Bequest lures young scientist home
Chemistry graduate Dr Kate Wegener is returning to the University of Adelaide to become the first Ramsay Fellow.
The Ramsay Fellowship was established in 2008 with a significant bequest from the Ramsay family, founders of the Kiwi Polish Company (later Kiwi International), the famous shoe polish manufacturers.
Hamish Ramsay fulfilled his late stepmother's wish to help advance scientific research by pledging funds for four-year Ramsay Fellowships.
Dr Wegener, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, will be the first of the Ramsay Fellows and eventually the Fellowship will support four independent research fellows.
Dr Wegener grew up in Port Lincoln where her parents still live. She graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Science, majoring in Chemistry, in 1997 and then went on to do a PhD in Chemistry with Professor John Bowie and Professor John Carver (who was then at the University of Wollongong but is now Deputy Executive Dean in the Faculty of Sciences).
Dr Wegener moved to Oxford in 2002 and has been working in the laboratory of Professor Iain Campbell, studying proteins involved in the processes of cell migration and adhesion.
"These very basic processes - determining whether cells move around or stay in the one place - are involved in almost all aspects of life, including embryo development, wound repair and in the immune response," says Dr Wegener.
"If we can figure out how the processes of cell migration and adhesion are controlled, we can use this information in many medical conditions. For example, blood clots are due to cells adhering to each other. Most of the time this is useful to stop bleeding but other times, such as with deep vein thrombosis or heart problems, we'd like to reduce the likelihood of clotting."
Another potential application is in cancer where, during metastasis, cells detach from the primary cancer and move through the body to adhere to new sites causing secondary tumours.
"If we can interfere with the migration or adherence of these cells we could stop this from happening," says Dr Wegener.
Her research focuses on the integrin proteins, looking at their interactions with proteins inside the cell. This is done at the atomic level, using nuclear magnetic resonance.
Dr Wegener hopes to use her Ramsay Fellowship as the first step in developing an independent research group at Adelaide, studying protein-protein interactions in important physiological processes.
"I'll be using the experience I've gained at Oxford to benefit Australian research," Dr Wegener says. "Australia is also where both my husband's and my families are, and it's a great place to live and raise a family."
Mr Ramsay said the Selection Committee and he were absolutely delighted with the high quality of the first Ramsay Fellow and the level of her research: "We congratulate Kate on choosing to return to her home ground and we congratulate ourselves on getting her."
The Ramsay Fellowships will be offered annually, and are open to Australian citizens with a PhD or equivalent qualification with preference given to applicants aged 35 years or under.
Mr Ramsay said his family was keen to encourage young Australian scientists working overseas to return home without disadvantaging their careers. ■
STORY ROBYN MILLS