Henry Orton

Publication date
Thursday, 25 Oct 2018

“I have always been fascinated by biochemistry and the ambition to distil life down to its fundamental interactions,” RSC PhD student Henry Orton says.  “For example, a humble bacterium is really just a tiny ball of molecular interactions that together form an intricate device that can thrive and adapt. Even in our busy macroscopic lives, I think we can all draw inspiration from nature's elegant take on chemistry.”

Henry is one of the latest RSC students to win a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship. The Scholarship, established by the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation as part of Westpac’s 200th anniversary, is awarded to postgraduate students undertaking postgraduate research at one of Australia’s nine leading universities. The scholarship is awarded to students who not only demonstrate academic excellence, but also have the desire and potential to become leaders, inspire others, build collaborative networks, and have a vision to contribute to the growth and prosperity of Australia. These are traits that Henry has shown throughout his short, but already very fruitful, academic career.

“For my undergraduate degree, I studied the Bachelor of Philosophy in science at ANU,” Henry says. “This let me explore all fields of science, where I came to enjoy biochemistry and algebra. I then completed Honours with Professor Gottfried Otting in the realm of protein nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and won the university medal. Now I have embarked on a PhD in the same area with a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship.”

Through both his honours project and now into his PhD Henry has had a fascination with biochemistry, and in particular, the capabilities provided by NMR spectroscopy.

“Chemists have a number of spectroscopy techniques at their disposal to investigate molecular systems, but I found NMR to be the most interesting. Designing NMR experiments is a rewarding challenge, requiring knowledge of quantum mechanics and chemical structure. I am still impressed how from the abstract phenomenon of nuclear spin comes useful information and understanding of biological structures.

“My PhD project is in the area of solid state NMR with ultra-fast magic angle spinning. This is an emerging technology that has only recently reached a level to allow investigation of large biomolecules such as proteins. NMR spectroscopy in the solid state introduces many nuclear interactions that are invisible in the solution state, leading to more complicated spectra that contain rich information. Spinning the sample at the magic angle in excess of 100 kHz separates these interactions allowing investigation of molecular structure and dynamics.

“In solution NMR, nuclear interactions are short range and decay rapidly, meaning multiple experiments are required to obtain complete assignment of a protein. This is not the case in solids, where I am designing new five-dimensional methods to achieve complete protein assignment within a single experiment.”

For Henry, the Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship is not just an added benefit, but is an essential component to making his PhD possible.

“The Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship offers a unique opportunity to undertake research in Australia while enriching a PhD with study abroad. I wanted to study solid state NMR, but the current technology had not yet arrived in Australia. The Westpac scholarship recognises that development of world-class research in Australia requires travel to international conferences and laboratories, allowing me to learn about my area of interest from the best laboratories in the world. In addition, the scholarship offers a leadership development course that provides the skills necessary for personal development during a PhD.”

Henry is already taking advantage of these opportunities, spending half the year in Europe to learn from the best in the world in his field.

“Receiving the Westpac scholarship has allowed me to travel to France for 5 months and to several conferences to learn about solid state NMR and establish useful collaborations. Additionally, the leadership development course has provided me with useful skills to identify aims for my PhD, and methods to maintain healthy personal development during these years. The Wespac scholarship has been an invaluable addition to my PhD and I look forward to the doors it will open as I continue my studies ahead.”