At the end of 2012 I had finished my honours year in reproductive biology at one of the best labs in the country. I was sitting in the office of one of my supervisors, thinking woe is me. The lab I was in was amazing, great people and great research. But the focus was on biochemistry, something that I have not got a great affinity for. My honours year was spent misunderstanding the chemistry, and I didn’t want to go into a PhD in an area I knew I was going to really struggle with, but I would be crazy to leave such a good lab. I was telling all of this to one of my supervisors and he asked me a very important question. He said “what do you want to do?”
I told him what I’ve always wanted to study. Fertility. But not the chemistry, I wanted to study IVF, embryology and genetics. He was silent for a moment, then made an offer that would change the course of my life for the next few years. He had received an email from a colleague in Japan. They had met at a conference and stayed in touch. He had asked my supervisor if he knew of any students who would like to come to Japan and learn IVF, embryology and genetics in exchange for helping the staff and students with their English. I thought about the offer for about 30 seconds before I agreed. I love to travel and here was an opportunity to learn exactly what I have always wanted to!
Travelling to study
It took a little while but after a few discussions with both of supervisors and some emails between Australia and Japan and it was settled. The lab in Japan specialises in the generation of mutant and knockout (KO) mice with a focus on reproductive biology. They use mice as they are very similar to humans in how their reproductive systems work. By working with these animal models researchers have discovered several key ingredients in fertilisation, which in turn has improved diagnosis and treatment of infertility in humans. A quick look into their work and it turns out the heads of the lab are both in the top ten researchers in this field in the world!
It took several months to organise a visa – seriously getting a student visa for Japan required my resume, certificates of graduation, transcripts from both universities I attended, a health certificate, my high school certificate, proof of my scholarship, a couple of letters from both supervisors both here and in Japan and all of that was just for the official certificate of application. But that was soon dealt with and I was all packed and ready to move to Osaka Japan for 6 months.
The plan: Move to Osaka, make several mutant and knockout mice and bring them back to Newcastle to analyse, complete my PhD by publication and then drop the microphone and ride off into the sunset (I may not have given much thought to life after a PhD at that point).
Things don’t always go to plan…
Once I arrived it became clear that this plan would not quite work out. The week I arrived the head of the lab, Emeritus Professor Masaru Okabe was retiring. This meant that the head of the lab was now Professor Masahito Ikawa (seriously, these two are amazing, I highly recommend looking them up if you’re interested in this area) and I managed to turn up the week that the office was being restructured. That first week was a whirlwind of buying furniture for my super cute but teeny tiny apartment, trying to learn everyone’s names and regretting not learning any Japanese before coming.
Everything soon settled down and I started having meetings with Professor Ikawa and the wonderful Assistant Professor Haruhiko Miyata. Miyata-san would be my primary go-to person, helping me with everything and showing me the ropes. Unfortunately, these meetings revealed that the mutations and KOs I had planned were difficult to do, so Ikawa-san suggested I also try a couple of easy KOs to learn the techniques. This is when I got extremely lucky.
The traditional method of creating a mutant or KO mouse is very long, complicated and often goes wrong. It can take up to two years to have mice ready to analyse. As PhDs in Australia only last 3-4 years with funding often only available for the first three, this was not going to be a viable option. At this point in time (around April 2013) a new method for generating genetic mutation in mammals was discovered. It is called CRISPR and using this method you can have mice ready to analyse in about three months.
It was a case of right place at the right time. The lab here at Osaka University jumped right onto the CRISPR wagon, in fact I played a (very) small role in helping develop a system to improve and speed up the use of this method. In terms of my own research I was able to utilise the CRISPR technology for all of my mutations and KOs, both complex and simple. My research aimed to look at several genes involved in male fertility. I wanted to a) confirm they were essential for fertility and b) how they fit into the current understanding of male fertility.
So where am I now? I am coming to the end of my third year of my PhD. I have been in Japan for 2 years and 4 months, (that 6 month goal being unrealistic for so many reasons) and I am coming to the end of the analysis of my mice. I have generated 5 different mutations or KOs and analysed most of them. I have the three papers I need to publish planned, just finishing off the final few experiments. I have almost finished my research and am preparing to return to Australia, drop that microphone and commence my ride off into the sunset.