The thrill of discovery is what biochemist Marilyn Anderson relishes in her work. “It’s a feeling you can’t even imagine: when you’re the first person to solve a problem,” she says.
Anderson is a Professor of Biochemistry at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) and the Chief Science Officer of Hexima, a biotechnology company embedded in LIMS. Anderson co-founded Hexima in 1998 following her discovery of naturally occurring insecticidal and antifungal molecules in the reproductive parts of plants.
The team at Hexima are exploiting these molecules to develop genetically modified crops that are protected from insect predation and fungal infections – a game changer for agriculture. Research in this area is ongoing, as insects are developing resistance to the commonly used BT toxin, an insecticide produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and new insecticidal genes are needed. “It’s a huge market,” says Anderson.
“We will not be able to feed and clothe humanity if we don’t have insect and fungal-resistant plants.”
Anderson did a BSc (Hons) at the University of Melbourne and then completed her PhD in biochemistry at La Trobe University. Her enthusiasm for this field is clear: “I’m still knocked over by just how amazing biology is, and how things have evolved to work”.
After graduating, Anderson was drawn to “the revolution of the time – the beginning of gene cloning and molecular biology”. She moved to the USA and worked on diabetes at the University of Miami before transferring to Cold Spring Harbor to conduct cancer research. “We were paving the way. It was extremely exciting because while I was at Cold Spring Harbor the first oncogenes, or cancer-causing genes, were discovered,” she says.
Expertise in molecular biology was internationally sought after at the time and was the crux of much interdisciplinary research. In 1982 Anderson was offered a job with Laureate Professor Adrienne Clarke AC at the Plant Cell Biology Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. “That was a big switch for me,” says Anderson. “I’d been working on cancer and this was a botany school.” Together, Anderson and Clarke were able to discover the gene that prevents self-pollination, or inbreeding, in flowering plants.
Now a leader in the scientific community, Anderson is not only a director at Hexima; she is also on the La Trobe University Council and was inducted into the 2014 Victorian Honour Roll for Women for her scientific achievements.
Gender equality and supporting women in science are two things Anderson is passionate about. “There’s a lot of work to be done just to give women equal opportunity,” she says. “There are many talented female scientists here at Hexima, and I enjoy mentoring women and helping them through the early stages of their career.”
Anderson conducts workshops with secondary students that focus on women in science, and she’s part of Supporting Women in Science (SWIS), a new association at La Trobe that gives guidance to female postgraduate researchers in STEM.
“This is a proactive program to direct universities to pay more attention to gender diversity.”
Anderson will be speaking at Women in Science, an event hosted by La Trobe University for Melbourne Knowledge Week in May 2016. The panel discussion will centre on the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers. The MC will be science journalist Robyn Williams. Panel speakers will also include NHMRC Biomedical Fellow of the Peter MacCullum Cancer Centre, Misty Jenkins; Head of La Trobe’s School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, Wenny Rahayu; and nanotechnology research assistant and nominee for Women’s Weekly Women of the Future Award in 2015, Elana Montagner. For more information and to register for the event, head to www.latrobe.edu.au/womeninscience.
– Cherese Sonkkila