Cancer patience: thanks and farewell to Nicole Cloonan

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Our curator for the past week on @RealScientists, Dr Nicole Cloonan aka @ncloonan, is a newly-minted group leader at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute on the northern fringes of the Brisbane CBD. Her research looks at the roles of microRNAs in gene regulation and disease, particularly in cancer. Nicole’s tweets deposited us directly into the life of a new lab head, navigating the trials and tribulations of establishing new experiments, new collaborations, competition, publication, and finding and protecting work-life balance.

MicroRNAs are small molecules, generated from long ribonucleic acid (RNA) precursors, which target specific genes, and regulate the expression of their protein products. As Nicole explained, what we think of as individual microRNAs are effectively a suite of multiple microRNA molecules with similar, overlapping specificities, and it is through this spectrum of on- and off-target effects that seemingly non-specific microRNAs enact their observably specific function. The profile of microRNAs in a cell can be seen as a shorthand ‘readout’ of the cell status, and because of its size, is quicker and easier to characterise via sequencing than other genetic ‘readouts’ such as the entire genome (the DNA) or transcriptome (all the transcribed RNA of the genes being expressed at any one time).

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan lab

Nicole’s first major programme of experiments in her first six months at @QIMRBerghofer (yes, it’s taken that long to get all the data together – patience is a virtue!) has been looking at microRNAs in cancer, to see if there are any microRNAs that affect the way cells respond to chemotherapy drugs. Basically, this involved taking approximately 2000 known human microRNAs, introducing them into human-derived cells in culture one at a time, then blasting them with chemo – compared to chemo-treated cells without introduced microRNAs. The data is fresh, so it’ll be a while before this makes it to publication – which was another big issue Nicole touched on, from battles over authorship to the real problem of open access, and how to pay for it.

All in all, it was a good week for Nicole – she got a paper out, entertained & informed more than 10,000 people on the internet, and found a name for her lab robot!

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan robot

Meet ‘Tik-Tok’. I thought that was a Teletubby, but apparently not.

A big thanks to Nicole for her great week on the account. We’ll have a link to a Storify of her tweets here shortly. You can follow Nicole at @ncloonan, and she also has a website for her lab and a research blog at

Next week, we head to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Center for Virology to meet postdoctoral researcher Dr Greetchen Diaz, aka @greetdiaz.

Molecular Machinations: Nicole Cloonan joins Real Scientists

From geology to crystallography to molecular biology, we welcome Dr Nicole Cloonan from the Queensland Institute for Medical Research. This is Nicole in her own words:

unnamed “I’d always been interested in science generally, being an addict of The Curiosity Show when I was much younger. In high school (years 7-10 in Canberra), the so-called “academically gifted” were not permitted to study biology, so it wasn’t until college (years 11-12) that I discovered my passion for the biological sciences. Life took some unexpected turns, and I ended up dropping out of university and working full time to support myself, but years later, I landed a job at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute (previously known simply as QIMR), and my passion for science was rekindled. I returned to university part time, worked at QIMR Berghofer, and published my first scientific papers before graduating from my BSc. Once I tasted scientific research, I never wanted to do anything else with my life. Now I’m back at QIMR Berghofer running my own lab. I swear a lot more now than I used to, but I’m not sure whether that is caused by or correlated with the increased amount of science I’m doing.

“I’ve had training in cell biology, protein biochemistry, molecular biology, genomics, and bioinformatics, and as a result I have never fit in at any scientific conference I’ve ever attended. I truly feel like I have mastered none of these fields, but it does mean that I can speak the language of the experts in each field, and bring a wide variety of research techniques to my research. I’m fascinated by complexity, the complexity of molecules, the complexity of regulation, and the complexity of transferring biological information from one set of molecules to another. And now I’m at back at QIMR Berghofer, I’m interested in how all of this complexity affects human disease. Mostly though I’m learning about the complexity of trying to run a lab, and pretending I’m a grown up.

“I’ve been involved with some very cool research so far. We invented RNAseq, we’ve been sequencing the genomes, transcriptomes, and methylomes of tumour and normal samples from patients with pancreatic cancer, and we’ve been playing silly buggers, trying to publish the worst name for an “ome” we could think of. I’m most recently known for my work on miRNAs – little fragments of RNA that only a few years ago everyone was running off the bottom of their agarose gels to make their RNA preps look better. It turns out that these little bits of RNA garbage are actually useful to both the cell and the researcher, and can tell us an awful lot about what’s going on in a cell at the molecular level. This will help us do things like pick the best chemotherapies for cancer patients, or understand why some types of stem cells are easier to make than others.”

Nicole started a BSc at the ANU in 1994 and, as she says, “dropped out due to insufficient hours in the day to both study and work to pay bills. She was then employed at QIMR Berghofer in 1995 to sequence oligos, and then become a research assistant for the Malaria group in 1997. Nicole restarted her BSc at Griffith University in 1997 and actually finished it, going on to also finish honours in 2001 (molecular biology), and a PhD in 2006 (cell biology, protein biochemistry, and bioinformatics) from the same university. Her first and only post-doc was at the University of Queensland with Sean Grimmond from 2006 to 2012, where she successfully won a UQ Postdoctoral Fellowship, an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship, and an ARC Future Fellowship before starting her own lab in 2013.

Please welcome Dr Nicole Cloonan (@ncloonan) to Real Scientists!