Meet a biomedical scientist who’s looking behind bee stings

Meet a biomedical scientist who’s looking behind bee stings

Helen Irving is our new Professor of Biomedical Science. She began her career with a degree in agricultural science, but soon discovered she was “more interested in biochemistry than in telling farmers how to grow their crops”. Her fascination with cell communication has sustained her ever since. The end product: a broad research portfolio that covers everything from pH in plants to the human genome.

We spoke with Professor Irving about the three things capturing her scientific imagination today.

“Good science is about curiosity, persistence, questioning and openness,” says La Trobe’s Professor Helen Irving. Image credit: Dr Michael Angove.


1. Understanding the proteins behind bites and stings

My research focuses on understanding the first inflammatory response. When a bee stings you on the arm, for example, it triggers an immune response. Thousands of molecules, including white blood cells, are released, and travel to the site of infection to rid your body of the venom. That’s what causes redness and swelling around the sting itself.

I’m working with the key proteins involved in this process. One is called IRAK3. It helps to regulate the inflammatory response, so it doesn’t go into overdrive. Without it, a bee sting might cause you to have red arms, rather than localised redness.

2. Asking the right questions of science

I’m interested in how cells respond to signals. That’s always been a driving force in my research. There is still so much that we don’t know, and there are more questions to be asked than you can ever imagine.

Sometimes the questions come from left field. You obtain a result and think, “Good heavens, is this really happening? Can we go and test it in the lab?”

Good science is about curiosity, persistence, questioning and openness. I am a basic scientist but I have a real desire to be more translational. Still, the types of questions I ask in my research are that of basic science. They are intricate molecular questions like, ‘How and why do these two molecules interact?’ rather than, ‘Is this new drug the best treatment?’

3. Mentoring scientists in regional areas

I’m based at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus. I’d like to contribute to advancing the research that is happening here. Science communication is part of that, ensuring staff go to conferences and develop networks beyond the narrow professional circles we often find ourselves in.

I’d like to be involved in adding to research impact in the region, and mentoring the scientists here. Bendigo is a great city, and offers a wide range of opportunities for researchers. We need to be inclusive and flexible in order to get the most out of those opportunities.

Fascinated by the human body, diseases and drug treatments? Consider a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at La Trobe.