The path from down under to global game-changer
For this high-content screening superstar, collaboration is everything.
Meet Kaylene Simpson
If you wanted to undermine the myth of the scientist as a loner toiling away on secretive research into the night in an empty lab, you really couldn’t do better than Kaylene Simpson, PhD, as your example of scientist as “people person”. A molecular cell biologist who specialized in breast cancer research while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, who now heads the Victorian Centre for Functional Genomics at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Simpson has centered her scientific career around collaboration—because that’s just clearly who she is. In a conversation with Thermo Fisher Scientific about her work and life, instead of focusing on her many accomplishments, Dr. Simpson emphasized the people who inspired, mentored, or collaborated with her at every step.
But since we’re talking about Australia, we really have to first talk about the wallabies.
Simpson did doctoral studies at the Victorian Institute of Animal Science, researching small marsupials called tammar wallabies (Macropus eugenii). She describes them as “cute little Australian animals, like small kangaroos.” She tracked the wallabies’ breast development and milk production, seeking ways to potentially correct for lactose-deficient milk, with the hope that it might have parallels for humans. When Simpson describes the scientific aspects of the work, her words are measured and precise, but when she explains the miraculous process whereby tiny newborn marsupials (“the size of a broad bean!” she marvels) climb from the mother’s curled-forward tail up and into the pouch to choose a mammary gland that will support it for months, her amazement is uncontainable and quite infectious. Throughout her life, she has gravitated toward people who share this spirit of excited interest.
Seeking enthusiasm is par for the course in Simpson’s circuitous route to running a game-changing core lab and global research organization— a path that was “far from normal,” as she puts it, but with each milestone mappable to key people who made a difference along the way. “In thinking about my career, I can pick out an important person at every step who has been a mentor, an important part of my life.”
Humble origins and huge inspirations
Simpson was born and raised in a small, remote Australian country town, so her pursuit of higher education was trailblazing—her parents didn’t go to college, but her father’s work ethic in farm equipment sales, and his gregariousness with customers, had a profound influence. “More than anything, I'm a scientist—and that's a skill set that not everybody ends up having—but I am also a coordinator of projects,” she shares. “And at the heart of it, that is what my dad was as well, a knowledge expert, but also a very good manager, and an organizer of people.”
The organizational skills inherited from her dad helped her excel in math, and the transition from high school to college suggested a career as a math teacher—influenced in no small part by another key mentor.
Simpson’s voice warms as she remembers her: “A wonderful woman who never actually taught me math. She taught me and my mom dancing; she created this dance club that became huge in our little town, but she was also a high school math teacher, and I idolized her. I loved the way she engaged with everybody, and I modeled that for myself—as a teacher, you're lovely and mentoring to everybody. I carry those things with me now—the idea that you get to your position, not on your own; you get there with everybody else. Working as part of your team. Whatever I can give back to the young people that come into my lab, that's really important.”
She excelled in math, but when Simpson took her first course in biology at Monash University, she was hooked. A funny but wonderful biology teacher influenced her to choose a Bachelor of Science degree, and an influential second-year microbiology teacher influenced her to specialize in microbiology and genetics: “It wasn't so much that I remember the specific subject matter, it’s just his enthusiasm and elation, and the way he engaged with everybody,” she explains.
From plants to animals to people—a science career evolution
During the course of her studies, she became interested in the department’s focus on plant biology. Scientists were trying to identify the genes that regulate drought tolerance and salt resistance in order to potentially create new transgenic plants that could be grown for food in the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. The questions became the subject of her honors thesis, which soon led to an opportunity after graduation to work as a researcher for a biotech company.
“I decided I would work for a few years and figure out what I wanted to do,” she explains. At the company, Simpson’s surprising research involved studying color biosynthesis pathways in plants to see if it was possible to create a blue rose. She found the science fascinating, but what really impressed her was the company culture.
“I was mentored by some amazing people. We had tea together every day. I still collaborate with some of them even now. And the majority of us don't do plant science anymore.” Her own path away from plants and toward animals came at the suggestion of her future husband, a fellow scientist she’d known since university. “At that point we were not a couple—but he was the one who said, ‘You should come look at this marsupial project.’”
The marsupial research for her PhD helped Simpson develop technical skills in growing cells in 3D that would prove invaluable in her postdoctoral research on breast cancer. And as with each turn in her career, it was the influence of others that helped guide her in that direction. In this case, the death of a neighbor from cancer when Simpson was a teenager had a tragic impact on the woman’s family and community, and an enduring influence on Simpson.
