In 2022, Sam Forster was named a CSL Centenary Fellow, an award that gives established scientists in Australia $1.25 million AUD (US $820,000) over five years to take their research to the next level.
At the Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, he and his team are seeking new treatments for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) by applying genomics, computational biology, stem cells and microbiomics, to answer fundamental questions about the immunology of the gut and its microbiome.
Years before he led this major research project, he was a university student figuring out what his career in science might look like by participating in Australia’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). CSL also supports this program, aimed at scientists just starting their careers. UROP places undergraduate students in biomedical jobs and helps foster the next generation of medical researchers.
We asked Forster how the program shaped his career path and why he’s pursuing a life in science:
Would you tell us a little about your research?
Fundamentally, my team's research is about understanding the naturally occurring bacteria that we carry with us every day so we can protect and improve these communities and prevent disease. We do this by growing the bacteria in the laboratory to understand how they interact with each other and how they send messages that we can detect and how this impacts our health. Ultimately, we envision a day where you can take an optimized mix of bacteria to treat and prevent disease.
What was your UROP experience like?
When I joined the UROP program I was completing undergraduate degrees in Information Systems and Science at Melbourne University. While I was studying computer security, database design, genetics and marine biology, my plans were to continue to a job in IT. Through the UROP program I was placed with Professor Paul Hertzog at the Monash Institute of Medical Research where his team worked on innate immune responses, particularly interferon signalling. Through this work, we developed the Interferome Database -- a resource still widely used to this day.
Why was UROP important to you as a young researcher?
Without UROP, it is unlikely I would have considered a career in research.The UROP program was a critical chance to experience medical research and meet world-leading scientists who are working every day at the cutting-edge of technology and understanding to gain knowledge, solve problems and find better ways to treat disease. For me personally, the UROP program introduced me to Professor Hertzog who provided numerous opportunities, including encouraging me to undertake and learn laboratory work and shared his passion for knowledge and science. Paul supervised me through Honours, Ph.D. and 15 years later he remains a key mentor and continues to inspire the next generations of scientists.
How did UROP help you make decisions about your research career?
The UROP program provided insights and an appreciation of what research entails, not the laboratory experience of an undergraduate practical class but the excitement of discovery and the challenge of failures that is fundamental to the search for new knowledge and understanding. It was through the UROP program I became aware of the opportunities a research career presented.
The UROP program fulfils a key role in motivating, inspiring and providing opportunities. It serves as an entry point to research for those who may never have considered research as a career and ensures the research ecosystem in Australia continues to recruit from the widest diversity of people possible. These recently trained students also act as conduits to help to foster knowledge exchange and collaborations across disciplines and fields.
What advice would you give students about the program?
The advice to students is actually quite simple, the UROP program is unique in the way it enables you to experience research. It is not a short undergraduate project with defined timelines and outcome. Through the UROP program, you become a researcher, you become a member of the research team and you directly contribute to research discoveries. Through this experience you gain a new understanding of whether research is for you.
Why should research organizations consider supervising UROP students?
For research organizations, the UROP program is a key opportunity to recruit and support the best and brightest emerging scientists. UROP students provide new perspectives, new skills and new ideas. They will challenge the status quo and help drive innovation.