15 Mar 2018

How CCS Honours student Lilliana Bowen found her project

2018 CCS Honours student Lilliana
Bowen shares how she found the diabetes 

project she is undertaking under the super-
vision of A/Prof Melinda Coughlan
by Matt Jane

Lilliana Bowen is an Honours student in the Department of Diabetes where Associate Professor Melinda Coughlan supervises her. Lilliana completed a Bachelor of Science at Monash University. Lilliana was the 2018 recipient of the AMREP Honours Scholarship, one of two annual recipients.

What is the research you are undertaking in your Honours year?

I’m undertaking my Honours year in the Department of Diabetes at the Central Clinical School. My project is looking into kidney disease in diabetes. About 30% of people with diabetes end up with diabetic nephropathy and it is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease in western societies.

Currently, I am working with a mouse knock out model. We’ve knocked out the gene for manganese superoxide dismutase (SOD2), which is important for detoxifying superoxide radicals generated by mitochondria. SOD2 has been knocked out only within the proximal tubules of the kidney which are full of mitochondria as they rely on energy produced from oxidative phosphorylation to drive tubular reabsorption. These mitochondria appear to be dysfunctional in the kidney in diabetic nephropathy. We are going to look at the effect that has on the kidney and we’re expecting that by knocking out SOD2 we’re going to have a lot of reactive oxygen species running around unchecked in mitochondria which will lead to oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction, and that has a myriad of problems related to it.

How did you get interested in that area?

I actually started off doing a psychology major and worked out pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me. I decided to focus more on neuroscience and as part of that I ended up studying physiology. I thoroughly enjoyed those units so I started doing a physiology major as well.

At the start of third year, I was studying a cardiovascular unit and loved it. It’s still the best unit I’ve ever done. The unit focused a lot on the kidneys and I was just really fascinated with all aspects of it. So when it came to doing Honours, I was looking for a cardiovascular project and just couldn’t find anything that was ticking all of the boxes for Honours.

I was at the AMREP Honours information night, and I walked around and had talked to some cardiovascular people and nothing had really grabbed my attention so I was a bit disappointed. I did one last walk around, and I came across Melinda Coughlan, who is now my supervisor, and she was doing diabetes research which I’ve always had a weird fascination with. After talking to Melinda about her work, which I found very interesting, I asked to see meet up with her again. When we met for the second time we spoke for close to an hour. Her research seemed very interesting and she was lovely. So I met with her again and met some of her students and saw what they were doing and was pretty much sold from there.

What boxes did you want to tick when it came to choosing your Honours project?

There were three main boxes to tick when searching for the right Honours project for me. I was lucky because I know a few people in academia and my partner has done Honours and is currently undertaking his PhD so I got some good advice along the way.

The first box I think was the most important. I needed to get along with my supervisor. It was the main piece of advice I had received, so it kept coming back to me when I was looking for a project.

The second box was that I needed to be interested in the project - obviously.

Box three was the most difficult to figure out. I wanted a project that I was going to get skills out of at the end of it. In my undergrad studies, I hadn’t done a whole lot of lab work. I wanted a project that would help me pick up some of those skills.

It was something I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about, but after I met Melinda, it all fell into place.

Do you have an idea what you’re thinking of post Honours?

All throughout undergrad I’ve just studied things that interest me and that has worked out well so far.

If I like doing research this year then great, I will keep doing research. However, if I’m not totally into it I might think about studying medicine or doing something else – who knows!

Sometimes things don’t always go to plan in the labs. How are you going to handle these potential hiccups?

I’m prepared for the fact that I may not get the results that I was hoping for. Melinda said at least 50% of research doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work the way you think it’s going to. But I have confidence in her and my co-supervisor that if things aren’t going right its fine we will just keep going and try new things.

One thing I have thought about a lot is the fact that a lot of negative research isn’t published. If your experiment doesn’t work, your research often isn’t published. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
If 20 people get that same negative result on an experiment and then the 21st person comes along and can’t find any literature and does the experiment again and gets the same result, it’s a waste of time. We’ve already figured out that it doesn’t work.

Maybe one day in 30 years, I’ll start a journal for research that doesn’t work.

What are you looking forward to most?

In the third year cardiovascular unit that originally got me really interested, I had to write a sizeable essay. Throughout the process of writing the essay, I was reading a lot of papers and I found it really exciting when I had enough information in my head that I started finding connections between things.

It came to that moment where it felt that I was actually doing real research.

I remember having a pharmacology lecture and they were talking about oxidative stress and nitric oxide, and I was reading about that in my essay, in a completely different unit. It became a whole part of the essay just by chance that I had that lecture in a different unit at the right time.

That whole process convinced me that research is an exciting thing to pursue. Being the person who is reading all that information, and being that person who is making those connections is exciting.

In the research I’m doing now it’s all new stuff, no one has done this before. I’m excited about making those new connections.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I enjoy spending time with my family. I have two nieces; one of them is four and one’s about to turn eight. I enjoy playing with them and hanging out with my older siblings.

I also do some crafts; I like to make homemade birthday cards and that kind of thing.

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