“I was in high school then, and I thought there must be people doing research on that. And I started wondering, ‘How do we help families like that?’” Seizing the chance to apply the knowledge she had gained from her breast research in marsupials to breast cancer research, she joined prominent scientists at Melbourne University studying the BRCA1 gene. They needed to isolate mouse stem cells, and Simpson had already learned how to extract breast material and break it down into single cells, which could organize into 3D multicellular organoids. Her team became the first group to identify and categorize mammary gland stem cells and use them to grow breast material in a mouse from a single cell.
The leader of that team was a prominent scientist and another shaper of Simpson’s course. When Simpson and her husband both accepted postdoc opportunities in the United States, before they left, her team leader said, “’You know, you don't have to run your own lab as a traditional group leader.”
“I didn't know what she meant,” Simpson says. “It just stuck in my mind forever.”
The way home is sometimes the way forward
At Harvard Medical School’s Brugge Lab, Simpson leveraged her technical expertise in RNAi screening to help identify targets that regulate breast carcinoma migration and invasion. But much of her work there involved collaborating with a colleague in a core facility, the compound screening group at the Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology, Longwood (ICCB-Longwood).
“Working closely together, we figured out how to convert equipment to do high-throughput RNAi screens,” she explains. “We had no idea how to do it, but we made it work…So while I knew I was very much about technology, I was really all about the collaboration,” she explains. And she began to suspect that running a single-focus lab might not be for her.
When her husband received a job offer back in Melbourne, she pitched an idea for a core lab to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
“But the core platform wouldn’t be just a ‘walk in and operate the machine’ type of lab,” she explains. “It was to be an academic, engaged platform where I share my knowledge base and help build projects with the people who come in. People would come in and do their experiments under the lab’s guidance, as a team, but I would manage every project. So that rather than reinventing the wheel, they get the benefit of technical and intellectual expertise and learn how to run their projects.”
Her vision became a reality, and for over a decade, Simpson has run the Victorian Centre for Functional Genomics, enabling genome-scale, high-throughput RNA interference screening approaches, and guiding users from assay development and automation optimization through to screening and data analysis.
“We support whatever research people want to do,” she explains. “And for me it’s a huge pleasure that I see an enormous amount of science and diverse biological questions being asked. And we get to have a real impact because people can't do it without us. Without a group of experts like ours, they wouldn't know how to do the sorts of projects that come into our lab, or if they did, it would only be at a certain scale and would take a much longer time to get there.”
Collaborators are everywhere
“So for me, it’s 100% about enabling, collaborating, and nurturing the next generation of people,” she adds. “And it's been a great success… If someone comes in and says, ‘Can I do this?’ we never say no. We say, ‘Let's see, because we don't know.’ And our model is now replicated by other sites. Whether it's functional genomics platforms or models where labs come in and are academically engaged. We got it off the ground, and it's actually a highly valuable way to work.”
Simpson attributes part of that success to the quality of the technology her lab has come to rely on. They have been instrumental in finding creative ways to do high-content microscopy using the Thermo Scientific CellInsight High-Content Screening (HCS) Platform. Using it in combination with CellProfiler™ open-source software, her team has enabled powerful project analysis capabilities.
“Probably 85 to 90% of what we do is specialty array screening with high-content readouts. It’s a cool platform for people who are bioinformatically and cell-biology focused, but it's game-changing for screening and identifying focused hit lists,” she offers. From running drug screens for pathogen interactions, to vaccine development research, to developing 3D structures for potential cancer therapies, scientists are doing incredible work at her lab, and she loves being part of it.
“And now it’s a global adventure,” she adds. Simpson is part of the Society of Biomolecular Imaging and Informatics (SBI2), a highly networked group that talks about high-content imaging analysis. “And I run a meeting every year called Functional High-Throughput Technologies of Australia, which Thermo Fisher has supported since the earliest days. People come out from North America, Asia, and Europe. It’s a powerful way for us to be engaged globally, and with the internet, no one's really very far away.”
And with Simpson, of course the emphasis on human connection extends not only to her direct collaborators and colleagues.
“The people at Thermo Fisher are fantastic,” she notes. “The company has had a very strong and long-lasting presence in our lab, and I see that, again, in a collaborative way. I don't see a vendor as just the point of contact providing an instrument; I want them to be part of the team, come along for the ride, and help us grow in what we can do.”
As she says, everything about science is about collaboration.
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