This year, the Department of Science, Industry and Resources awarded Professor Si Ming Man the 2022 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. The prize is one of the largest in Australia, coming with a $50,000 prize, and recognised Man for his work in immunology and study of inflammation. It is not his first achievement – in 2020 and 2022, Man’s work was amongst the top one percent of citations in his field.
As an introduction to our readers, can you outline what you are researching, what it looks like and what its applications are?
At the moment, I’m a professor at the ANU, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. My lab works on the immune system… My key area of research is to understand how the immune system is actually activated in response to different types of germs, and different types of danger signals like stress.
We’ve identified that the immune system acts like an alarm system. When different germs enter our body, it triggers the activation of different immune sensors. And that’s pretty cool, because it means that the alarm system can have different alarm sounds that alerts our body, and then that would tailor to a different outcome.
So when a virus intruder enters the room for example, you want the anti-viral alarm system to be triggered. And then you have all these kinds of immune “soldiers” or cells coming in to try to get rid of that virus. You don’t want the wrong type of response to try to fight a virus when they’re not good at fighting the virus. Our research is trying to understand how the alarm system is activated, and what type of responses are then triggered to enter the infected areas to clear this type of infection.
On the other hand, too much immune response is detrimental to the body. Imagine a virus entering the room, and then you have anti-viral soldiers coming in, anti-bacterial soldiers coming in, anti-cancer soldiers coming in, making a mess. And the consequence of that is you get too much inflammation. That could potentially result in fever, rash, and sepsis, and then that could lead to shock and death. We want to understand how that process occurs and stop the process from going too far.
The application of our work is that we can boost an appropriate immune response, make sure the alarm system is more sensitive to the germ, so you get a faster response. We are developing drugs that can stop an inappropriate immune response from causing too much inflammation. So hopefully, we have a better chance in fighting infections, but also a better chance in fighting cancer.
What does the Frank Fenner prize mean to you? How does that change the way you go about your work?
I think it’s an incredible honour to be recognized by the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. It’s one of the most prestigious prizes for science in Australia. I got a phone call from Minister Ed Husic on a Tuesday afternoon. [Laughs] I was working in my office and got a call and he introduced himself as the Minister for Industry and Science. And then I recognized Ed’s voice, so I knew that it wasn’t a prank call. And then when he told me the news, I was pleasantly surprised.
In terms of the prize money, you know, a lot of our science is not just done by me. I lead a team of scientists in my lab and they work incredibly hard… My collaborators also provide intellectual input and resources. And thisi Prize also recognizes their important contributions.
Do you think the prize has increased public awareness of the work you do?
It definitely does, because this is probably the 15th interview I’ve done. I’ve been speaking to other scientists, I’ve been speaking to people on radio and [in the] newspaper. So I think it has reached a very broad audience. I hope that it reached out to, you know, school-aged students who may think about a career in science, and now have a better understanding of what scientists do.
In your opinion, what makes a good researcher, and a good scientist?
I think someone who is curious about their surroundings, and always questioning why? Why is this happening? I remember when I was young…And I always wondered, why am I getting a cold? How is it happening within my body? And how do I get rid of it?
It’s about being curious, and having that motivation to then persist. One thing that people don’t know about science is that we don’t come up with the ideas in the morning, go to the lab, and then get the results in the afternoon. Science is a long process. You might have an idea on Monday. And then it is not until Wednesday, you actually have a plan of attack. And then it might not be until Friday, you actually write down your step-by-step protocol, how to devise and revise your experiments…
It’s about having that creativity, motivation, persistence, and these are the ingredients of becoming a successful scientist.
How do you find the challenge of both lecturing and researching, and how do they fit together?
I think it’s important to lecture as a researcher because I think teaching informs research and research informs teaching…Whatever I learn in the lab or in the literature, I can then bring that to the undergraduate classroom…For example, in my lectures in Hallmark of Cancer, I talk about one of the breakthroughs in the last 10 years, which is a type of therapy called CAR-T cell therapy, where you take patients’ blood out and train the immune cells to become the strongest fighters, and then you inject them back into the patient in an attempt to kill the tumour. Students would come up to me after the lecture and say “Wow, this is so cool! I didn’t know this can be done!”.
And so as an active researcher, I can bring that research perspective and cutting-edge science into the undergraduate program. And interacting with students is always one of my passions.
How has your area of research changed since you entered it? Where do you see it going in the future?
When I started 10 years ago we actually had a very limited understanding of how the immune system can sense all types of germs around us. And in those 10 years, there has been an explosion of discoveries in the field of innate immunity: wow, there are actually so many different types of immune sensors in our body that can actually detect different types of germs.
It means we are now at a stage where we can develop drugs against individual immune sensors. More and more research labs and pharmaceutical companies are trying to design specific drugs that can target immune sensors. That means that in the future, there will be more personalised and specific drugs that can treat different types of diseases, including inflammatory diseases.
What’s also interesting is that 10 years ago, we didn’t realise that these immune sensors actually have anti-cancer abilities…Immune sensors can sense stress and unusual signals within our body, which can come from a cancer cell, and that can be picked up by our own immune system.
The next stage, perhaps in the next 10 years, is to find and develop more drugs to enhance the ability of immune sensors to fight cancer better.
A lot of medical research has a commercial aspect to it – how does this impact your research and the medical field?
It’s very important because what we do is fundamental science. We understand how nature works. It’s great to have pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and CSL having an interest in fundamental research, and are keen to connect and collaborate with us. For example, they can actually initiate a clinical trial, to actually move the drug to this clinical stage where they can test on human patients…It’s important for researchers like myself, to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, and also for them to engage with us, and taking our fundamental research into the translational space
Lastly, what advice do you offer to the prospective medical student looking at research?
If you’re really interested in research, get in touch with a potential supervisor who works on an area that you are most passionate about. Talk to them about their projects, and ask them why they think these projects are important. And then ask for opportunities for a summer internship… any opportunities to get into the lab and actually see in real life, what science is about, and what you actually do on a day to day basis.
So then it’s good to actually experience that yourself and see oh, okay, this is how a scientist thinks – how scientists do things. If you’re successful, and you like this type of research, then potentially consider a postgraduate degree, like a PhD.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.