Path to PhD... and beyond

Chemistry PhD candidate, Luke Duncan, on industry experience and bacterial resistance

I grew up in Yarrawonga, a small town on the Victorian-NSW border. I chose to study chemistry in high school only after another subject was cancelled. Life would have been very different if that hadn’t happened. Still, I never saw science as a career path. I remember having my mandatory meeting with the careers counsellor and watching her write “very unsure about future” on my file. In the end, I chose a Bachelor of Medicinal Chemistry because I liked the subject at school and the idea of helping to find a cure for a disease.

After year 12, I deferred my course and got a job as a laboratory technician at Thales Australia, a defence company who have a munitions factory in Yarrawonga. I worked in the high explosives wing of their laboratory with a large team of scientists. We performed quality control on the explosives made on site including TNT. After working at Thales, I knew that a career in science was something I wanted to pursue.

During my Bachelor of Medicinal Chemistry I studied everything from physics, microbiology and physiology, to pharmacology and chemistry. After I completed my degree I started working at Merck, a global pharmaceutical and chemical company. I performed quality control on many of the solvents, solutions and reagents you will find on the shelves of any laboratory. During my time there I was exposed to the industry side of science. But I missed organic chemistry and research. After a year and a half with the company I returned to La Trobe, and began my honours year in Dr Belinda Abbott’s lab.

Today I’m nearing the end of my PhD in the Abbott lab. My research uses organic chemistry to tackle the global problem of antibiotic resistance. We’ve been using antibiotics for decades, but we are now seeing more and more cases of bacterial resistance. This is a result of over exposure. The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics the faster they develop resistance. Using organic chemistry, I’m working to synthesise a molecule that can be used as an antibiotic, but works in a completely different way to current antibiotics.

I hope my career as an organic chemist will take me overseas, at least for a few years. My dream is to work for a global pharmaceutical company where I can contribute to a meaningful scientific breakthrough.

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