Crystallising a career in immunology

As a child, Natalie Borg tried to grow crystals. Two decades on, she is still growing crystals. But now she is analysing them with synchrotron light, to figure out how our bodies mount a rapid defence when we are attacked by viruses.

Natalie Borg at work in the lab. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
Natalie Borg at work in the lab. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo

“The immune system is complex and is made up of many specialised types of cells and proteins. The key is to understand their function,” Natalie says.

To date, she’s been working as part of a successful team at Monash University. In 2007 her work on how our natural killer T cells recognise fats from invaders was published in Nature.

Now she’s setting up her own laboratory at Monash—a bold move but essential if her career is to grow. With the help of her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship, she will study key steps in our body’s early warning system against viral attack.

“Understanding how the proteins work together to trigger the immune system is the first step toward learning how to modify or enhance the immune response,” says Natalie. Eventually this could lead to drugs that protect against viral infections.

“This is the basic research that needs to take place before we can make better drugs and vaccines to treat and prevent viral infections,” she says.

When the immune system detects a viral intruder a cascade of proteins raise the alarm, sending messages to the immune system to mount an anti-viral response.

One family of proteins (known as RLH) raises the alarm when they recognise components of viruses like hepatitis C, influenza A, rabies, Ebola and measles.

One of the proteins they trigger is known as DUBLIN. Its role is poorly understood but it appears to regulate the immune system’s response.

Natalie plans to produce the protein in the laboratory, and then crystallise it. Using synchrotron X rays she hopes to work out the three-dimensional shape of DUBLIN and the way it interacts with other proteins.

“If you make a protein and determine its shape then you can use that information to understand how it works and the biological role it plays. You can see for example how the shape influences the way it interacts with other molecules.”

“It’s very exciting to be the first person to actually see some of these molecules.”

Natalie Borg interview. Download audio interview here (mp3, 1.9MB)

Natalie has just taken her first steps towards independence as a scientist. For the last five years she has worked in Jamie Rossjohn’s team in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Monash University. Earlier this year, she established her own lab in the same department.

“Now I have to manage my own lab and find funding for the reagents and equipment. I need to do experiments and hire staff to help me. This L’Oréal Fellowship has come at a fantastic time as it will allow me to do some preliminary experiments and generate data so that I can apply for more funding,” she says.

She’s honoured to receive the Fellowship, but concerned that there’s too little support for women at this stage in their career. “When I did my degree about seventy percent were women. But there are very few senior women scientists with their own laboratories. At the same time that you’re trying to secure independent funding, you’re making decisions about having children. We need more incentives to keep women in science after they have children.”

Biographical details


2003 – PhD (Microbiology and Immunology), The University of Melbourne: Structural and functional analysis of the Human Parainfluenza Virus type III (hPIV3) Haemagglutinin-Neuraminidase (HN) protein

1997 – Bachelor of Applied Biology/Biotechnology, First Class Honours, RMIT University
Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

2008 – NHMRC Career Development Fellow, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Monash University

2008 – Keystone Symposia Scholarship

2006-2007 – NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellow, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Monash University

2007 – Fresh Science 2007

2007 – Rigaku Post-doctoral Travel Award

2007 – CASS Travel Grant to attend a Keystone Symposia Conference

2007 – Monash University Early Career Development Grant

2007 – Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundation Establishment gift

2006 – Aegean Conferences Travel Award

2006 – Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University

2003-2005 – Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Monash University

1998 – CSIRO post-graduate PhD scholarship