21 September 2018

Dr Archa Fox is an ARC Future Fellow at the Schools of Human Sciences and Molecular Sciences at The University of Western Australia (UWA), whose research is building on the genomics revolution, by investigating how genetic variation and cell organisation leads to changes in the expression of genes.

Most of the human genome is composed of non-coding-DNA—sequences that used to be thought of as ‘junk DNA’—and most human variation occurs in these sequences. Dr Fox’s research is helping to bridge the gap in understanding how these sequences, in turn, influence how our cells are built, by following the role of long sections of non-coding DNA, as they are transcribed into RNA by processes inside the cell.

“We are working to unpick the associations between proteins and RNA and trying to understand the role of certain novel structures that I discovered within cells, which are called ‘paraspeckles’,” says Dr Fox.

Paraspeckles are irregularly shaped structures that are now known to exist within the nucleus of most human cells. They respond to the cell’s metabolic activity, and scientists have hints that their function is to localise proteins and control gene expression.

Dr Fox says that paraspeckles could be the key that opens the door to the next paradigm shift in understanding how our genome actually builds cells, and as paraspeckles are built by non-coding RNA sequences, they also help to explain what the so-called ‘junk’ in the genome is actually for.

“So we are really focussing on the junk,” jokes Dr Fox, who has spent several years building up a research team at the cutting edge of molecular science at UWA, in collaboration with international and local research groups, to focus on RNA-mediated gene regulation.

Dr Fox says that the recent changes to the ARC’s eligibility rules around caring responsibilities were pivotal to her decision to apply for an ARC Future Fellowship—her four-year $878,125 grant was one of those announced by the ARC as part of a major grants announcement in August 2018.

There are set timeframes for researchers to apply for a Future Fellowship (between 5 to 15 years since the award of a PhD).  However, changes introduced in 2015 allow for the timeframe to be extended by two years for each dependent child which the applicant has primary caring responsibility. This change was also introduced for the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award scheme.

In addition to the extension to the timeframe, career interruptions are also taken into account by ARC selection panels when looking at track record—this is called the Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence criterion. Further information on career interruptions and extensions can be found in the ARC Policy Statement: Eligibility and Career Interruptions.

“From my perspective, the principal change in the rules was to allow applicants to take into account their role as a primary carer,” says Dr Fox.

“I have two children, and the impact of children on a research career does not end when you return from maternity leave. The research momentum is broken—in my track record it is really obvious when the research output slowed down. I discovered paraspeckles at about the same time that I had my daughter, and there was initially only a little uptake of the new idea.”

“In the context of a lifetime of research, two years of being a primary carer is actually a small time. Yet, if someone steps out of the system at that moment, and doesn’t come back, then you lose 30 to 40 years of scientific contributions.” says Dr Fox.

“I didn’t want to have to choose between bringing up my children and doing the research I loved. Achieving a balanced life should not become a penalty—it’s an issue for all parents, not just women.”

Dr Fox says that she is now building up her team with funding from her ARC Future Fellowship, and her citations and outputs are increasing year on year.

“I really want to make a difference and make some of those big paradigm shifts, so we can bridge those gaps in understanding how our cells are built, and train the next generation of great scientists.”

 

Image: Dr Archa Fox. Credit: supplied by Dr Fox.