Ben Long

Fascination with infectious diseases leads to PhD

Medical researcher studies how invasive bacteria affect our immune systems

Diane Ly has no doubts about what it was that attracted her to medical research.

“The nasty stuff is what I find fascinating,” she said.

“I find disease very interesting, particularly infectious diseases. Understanding why we get ill and the mechanisms bacteria and viruses use and why they cause infection in humans is fascinating.”

Diane will receive a PhD from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) at a graduation celebration on Thursday 20 April. The particular “nasty” she focussed on for her PhD was Group A Streptococcus.

“I studied Group A Streptococcus in microbiology, so I was looking at invasive bacteria and the impact on our immune system during the early stages of infection,” she said.

“It's a huge problem, especially in developing countries and also in the Northern Territory of Australia. It’s not so much of a problem for us here, it commonly causes strep throat, but it is much more serious in the developing world.”

Born and raised in Wollongong, Diane completed her HSC at Figtree High School where her favourite subjects were the sciences and maths.

“I was the nerd in the family,” she said, laughing. “I went straight to university as soon as I finished my HSC. I was always interested in the sciences and I liked maths as well, but I didn't want to do a maths degree.”

When she started undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Biotechnology (now known as Bachelor of Medical Biotechnology), Diane thought she’d end up practising medicine, but over the course of her studies became more and more drawn to the research side.

“I did want to pursue medicine at some point but sort of leaned towards research instead,” she said.

“Doing my undergraduate degree was a tough time – a lot of assignments and quite intense – but that is where I developed my love for biochemistry and science. I completed my honours degree at IHMRI, which is how I got to really having a passion for infections, and I continued on to my PhD because of that.

“There were a couple of reasons why I decided to do a PhD. One was that I was just starting to get some positive results in my honours project and I wanted to see it through. Another was that I had very good lab groups and a really good supervisor.”

Diane credits her primary supervisor, Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith, and co-supervisor, Professor Marie Ranson, as her biggest academic influences and role models.

“The two of them being female as well is a huge thing and they've done so, so well in their careers here. Martina is probably the biggest influence for me. She’s always very encouraging despite how difficult and challenging it can get.”

And studying for a PhD can be very difficult and challenging indeed.

“You make a lot of sacrifices, you have to give up a lot,” Diane said. “You miss out on spending time with family and friends because you’re always in the lab.

“And with science you have to be prepared for a lot of letdowns in terms of the results. It doesn't matter how long you focus on an experiment or dedicate to it, it doesn't necessarily correlate to your results. So I guess I had to stay positive and be persistent.”

With her PhD completed, Diane has begun work as a research assistant at IHMRI.

“I've actually switched fields. I'm now working on motor neurone disease. I'm a part of two lab groups with Associate Professor Ron Sluyter and Dr Justin Yerbury.

“It’s very interesting and very different to microbiology, but you know once again it's looking at disease mechanisms, so it's the sort of stuff I really love.”