After four years, Dr Lars Esser is leaving Monash to take the next step in his career. CBNS PhD students Ava Faridi and Ayaat Mahmoud had some questions and talked to him about his experiences with CBNS:
How did you join CBNS?
It’s a bit of a complicated story as I was already part of Professor Tom Davis’ group at UNSW before CBNS even existed. When I started as a research assistant with Tom in Sydney, he was applying for the ARC Centre of Excellence funding and after my first year of PhD, I moved to Melbourne to join Tom at the centre node at the Monash Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences. It has been great to be part of the CBNS as it makes it much easier to collaborate and I have been able to attend several workshops for example about science communication and how to use Adobe Illustrator. Furthermore, I joined the CBNS outreach committee and its mentoring program, which both have been a great experience.
How did you feel about moving from Sydney to Melbourne?
As I was already one year into my PhD it was a bit of a restart, but it has been a great experience since. Fortunately, I already knew a few people like Tom, Mikey, Daniel and Jinming, which made it all a lot easier and the lab facilities here are amazing. It is great to have had the chance to experience to live in both Sydney and Melbourne. At one side, you have the flashy Sydney with its beautiful harbour, beaches and great weather, so it’s the perfect tourist destination. However, although I do miss the stable weather, Melbourne is a really cool city to live, the CBD is much more accessible and it feels more European. Moreover, MIPS is a great place to work as different disciplines such as biology, drug development and chemistry are all integrated within one institute.
How would you describe your projects at CBNS?
My PhD did not really have one major aim, it was more a collection of different projects. In Sydney, I set up a collaboration with the MRI imaging group and did a lot of analysis of nanoparticle-based MRI contrast agents. Next to that, I started a project together with Bunyamin Karagoz to synthesize polymer-based nanoparticles with different sizes and shapes to investigate their effect on drug delivery. After my relocation, I continued this work with different applications and I spent a lot of time on synthesizing star-shaped polymers. One particular project was together with AINSE and ANSTO in which I synthesized nanoparticles that can be used in hybrid MRI/PET scanners and can potentially improve the diagnosis of diseases. I think I worked on 5 to 6 projects in total, but of course, not all of them worked out – that’s the life of a PhD student.
During my postdoc, my main role was to synthesize nanoparticles for NHMRC funded collaborations, for example for the treatment of metastases or to facilitate the delivery of siRNA, a potentially very potent drug against cancer. Besides, I also had a lot of freedom to work out my own ideas and amongst others developed new diphosphonate polymers for increased stability of inorganic nanoparticles.
Could you tell us more about your collaborations at CBNS?
My first one, just after the start of CBNS, was a collaboration with Professor Thomas Nann at the University of South Australia. The idea was to combine his expertise in inorganic chemistry with ours in polymer coatings and to develop responsive MRI contrast agents. Next to this, I have also worked with Dr Nigel Lengkeek and Dr Ivan Greguric at ANSTO as well as with Professor Maria Kavallaris and Dr Joshua McCarroll at UNSW. Furthermore, I was also part of the Improved Molecular Imaging Agents Signature Project that was led by Profesor Andrew Whittaker from UQ. One of the great things about the centre is that takes away barriers that usually exist between research groups and promotes collaboration instead.
How did you find working at CBNS and in your research group?
We can all be very lucky for working here as CBNS gives us many opportunities that are rare in academia. Our research group is a great place to be as everyone gets along quite easily and there aren’t really any subgroups. When I joined about four years ago, I was warmly welcomed by the then honour students (now final year PhD students…) and it’s great to see that new members, especially international students, are all straightaway included – if it’s for lunches or after work activities. From the beginning, you have the feeling that you are part of a group and that is a really nice feeling to have.
What was the highlight of working at CBNS?
I think the best part was the ability to work together with other research groups in Australia and being part of the outreach committee. Its aim is to try to deliver what we do here as research to the outer world. As a part of that, last year I organised together with Hannah Kelly from Professor Stephen Kent’s group and The Peter Doherty Institute a science documentary screening with a Q&A panel afterwards. We showed a very interesting documentary called Jabbed about the hesitance about vaccines in the society followed by a discussion led by panellists with various backgrounds including Nobel laureate Peter Doherty. We had about 150 people attending the event and there was a healthy debate afterwards.
It is great to be involved in the organisation of an event including the brainstorming process, organising the venue, security (there was a risk of protests) and how to attract people to attend. You can organise similar activities in student associations, but when you start your postdoc you don’t have that option anymore. It is a nice thing to do something besides research and it allows you to learn new skills. This year, the outreach committee is trying to build on the previous year and simultaneously spread out by having a road show later in the year where our research is presented at high schools and the wider communities.
Another great thing about CBNS is their mentoring program. In this program, they couple a PhD student or a postdoc to a mentor from a more senior level within the CBNS or external. I applied for it and my mentor is Associate Professor Christoph Hagemeyer, who also works for Monash University but is located at the Baker Institute. We meet every few months for a coffee at Mr Zen’s in South Yarra. It’s really great to have the opportunity to talk to someone who is higher up the ladder about your career prospects, working relationships and general career advice. He has experience himself about how to make it in research and you can talk freely, as it is confidential. Therefore, it is an invaluable source of information that I wouldn’t have had without this program.
Working for CBNS sounds exceptional, so why are you leaving?
I have been here for almost four years, but after a while, you get in a comfort zone. You basically have learned all the skills you can learn. It is a really great place to work. But at the same time, you do need something new and challenging. Now, I have a really great opportunity to move to CSIRO and I’ll have my own project with a great responsibility from the start to the finish of the project.
In your opinion, how do you think the Centre could improve?
One would be to further promote students and postdocs to start collaborations across the nodes. At the moment, often one professor will talk to another professor and when they have an idea together, they will introduce some postdocs to talk. But many more collaborations could be started if students could talk and brainstorm together. For example, last year in Sydney I attended a retreat for a NHMRC grant and on the last day we had a brainstorming session between biologists, chemists and medical doctors. It was amazing to see how many ideas we had in such a short time. So it would be really great if we could organise something similar within the CBNS, for example at the next yearly meeting, where students from different nodes can have a brainstorming session together and the proposed projects will then be structured and supervised by a chief investigator. It’s a bit like a bottom-up approach to collaborations.
The second thing for the centre is to find a way to show more that CBNS exists to the wider world. Because at the research field, everyone knows we exist. However, if you ask anyone on the street, nobody will know about our existence, even though we are indirectly funded by them. So if you can find ways to show more what we are doing and trying to accomplish, it will be really a great thing. We now have some media presence mainly thanks to the virtual reality system, which is a really great thing, but we are doing so much more than that.
Do you remember the best or worst day of your PhD student’s years or your postdoc?
One of the best moments was when I submitted my thesis. That’s definitely the best day of your PhD. You do research for 3 years with lots of ups and downs, you write your thesis for 3-4 months trying to finish before the deadline, and then you submit it and you feel so at ease afterwards. The worst one was when I had a collaboration with a group in Adelaide. First, the postdoc changed her job to work in the industry and then the professor decided to move overseas. This collaboration was a very important part of my PhD and I worked on it for 6-8 months. But the whole project collapsed. I think that was the worst moment, as the collaboration started out really great and because of external factors, it didn’t work out well.
Any advice for us as PhD students and looking forward to a career in academia?
The best thing is to go to conferences and try to speak to as many people as possible. Perhaps it will lead to a collaboration, but more importantly, it will also help you in getting your name out which will help you a lot when you’re looking for a position after your PhD.