From undergrad to postdoc researcher: dive into cell death with Dr Georgia Atkin-Smith

Kick-starting her passion for science with the classic coke-and-mint backyard experiment at her childhood home in Horsham, postdoctoral researcher Dr Georgia Atkin-Smith now leads breakthrough research in the areas of cell death and cell biology at La Trobe.

Her most recent study – published in Communications Biology – reveals influenza A virus can kill key white blood cells and hide among them like a Trojan Horse to aid its spread in the body.

Georgia lets us in on her latest research.

Growing up in a rural town with limited knowledge on how to pursue a career in science or what that would entail, Georgia worked hard to manifest her current reality. 

“Science is a career for everyone – no matter their gender, ethnicity or background,” Georgia said.

“Mum instilled that belief in me early on. She was a science teacher at the local secondary school and she really helped foster a love for STEMM in both me and my brothers, Rodney and Jack.”

Georgia moved to the Bundoora campus in 2011 to start her Bachelor of Biotechnology and Cell Biology, with Jack hot on her heels post gap-year to study his Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Biosciences.

“My early years at La Trobe were fantastic. It worked out that Jack and I shared most classes, which is hilarious, given mum and dad both studied at La Trobe too,” Georgia said.

“Most importantly, I was finally doing what I had always wanted to do. I felt an incredible sense of community from my peers and I really valued the hands-on experience I was getting from my practical classes, as well as the support I was receiving from academics.”

Georgia was hooked on science from the moment she set foot in her first lab class.

It was in her undergraduate degree that Georgia first saw the inside of a laboratory.

“You could describe that as my ‘Aha!’ moment,” Georgia said.

“I met my then-lecturer Professor Mark Hulett and, from my work experience in his lab I was accepted into Honours and then PhD with Associate Professor Ivan Poon.”

The journey to a PhD

Getting a PhD is never easy. Personal reward and resilience can often lean against a backdrop of stress, uncertainty and – above all else – hard work.

Georgia often compares the PhD experience to that of a 10 kilometre run.

“At the start, you’re eager and full of energy. However, about halfway through, the novelty begins to wear off. There are always ups and downs which can be extremely challenging and require a lot of mental strength, determination and resilience to get through. However, when the finish line comes into sight, nothing can stop you,” Georgia said.

“From experience, that feeling of finishing your PhD – amid the pain and joy of the journey – brings total satisfaction and is incomparable to anything else. I began mine in February of 2015 and walked across the graduation stage in the Union Hall as Doctor Atkin-Smith in May of 2019.”

Georgia’s PhD stemmed from her Honours, where she focused on understanding what happens in the final moments of a cell’s life.

“Working with the support of my supervisor Associate Professor Ivan Poon, we found that when immune cells die through apoptosis, they follow a series of shape changes to fragment down into small pieces,” Georgia said.

“My PhD research identified the key molecules that drive this dying cell fragmentation and uncovered the role fragmentation has in aiding dying cell removal and viral spread .”

The former study – published in Cell Reports in 2019 – revealed a protein within dying cells called Plexin B2 is responsible for coordinating a key stage of apoptosis in which dying cells shoot out long, beaded, necklace-like structures that fragment into small pieces.

An Influenza A infected dying monocyte under the microscope.

“Genetically deleting Plexin B2 prevented dying cells from forming these beaded structures. Surprisingly, this defect in the cell death process significantly compromised their removal by the garbage trucks of the body, which are known as phagocytes,” Georgia said.

Her latest research – published in Communications Biology [DM2] [GA3] – found cells infected with influenza A virus can kill white blood cells (monocytes) through apoptosis and induce their fragmentation. Georgia found the virus could then hide itself within and on these dying cell fragments, a phenomenon that may allow the virus to spread in the body.

Fragment of a dying Influenza A infected monocyte.

“These tiny fragments can act as Trojan Horse vesicles, harbouring a series of viral components that can both aid viral spread and induce an important anti-viral immune response,” Georgia said.

This groundbreaking research is important in understanding impacts of cell death, as well as the development of new therapeutics for infectious diseases.

The importance of mentorship

Following more than seven years of study, Georgia knows mentorship and support is the key to success.

“You can never do it alone. A solid support basis through not only friends and family, but mentors, is one of the key foundations of success,” Georgia said.

“Mentors can provide a unique insight into the industry you want get into. They’ve been there, done that, and are therefore equipped with valuable experiences and advice. I recommend students find valuable connections with a variety of mentors from different ages, genders and walks of life.”

Georgia is grateful to have had Associate Professor Ivan Poon’s guidance.

“I could not imagine doing a PhD without Ivan. His mentorship style is exceptional and he’s an inspiration to all his students and surrounding colleagues. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities, mentorship, support and wealth of knowledge Ivan has provided.”

Georgia’s advice – find a mentor, it could just make all the difference.

Georgia and Ivan’s top tips for University and PhD success

Associate Professor Ivan Poon believes PhD students should be given opportunities to discover what it is they wish to pursue while supervisors guide them – rather than tell them – to test a particular hypothesis.

“It is a bit like addiction to some extent. Once you have the opportunity to discover something that you feel is very important and then you realise you are the first in the world to make such discovery, you will always want to go back for more,” Ivan said.

“It is important for mentors to cultivate students’ strengths. Are they self-driven, keen to discover new things, gifted technically in the lab? Can they work well as part of a team? Do they have multiple or all qualities I just listed? I’ve found students who carry these traits prior to applying for a PhD show huge potential.”

“I didn’t have much funding when I first started my lab in 2014. It’s students like Georgia and others in my team – Steph, Rochelle, Lan and Sarah – who showed these skillsets in their undergraduate study and contributed to the major findings of my lab in the first five years of its establishment.”

Georgia has just three pieces of advice for students interested in STEMM study and research:

  1. Make sure you have a strong support network including mentors.
  2. Remember that EVERYONE, from undergraduates to Professors make mistakes in the lab.
  3. Follow your passion.