Professor Peter Smooker specialised in protein evolution and vaccines research overseas before he came to RMIT to share his expertise on infection and disease.
He is now program leader for the Master of Biotechnology, which offers majors in molecular biology, molecular microbiology, food science, and bioinformatics. He also manages a laboratory devoted to developing solutions for infectious and acquired disease.
What do you do at RMIT?
My work at RMIT is actually quite varied, which is what I enjoy about it.
My primary role is to deliver courses in a couple of specialist areas – to both undergraduate and postgraduate students – and I am the program coordinator for the Master of Biotechnology program.
Although it’s demanding, I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I’m helping to shape the next generation of biotechnologists.
Tell me about your current research.
The research undertaken in my lab is quite varied, but focuses on disease prevention and treatment.
Vaccination has been a wonderful intervention and has saved millions of lives, but there are still many deadly diseases for which no vaccines exist. So we are tackling this on several fronts; developing new types of nanoparticles and searching for the “Achilles heel” of pathogens so we can target them with a vaccine.
What drew you to this area and how did you get into it?
I didn’t start off in vaccines – I did a postdoctoral in Germany on protein evolution and then held another position in Melbourne looking at protein structure in inherited disease.
There was an interesting opportunity available as a scientist in the development of protein vaccines against parasites in Indonesia. This is where I combined the underlying theme of my research, protein structure and function, with vaccines.
What I enjoy are the Eureka moments, which are often preceded by a “gee, that’s strange” moment!
Celebrating a discovery is what makes science so enjoyable.
What are the challenges in your research area?
In terms of vaccines, understanding the enormously complex immune system is a real challenge. Obtaining funding to undertake research is always a challenge too.
Where do you see your research area in ten years?
I expect there will be new vaccines against diseases for which we currently have none. This will have an enormous positive impact on human health. In particular, I hope we will find vaccines for diseases that affect the third world and ensure ways to fund and rollout vaccination programs.
What kind of student succeeds in this area? What qualities do they possess?
Students need to have an inquiring mind and a determination to work hard and succeed. Research is never smooth sailing and you have to be tough enough to avoid being disheartened by the troughs along the way.
What do you enjoy about teaching into the master program?
I really enjoy teaching and watching students develop their knowledge and skills over time. The Master of Biotechnology students are a great bunch – there are some really excellent students in the program and we’re always looking to welcome new people to our team.
RMIT’s Master of Biotechnology YouTube video features great examples of some of these students.
Story: Rebecca McGillivray