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Laura Leighton

06 March 2017

Back in 2007 when Laura Leighton was 13 she appeared on the ABC’s Junior Einstein Special. Her specialty topic was frogs of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in Far North Queensland where she lived and her ambition was to work with frogs. Ten years on, and now based at the University of Queensland, Laura has transitioned into research with mice and is investigating “small regulatory RNAs which undergo activity-dependent regulation in the mouse brain following learning, with the aim of characterising new mechanisms of gene regulation that contribute to fear-related learning and memory”.

That’s a mouthful of a research topic, but Laura, who is passionate about communicating the results of her research to the public as clearly as possible, has a metaphor that helps explain her project’s aims and goals.

“I’m a neuro-scientist working at the intersection of neuroscience and epigenetics,” she explains.

“Epigenetics,” she continues, “is the study of how genes are regulated and how cells store information on top of, or in addition to, the DNA without changing the DNA. My work, which focuses on small non-coding RNAs, is part of that.”

To understand her work, she says, you need to “imagine DNA as a book and messenger RNA as a photo copy of a page of that DNA book which can then travel round the cells, going where it needs to go to convey information from the DNA. The small non-coding RNAs I study are like Post It Notes sitting on top of that page, and those Post It Notes may say things like ‘copied the wrong page’ or ‘disregard this’ or ‘urgent’, for example.

“Basically, I am working on the Post It Notes - a whole lot of them are really poorly characterised and hard to work on. They often look like tiny fragments of something bigger which means they can be missed in big data sets and we are trying to pin down what they do in the brain, including their role in fear response.”

She describes her research as foundational and many steps removed from something that will bring a direct benefit to people’s lives. However, to develop appropriate interventions and cures it’s important and fundamental that the biology first be understood.

The end game she says is to understand how fear memories are formed and what the difference is at a cellular or molecular level between the appropriate and the pathological – a memory that is pathological is excessively strong or long-lived, phobias or PTSD for example.

“We use fear because it is a model system we understand,” says Laura, pointing out that at the molecular level at which she is working it will be relevant to other kinds of learning and memories.

Laura, who was recently awarded a Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Future Leaders Scholarship to do her PhD, says she is still in shock about her grant.

“It is an investment in a person’s future and means a lot to me. On a personal level I don’t have to worry about money doing my PhD. That is a big deal. Most people have to worry about money. The scholarship also allows me to develop my capacity as a leader and having someone take that side of me seriously is an amazing feeling.”

The funding also allows Laura to travel overseas to more conferences than the faculty could have afforded to send her.

“Bringing back new techniques and ideas to Australia to increase our research experience is one of my aims,” she says of the increased opportunity.

“For me, research is about change, about moving forward, finding things out we didn’t now before. I think it is a kind of boldness to go into a lab and say I have no idea what is going to happen when I do this experiment but I want to know.

Being bold for change, which is the tagline for International Women’s Day this year, is also about good public communication around research, says Laura, and that often requires boldness.