Special Interview: Lisa Martin

29 March 2018

In 1972 the Martin family travelled to Canberra, with Ray Martin becoming a foundation Professor in Inorganic Chemistry at RSC. The move established a strong connection for the then 13 year old Lisa Martin to Canberra, and the ANU, a connection that continues until this day.

“My parents met and married in England,” Martin explains, “started a family in Sydney then moved to Melbourne; which together with two sabbatical periods in USA, I felt very travelled. So, I used to tell my school friends that ‘my Dad couldn’t keep a job, which was why we moved around a lot!’”

“The move to Canberra was a really good one for me, of the four children, I was at the stage at high school where the impact was the least disruptive in terms of education.

“I enjoyed growing up in Canberra. I was interested in sports, and we lived close to the base of Mt Ainslie, so I often walked with my brothers up and down the mountain. I had an inspirational sports teacher who introduced me to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and this was the start of a love of the outdoors and passion for bushwalking that I still enjoy today, albeit less frequently than before. ”

Lisa’s parents both had a background in science. Her father, Ray, had a long and distinguished career in chemistry, while her mother, Rena, completed a BSc in marine biology, and became a biology teacher in one of Canberra’s two catholic secondary schools at the time. Lisa says that her parents however did not push her, or her three siblings into science, and in fact at times actively discouraged it.

They did however instill a love for the scientific method. “My father once pointed out that to make a cup of tea, the water needed to be 100 C, for extraction (of tea from the leaves) whereas it didn’t matter if the water was not boiling for a cup of instant coffee, for dissolution. For some reason this small example of the scientific method is something that has really stuck with me.”

 “Our parents encouraged us to do what we wanted and to the best of our abilities….although Dad often added that a good maths background wouldn’t go astray! Despite this philosophy, we ended up with three doctorates – in Immumology, Geology and Chemistry -- and a Computer Science graduate who has done well in the financial area.”

While in Canberra Lisa was able to get up close and personal to science, with her father’s work allowing her to meet with some of the world’s leading researchers, such as Linus Pauling.

“At that time, in the years following the moon landing in 1969, there was a big focus in scientific communities at looking beyond the stars. The Academy of Science and ANU hosted visitors from NASA and they showed pictures of the planets and galaxies, together with talks from some of the leading research astronomical researchers at the time. My Dad took me along to these events, which I loved and this gave my scientific heroes a bit more of a human perspective in my eyes.”

This passion continued for Lisa, and when her father took up a role as Vice Chancellor of Monash University in 1977 she started her undergraduate BSc degree at the same University. Lisa entered feeling a deep connection with the disciplines that both her parents pursued — feeling a deep passion for biology, but also realising that chemistry was something she was very skilled in. Following this Lisa applied for scholarships, deciding to return to Canberra and the ANU to do her PhD at the RSC.

“I was offered scholarships to do my PhD at both Monash and ANU. After 5 years, I thought that perhaps it was time to move away from Monash, as my father was still Vice Chancellor there, and strike out on my own. I had good memories of Canberra from my high school years, and although I had done my Honours year in Organic Chemistry, I decided to try Inorganic Chemistry at the RSC.

At the ANU Lisa worked with Professor Alan Sargeson, in a project in magnetism and electrochemistry that ended up being very similar to work her father had done.

“My PhD project was looking at ‘Encapsulated Metal ions of the first row transition metals’. This was exciting as it was a rare opportunity to make and measure complexes with close to ‘ideal’ properties. We discovered a spin-equilibrium system, that was tunable and very elegant. It turned out that my father was an expert on spin-equilibrium, so I talked to him a lot about this work, and we published two papers together.”

After finishing the final months of her PhD back at home with her parents, Lisa embarked on a varied post-doc career, working with her father as a research fellow, before traveling to Switzerland and Germany on post-docs. She then took up a Fullbright fellowship in the United States and Lisa decided to shift her focus somewhat — moving away from a straight chemistry focus, and instead to a molecular biology and protein electrochemistry of the nitrogen fixing enzyme, nitrogenase.

“I always loved nature and the outdoors, and my mother was trained in marine biology, so we often combed the seaside for interesting life-forms in the rock pools. Several times in my undergraduate studies I considered becoming a biologist, but then felt a molecular understanding of life was a more fundamental route to discovering life’s secrets. So I remained in chemistry.”

It is this chemical perspective, as well as a passion for biology, which has led Lisa to the exploration of biology through chemistry. She says that her current work is focused around three areas.

“We have made exciting discoveries on how steroid hormones are biosynthesised by cytochrome P450 enzymes. These are important drug targets for both breast and prostate cancers so potentially there are significant therapeutic outcomes. We do this by building a model of the cellular environment where the enzyme functions and probe these enzymes using bioanalytical methods to establish how they are regulated in vivo.”

“We also have a research program investigating membrane active ‘antimicrobial’ peptides. The global threat posed by drug-resistant bacteria drives this research to develop the antibiotics enabling future therapeutics. Hundreds to thousands of peptides are secreted when frogs or insects are stressed or attacked, hence an arsenal of potential antimicrobial molecules are available. We investigate how these peptides can selectively kill bacteria, which for many involves disruption of their membrane coating. We also discovered that some of these peptides form aggregates called amyloid, associated with neurodegenerative diseases. In collaboration with John Carver, Director of RSC, we are studying how to prevent aggregation associated with neurodegenerative disease and also determine a possible link with antimicrobial action of these peptides. 

“The last research area uses biomolecules to build materials with semi-conducting properties.  We use a charge transfer compound, called TCNQ, and mix it with biological cations. The first amino-acid derived semiconductor was prepared in this way, and these materials could be used for ‘green’ biological computer components in the future.”  

While Martin says her parents never actively encouraged her to pursue science there is the influence that both their Science and the scientific method has had on her life. In doing so the Martin legacy continues.