Singing the praises of science

Dr Cristina Keightley reflects on her two very different passions: white blood cells and opera singing

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Dr Cristina Keightley has spent most of her life pursuing two very different passions: white blood cells and opera singing.

With a PhD in molecular biology and a music performance degree from the Victorian College of the Arts, Dr Keightley was a scientist by day and opera singer by night. In pursuit of her dream, Keightley chose the stage for over a decade, until her love of scientific discovery led her back to the lab and a new beginning at La Trobe Bendigo.

I sat down with Dr Keightley to discover the benefits of a road less travelled.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Cristina, you have had a really fascinating journey as a scientist, turned opera singer, turned scientist again. What was your first love, science or music?

CRISTINA KEIGHTLEY: Music, because it has always been a part of my life. I come from a family who are passionate about the humanities, so I met with some incomprehension when I developed an interest in science. “Why do you want to study chemistry?” my mother asked in disbelief when I was in year 11. I had the science gene but I also had the opera gene. I took the path of least resistance and studied both science and opera concurrently. I was late to formal training as a singer – I was 20 years old, while most singers commence voice lessons at 14 – but I loved it. I graduated with my degree from the Victorian College of the Arts, shortly after being awarded my PhD on gene regulation.

GR: It is such an unusual marriage of the arts and science. What happened next?

CK: Initially, I tried to do both. I searched for a postdoctoral position in a city that had a good opera house. I ended up in Houston, Texas, home to Baylor College of Medicine and one of the top five opera houses in the United States. I sang with Houston Grand Opera as a chorister, sharing the stage with some of my idols. It ignited a desire to spend more time making music and, after much soul-searching, I decided to pursue opera instead of science. I studied in Italy for a few summers as well as in the United States, training with some of the great opera singers and conductors of our time. I also toured extensively, eventually moving to New York where I was fortunate to sing at Carnegie Hall.

GR: How long were you a professional singer?

CK: About ten years.

GR: And what happened to make you reconsider science?

CK: Opera is rewarding on so many levels, but I began to miss science. Singing uses a different part of your brain and, in the end, I didn’t want to choose opera for life. I chose science for life.

GR: You are a now a senior lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences in Bendigo. What do you specialise in?

CK: I study the genetic programs that control white blood cells, both in development and disease. I focus predominantly on neutrophils, the white blood cells that are the first responders to injury and infection. They have many ways of destroying pathogens and can also call for backup, if need be, to control infection. I study factors that are important to neutrophil development. One factor in particular, known as ZBTB11, is important to this process, and we have discovered it is critical to the development of blood stem cells. These stem cells give rise to the different kinds of blood cells in our bodies, including neutrophils, and are being studied for use in cell therapies. I am now seeking to understand how ZBTB11 works, what it does, and what pathways it uses to influence these cells.

GR: What got you interested in this particular area?

CK: I have always been interested in gene regulation and transcription factors, those proteins that bind to a particular DNA sequence ahead of a gene and control how much, if any, of that gene will be made into protein. These transcription proteins have the power to control whole programs of gene expression. They are essential for normal development and are often disrupted in disease. What regulates the regulators is fascinating indeed.

GR: Are you still happy you chose science?

CK: Absolutely. While singing breathes life into the work of a composer, medical research is about breathing discovery into life. The possibility that a discovery might one day help somebody is tremendously motivating. I also enjoy the intellectual aspects of it. Science is a series of puzzles and what goes on in the human body is remarkable. Each cell is like a small metropolis with many different factories manufacturing or processing essential products that enable it to carry out its particular purpose. All these factories need to be under strict regulatory control, so the right things are made at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amounts. The complexity is endlessly challenging and fascinating. If I can understand the mechanisms of the gene I am studying, if I can see what’s there, it could change how haematopoietic stem cells are grown for therapeutic purposes. And that’s exciting.