Q&A with Dr. Andrew Clulow, winner of the Health and Nutrition Division New Investigator Research
A brief bio: I am an ARC DECRA Fellow based at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), where I have been researching the influence of lipid digestion on the fate of oral delivery vehicles for lipophilic bioactives since 2016. My research to date has involved synthesis and materials characterization in a diverse range of applied chemical systems including explosives sensors, plastic solar cells, OLED displays, bioelectronic semiconductors, intestinal colloids and digesting lipids. Whilst these may seem to be quite disparate areas of interest, the unifying element is that each material relies on appropriate structuring at the molecular, aggregate, or thin film level, to fulfill their function. As such, my research heavily utilizes neutron, X-ray and light scattering techniques to build a holistic structural picture of applied materials in the Ångstrom-micrometre size range. My DECRA fellowship aims to mimic lipid self-assembly in digesting milk fats and to shed light on how nature has optimized its most complete nutrition source for the delivery of fatty nutrients to infants.
Living in Australia, I like getting outdoors to the beach or the bush with my wife, Karyn, and sons, Cameron and Matthew. Since I was a kid I’ve loved hiking and particularly in England’s Lake District close to my home town of Preston. Being originally from the UK, I like to home brew something approximating real ales in what spare time I can find, to recreate the tastes of my youth Down Under.
1) How did it feel to win the Health and Nutrition Division New Investigator Research Award?
I was quite taken aback! It was a great surprise that came rather out of the blue. Being such a new member of a community, I didn’t expect to receive such an accolade, but it is fantastic that the AOCS has such awards for young and emerging researchers. I feel really welcomed and valued by a community I have recently joined, which is a terrific feeling.
2) Can you tell us about your current research?
Digestion of triglycerides in our small intestines generates monoglycerides and fatty acids. These amphiphilic digestion products self-assemble in aqueous media to form liquid crystalline phases and interact with bile to form mixed micelles that aid lipid absorption. My current research combines neutron and X-ray scattering techniques with nutrient activity measurements to study molecular self-assembly of digesting milk integrating with biliary emulsions and the resulting impacts on nutrient release. Lipid digestion plays a key role in delivering fat-soluble nutrients to newborns and has also been shown to enhance the solubility of lipophilic drugs during digestion, which improves their bioavailability. Through my research, I hope to begin piecing together the composition-structure-function relationships behind milk's ability to effectively deliver lipophilic bioactives to infants.
3) How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?
Largely by chance. I found myself in between post-doctoral positions working as a part-time manuscript editor, which helped to broaden my horizons a bit. A friend in the neutron scattering community sent me a job advertisement for a position studying lipid structuring in milk during digestion.
I had little experience in that materials space, having studied plastic electronic materials (explosives sensors, plastic solar cells, OLED displays etc.) for the previous seven years. However, my skill set in wet chemistry, colloid/interface science and neutron/X-ray scattering lined up perfectly with the requirements for the position.
Milk is such a fundamental and everyday part of life that I thought “surely we know most of what there is to be known about milk”. A little reading showed me how wrong I was and since being offered the position I haven’t looked back. I haven’t had time to while wading through milk’s lipid complexity. It was a leap out of my comfort zone but one I’m glad I took.
4) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?
On a personal level, trying to solve the so-called “two body problem” with a spouse who is also a scientist. About five years ago my wife Karyn became a patent examiner, whilst I have pursued my research career. At various points, this meant that we were living apart for long periods between Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne. We still managed to get married during this time and, shortly after, both moved to Melbourne and were able to start our family together.
On a professional level, shedding some of the self-doubt that comes with being a younger member of a laboratory or organization. The realization that, despite the fact I’m new in the field, my insights can still be valuable because experience and viewing issues from a different perspective can play a large role in this regard.
5) What advice can you share on how you have achieved success thus far in your career, whether that be entering a graduate program or a lengthy career in a prestigious position?
Network, network, network. Networking opportunities weren’t as readily available in my PhD lab as they are in my present position. I was a relative unknown in the organic electronics field I was working in, let alone the lipids field I have now moved into since 2016. Getting myself out there, to as many local conferences as I could (bearing in mind Australia’s relatively large separation to the rest of the world) undoubtedly helped in my getting greater recognition from my peers when it came time to applying for jobs or funding. If people know you and think you’re good at what you do then when applications land on their desk, they’ll begin with a positive impression, which can work wonders.
6) How has AOCS helped you in your career?
Having only been a member for a short time, I haven’t had a chance to tap into many of the people of AOCS yet, although I’m looking forward to doing so next year. The Lipid Library and other online resources are a wealth of knowledge, I would highly recommend them to anyone breaking into the field, I wish I’d had access to them when I first started working with lipids.
I read INFORM magazine and inform|connect Open Forum with great interest; coming from the academic side of the street, these resources give me more of an industrial perspective on lipid-related research. This is becoming more important when seeking academic grant funding in Australia (and I assume globally), tax payers want to see a commercial output or application for their investment and impact is no longer simply measured by citation metrics but the potential for genuine consumer benefit.
7) Where do you see yourself in the next 5–10 years? Any challenges in reaching these goals?
I hope to be in a research position, preferably with a teaching component as I think teaching helps you to refine your ideas to a lay audience and keeps you honest on the fundamentals. Clearly, the biggest challenge facing the higher education sector at the moment is the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities globally are having to drastically change their teaching models and are suffering extreme loss of revenue due to the lack of student migration.
There are serious questions being asked about what the future of lecturing holds and in some cases the viability of universities in a post-COVID world depending on how long it takes international travel return to pre-COVID levels. These issues are of course not unique to universities and many people, young and old, will be worrying about their employment future or indeed may already have lost their jobs or had their career ambitions frustrated. This may close some doors as certain types of employment may not be available for some time but I’m confident that with the adaptations we’ve seen during the pandemic already, other doors will open.
8) Do you have any words of wisdom for AOCS student members?
Do what you do well and believe in your work, if you don’t believe in it why will anyone else? Don’t just understand the output of what you’ve done but how the process/technique works, life is not a black box. Be flexible and agile to solve complex problems, think sideways if you can’t bust straight through a problem and think in terms of what you know and not what you don’t.
Have a support network of friends and family and be there for them as they are there for you, we all have bad days irrespective of career stage. Finally, don’t let opportunities that come your way pass you by, they may never come around again.
9) How has AOCS helped you develop as a young scientist?
So far, AOCS has helped me by giving me a different (more industrial) perspective on the utility of oils and fats and giving me a new network of experts to tap into. Ideas come from expanding your knowledge and the AOCS has certainly helped me to do that. I look forward to many more developments to come as we get to meet face-to-face again.