One cold Saturday morning in a biochemistry lab in Canberra’s Australian National University (ANU), honours student Mandy Walker was developing in-situ hybridisation slides for a very innovative, but risky project.
“My project was to use a rat gene to isolate the Drosophila (fruit fly) eye colour gene vermillion. I was just working away on the putative gene sequence and found that it had stuck to the right band on the Drosophila X chromosome.
“That amazing ecstatic feeling of success and knowing something that no other human knew at that moment had me completely hooked on science discovery,” said Dr Walker, now Research Team Leader with CSIRO’s Agriculture and Food Adelaide Laboratory.
The moment was made all the sweeter with the knowledge that it had taken her a decade of hard work get where she was.
Despite being a natural at science and maths at high school, and being accepted into a new Human Biology course at Canberra’s ANU, Dr Walker wasn’t ready for academic life.
“I partied too hard in that first year at university and was excluded for two years – so I took up a position with the Australian Public Service.”
But waking up each morning and wishing it was the weekend was the trigger for Dr Walker to rethink her career strategy – and then it was back to ANU to complete an undergraduate degree majoring in genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry.
Looking back, Dr Walker said she always had a fascination for science – and for colour in particular.
“My favourite book in Kindergarten was called The Colour Kittens. It explained basic colour theory, primary colours make secondary and tertiary colours. My mother is an artist, and it feels like I have always loved colour.”
By the time she was 10, her thirst for science was piqued by a school science challenge.
“We had moved from Australia to a village outside of Cambridge and at our village school we used to listen to a natural history program on the radio.
“Our teacher, Mrs George, offered a book with a very cute fox cub on the back cover to the student who scored highest in the quiz that followed the radio program. I wanted that book – and made sure I won the quiz!” Dr Walker said.
At high school back in Sydney, Dr Walker organised a lunchtime club called ‘Colour Chemistry’ with the help and guidance of her dad, a post-doctoral scientist at CSIRO Plant Industry.
Colour has continued to play a major role in Dr Walker’s research career.
“My PhD research was on jumping genes in maize that changed kernel colour purple to yellow. I then spent 10 years at Cambridge University isolating and characterising genes that regulate purple pigment as well as leaf and root hair initiation in Arabidopsis, a model plant.”
When Jim Peacock, the Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry offered her the job to come back to Australia to apply her knowledge of regulation of colour in grapevines, she jumped at the opportunity to work in a more applied area of science with industry application.
“That was 21 years ago and I’m proud of the work my team and I did to discover the difference between red and white grapes at the gene level and then the use of this information in breeding programs,” Dr Walker said.
Her more recent work has been to discover genes responsible for preventing salt getting into vines and hence wines – and no longer anything to do with colour as such.
“However I am doing watercolour painting and making pottery, often with paintings of fish and sea dragons, so colour is still a big part of my life!”