Research by PhD scholar Jennifer Hung could lead to cheaper vaccines made more quickly.
Yu-Ting (Jennifer) Hung was watching Netflix’s Formula 1 docuseries when inspiration struck for how she could better explain her research.
“I was a bit bored and watching Drive to Survive while daydreaming and the analogy just popped into my head.”
Hung studies “the miracle molecule” mRNA and mRNA translation, which she describes as “how our bodies turn the information carried by mRNA into all sorts of different proteins that do a lot of different jobs within our bodies”.
In her winning talk for the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) — a competition that challenges PhD students to explain their research to a general audience —she calls on people to imagine mRNA as a racetrack.
“The car is a ribosome [a minuscule particle that makes proteins] and the ribosome races across the mRNA and reads it like a sentence. The ribosome will go from the start to the end and then once it’s done, a whole protein will be made.”
These ‘racetrack’ mRNAs can be a straight road or a closed loop. This matters because the theory is that proteins will be made more efficiently from the one mRNA if the end of the mRNA is close to the start,“rather than the ribosome having to float around until it finds the start of the mRNA again”.
Hung is looking to confirm whether mRNAs in cells form this closed loop and if this results in faster protein production. She also hopes to study what sort of “cellular landscape” makes mRNAs loop or not loop.
“If some of these mRNAs like to form loops more than others, then maybe there are certain features that cause them to do that,” she says.
“If the looping racetrack mRNAs lead to more efficient protein production, then we could incorporate them into vaccines and get more protein from each mRNA, helping to develop cheaper mRNA vaccines more quickly. But that is further down the track.”
“If people who don’t do science aren’t aware of what we’re doing, or the rationale behind it, there can be a lot of distrust and misinformation. ”Jennifer Hung
A key motivation for Hung to do 3MT was the misinformation around mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, that spread during the pandemic.
“When the COVID mRNA vaccine came out, there was so much opposition to it because it was considered so new. But research into mRNA vaccine technology has been going on for years,” she says.
“If people who don’t do science aren’t aware of what we’re doing, or the rationale behind it, there can be a lot of distrust and misinformation. It’s so important the general public knows what we’re researching because at the end of the day, we’re doing it for them.”
Hung has always been interested in learning how the world works through science.
“I used to watch Backyard Science when I was little and I’d do science experiments whenever I had time. I was a little bit of a nerd and just loved that discovery aspect of science – not knowing what you’re going to find out or figuring out things nobody else is looking at.”
Even though no one else in her family came from a research background – while growing up in Melbourne her parents ran a 7/11 convenience store and a small restaurant – Hung was always drawn to science.
“I’ve just sort of always kept gravitating towards it in one way or another,” she says.
“I did a lot of science programs that made me even more interested in it. And in my undergrad, I got a chance to have a lot of really good mentors and was lucky enough to do quite a few research projects.”
But Hung’s career in science hasn’t been without its challenges.
“Something I’ve experienced firsthand is the massive amount of imposter syndrome you feel as a woman in any sort of workplace, but particularly in STEM,” she says.
“When I look around me, most of the professors are male and it can be hard to identify role models that look like me, especially as a woman, but also someone who isn’t white.
“I’m really passionate about helping younger women who are in undergrad or in high school and letting them know that these things are not out of their reach, because I definitely felt like I had to work harder to get myself to a place where I felt I was confident and that I belong.”
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