Finding cures for children's genetic diseases


A Day in the Life of a Research Student

Aaron Moye is a PhD student in the Cell Biology Unit at CMRI. He’s studying telomeres, the protective bits of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that are important for both aging and cancer.

Q: What are you researching?
I’m trying to understand structures that form in telomeres, called G-quadruplexes (G4 for short). G4 is basically a different shape that the DNA can take on, instead of the normal double-helix structure people are more familiar with. I want to understand how the protein, telomerase, binds these G4 shapes.

Q: What’s important about your work on G4?
It means the difference between making a cancer treatment that kills cancer cells versus one that doesn’t. It was believed that G4 blocked telomerase, a protein that can lengthen telomere DNA and allow cancer cells to keep growing. So researchers elsewhere in the world developed drugs that could encourage G4 structures to stay around, hoping it would kill cancer. We found that telomerase is still able to work on G4 DNA, and I’ve now confirmed the result in human cancer cells. That means those potential drugs may not work. It’s better to know now rather than waste any more time on them. This way we can move on to new studies with better potential.

Q: So science is often about disproving an idea as much as proving them?
Absolutely. That’s the scientific method.

Q: What’s your scientific background?
I was born in Hawaii and came to Sydney when I was 4. Neither of my parents went to university, but they figured I was meant to be a scientist from a young age, because I questioned everything. At uni, I had to make the decision to go into medicine or research. I decided research, because I could make a more long-term, broad-reaching impact on diseases. I can find something that leads to a new treatment for cancer, something to benefit future generations.

Q: Why did you become involved in the student society STRESS (Student Researcher Society)?
STRESS was started to unite students from different Westmead research institutes. I was approached by students at KRI who decided to combine with WMI and CMRI. I became the CMRI representative and Secretary of STRESS. We meet once a month to discuss events for students. We get funding from the Hub, so students can attend for free. The goal is social interaction for students to foster networking, collaboration and making Westmead a nicer place to be a student. The main Sydney campus had this already, and we needed something for this area. 

We have a BBQ, pizza day… events where people can get together and talk. We’ve only been around about 6 months, but we’ve already had lots of attendance, and the events are getting bigger. We had about 30-40 students at the last BBQ.

Q: Why do you choose to do your PhD at CMRI?
Working at CMRI is amazing. The knowledge of our primary investigators (Tracy Bryan, Roger Reddel, Patrick Tam, Ian Alexander, Phil Robinson…) is incredible. All the units and groups are high calibre. Secondly, it’s a nice environment to work in, in terms of the people and the feel of the place. The new microscopes in our ATAC facility are cool too.