In the late 1970s the science of combining genetic material from different sources in the laboratory into custom-made DNA molecules was still young, and the medical revolution it would underwrite was just beginning.
Lynn Corcoran was a science undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, excited to be dabbling in some “pretty rudimentary” genetic cloning. This entailed regular excursions across Royal Parade to fetch materials from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Despite five years residence in Melbourne, the Minnesota native hadn’t until that moment heard of the institute, but quickly realised that “if I wanted to become a molecular biologist, that is where I needed to be”.
Some 35 years later, that’s where Corcoran still is, though with plenty of scientific deviations and occasional translocations back to the US along the way.
Hers has been a widely varied career, tracking from pioneering work in understanding how oncogenes (genes with cancerous potential) activate tumors, to collaborating with the institute parasitologists to develop malaria vaccines, to – most recently – investigating the immune systems of koalas and Tasmanian Devils. Her work on the devils now carries the promise of a vaccine for the transmissible tumor disease some experts feared might wipe the species out.
Her trajectory has been “a little bit odd”, Professor Corcoran says, perhaps reflecting her catholic interests in both professional and personal realms. While she’s thrived on the breadth of experience – “meeting a lot of people, and seeing different ways of doing things … it does leave me with a little bit of a sense of superficiality. Some of my colleagues have such deep understanding of their areas, I’m a little jealous of it”.
That said, as a laboratory leader, she’s also observed that often the most magical collaborations turn on the combined efforts of the visionary and the specialist – breadth and depth.
With 35 years of such experience to draw on, and the hard-won insights of juggling a storied scientific career and motherhood, Professor Corcoran has a reputation as a mentor of young scientists and a champion of the next generation of women coming into the laboratory.
She’s seen substantial improvements in some areas – child care, family-friendly meeting schedules. “But we still face examples of national and international meetings where women aren’t invited,” she says. “It drives me berserk.” Recognition at scientific symposiums is a critical part of career development, but regardless of the papers they might have published “if it is 10 times as hard for a woman to get an invitation, your CV is always going to struggle.
“The institute’s policy is that we will not have meetings like that, and we will not support people who have meetings like that,” Professor Corcoran says. “It’s a significant shift to have not just single voices, but institutions, now speaking up.”
But medical research – never a career for the feint-hearted – is in many ways now a tougher, more competitive game, Professor Corcoran says. She’s the creature of an era when talented young people who worked hard could largely be assured jobs in well-funded institutions. Today, “a lot of people are being discouraged from turning to science as a career because the funding is just so hard.”
So she tries to foster nascent talent by reaching right down into high school programs with encouragement about the other rewards. “As a job and an endeavor, it is not only really exciting and really important to try to learn things to make medicine better, but it is really beautiful and creative, a wonderful intellectual pursuit.”
Professor Corcoran talks a lot about the creativity of her work. Her daughter is an art major, and comparing what might seem like wildly different paths, Professor Corcoran sees plenty of accord.
“Biology is beautiful – it is like an artwork. There’s creativity involved in imagining – how does that work? You see these amazing biological phenomena and so you wonder, my God, how did that happen? You have to be rigorous in how you pose the question and how you interpret the answers, but you also have to be open minded to possibilities. That’s creativity.”