Design on DNA

Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Department of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Centre

BSc (Microbiology, Biochemistry) 1996
Hons (Microbiology) 1997
PhD (Microbiology) 2003

Minimum $51,000
Maximum $145,000
Average $84,000 p.a.

INTERWOVEN in the complexities of the body’s DNA strands lies an incredible, life-enhancing potential – a potential this UQ Science graduate gets closer to unlocking every day.

Virologist and molecular biologist Joanne Macdonald is an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Based in the heart of New York City, Joanne manages the biology portion of the division while pursuing her own research in molecular computation. Also known as DNA computing, molecular computation replaces traditional, silicon-based computer technologies with DNA.

Alongside a multidisciplinary team of chemists, biologists, physicians, surgeons, embryologists, computer scientists and physicists, Joanne has co-constructed DNA computer technology, entitled MAYA-II, which uses DNA-based logic gates to play tic-tac-toe interactively with a human opponent.

Amazingly, Joanne still uses the suite of techniques she learnt during her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at UQ – which included a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a PhD (microbiology) – in her current revolutionary research.

“Learning the research process has allowed me to change fields and become involved in work I would never have imagined I would be doing, based on my original Microbiology training,” she says.

She pays particular tribute to one of her PhD supervisors – UQ’s Associate Professor Roy Hall – for aiding her research ability and flexibility.

Describing the science behind the MAYA-II feat as “incredibly interesting”, Joanne says the team is now considering medical applications of their automation.

“By programming a tiny chip made of DNA and implanting it in the human body, others in the division are hoping to diagnose and kill cancerous cells, or monitor and treat diabetes by dispensing insulin when it’s needed,” she explains.

Joanne’s personal focus is on building faster and more accurate diagnosis of variations of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus – research which could not only aid recovery, but also save lives.