are looking at the movement of calcium into the cells - because calcium is quite important for every cell's function - and we are finding that there's reduced calcium movement in these CFS patients.

This work has only ever been done in a Queensland cohort. Griffith University and our lab here at the University of Western Australia received a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) targeted grant, which is expanding this work. This includes establishing a hub here in Western Australia to show that this mechanism they're proposing is seen in other areas, not just in Queensland. We do have quite a big patient cohort here.

Along with the CFS project, you’re also involved in research into hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease which causes thickening of the heart muscle which can lead to heart failure. What’s your involvement in that research?

I'm familiar with most of the techniques used in the lab, so I’m involved in training staff in these techniques. I also help with echocardiographs and doppler studies, which are ultrasounds of the heart, for pre-clinical studies and some of the fluorescence experiments as well – this is where we use specific dyes and light wavelengths to investigate the metabolic activity of the cells.

The work we are doing is exploring the mechanisms at play in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and how this information could lead to therapeutic benefits for people with the condition. We're currently looking at some therapeutic compounds to prevent and/or reverse HCM.

I find it especially interesting because I have cardiovascular disease in my family. As a child I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, which is a disease that affects the valve that separates the upper and lower left chambers of the heart. It doesn't impact on my life too much, but it does mean I see a cardiologist every two years. My grandfather had a triple bypass twice when I was in high school and recently some issues with the electrical signals in the heart have been noticed in some of my relatives. Everyone seems to know someone that is affected by heart disease, so for me it is quite rewarding to be in the field of cardiovascular research.

What would you like to see come from these projects you’re involved in?

I think therapeutics would be great, especially for HCM because there are very few treatment options.

It would also be amazing if we could roll out genetic testing to children. HCM is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in those aged five to 15 and if we were able to diagnose at risk family members at a young age we could prevent the damage caused by HCM.

Therapeutic options for people with chronic fatigue syndrome would also improve people’s lives enormously. These patients are often unable to do many of the day-to-day things that we take for granted. They bounce between specialists and unfortunately there's not much that can be done for them at this stage. But this research that we're doing on CFS is really promising for these patients.

Teagan Er and Professor Livia Hool

You've also been taking on some leadership roles in the lab. What does that involve?

We've had some staff changes this year, so I've really had to step up as someone that's been around for nearly two years now. I’m familiar with a lot of techniques and I’m involved in training staff. I also make sure everyone records everything correctly and I’m involved in helping and writing ethics, either applications or amendments, or biosafety applications and amendments.

I enjoy training staff because it's quite hands-on and sometimes it makes you rethink the techniques you use - especially when people with more experience come into the lab. We have a new patch clamper in the lab, which we use to study the currents that pass through the membrane of living cells. I'll show someone how to patch clamp and then I’ll watch them patch clamp. They might do it a bit differently, which then adds to my knowledge bank.

You’ve been working as a research assistant (RA) for a couple of years now, what are your goals for the next stage of your science career?

I'm thinking that I'll probably work as an RA for the next two years, just because I really want to build my skills and become more familiar with my areas of interest. After that I am thinking of pursuing a PhD. I am leaning more towards cardiovascular and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy research because I do find that area of research exciting. But the chronic fatigue syndrome work also excites me – so it's going to be quite tough to choose.

I want to go to some conferences next year, because I've never presented at a conference before. My collaborators and I are looking at presenting the CFS work at a conference next year.

Publications is also something that I'm hoping to get done next year, because I haven't published anything before. It'll be unbelievable to see my name on a paper.

There’s a big push to get more women in STEM, what would you say to girls that are interested in pursuing a career in science?

You've just got to give it a go. I find that inspiration and motivation in a particular area of science really does help drive your way into the field. For instance, I've always had a strong interest in human biology and how the body works. I really thrived in biology because that's what I put a lot of my motivation into.

There will always be curve balls thrown your way, but you can get back up and work with it. Having people that support you and understand what you're going through and how they can help – that’s really important.

Who have been your biggest supporters?

Professor Hool has been a big support for me, there is always a lot of learning and she has been very supportive of me during my time working here. When I say I want to pursue something, like conferences or publications, she's been really supportive in thinking up how I could get there. It’s been great.

Also my parents and my grandparents have supported me a lot, especially as a child that started out in a language centre. I had selective mutism and they put a lot of effort into me and my brother to help us get to where we are. I was very young when I was diagnosed with it. It caused me to have trouble communicating with others. Luckily, I was able to overcome it relatively quickly through speech therapy and support from specialists. My parent's are so proud that the child that had selective mutism and had to attend a language centre is now a scientist!

And outside of the world of science, how do you spend your time?

My friends and I - when we have time because we're all quite busy - we like to get together to do board game nights and things like that. I’ve also taken up an interest in photography. I recently went on a holiday to Tasmania with my boyfriend where we took lots of photos. My parents purchased a camera this year and have been taking a lot of photos of the plants and wildlife in their yard - living in the Perth hills there is a lot of nature to photograph, and they capture some beautiful pictures. This inspired me to purchase my own camera so I can document my travels and my daily life.

I think it’ll be nice to have photos to look back at in the future to reminisce on what we’ve experienced.

Teagan Er with her boyfriend in a beautiful nature scene on their travels
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