Swinging Thor’s hammer: the ANU researcher battling bacteria
Si Ming Man was eight years old when Jurassic Park was released in cinemas. Like most kids, he loved dinosaurs, and was fascinated by the idea that such gigantic creatures could have vanished from Earth after ruling the land for millions of years.
“I really wanted to understand how life evolves and changes,” Man recalls.
His mother, who was not nearly as keen on dinosaurs as her son, recruited a cousin to take a young Man to the movies. Decades later, he still remembers the awe he felt seeing the long-extinct animals on the big screen.
“It really inspired me to think about a career focused around understanding life and how it works,” Man says. “It was the beginning for me.”
While the beasts that first inspired him were larger-than-life, the researcher now spends his days studying bacteria and germs too small for the human eye to see.
As a Professor at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at The Australian National University (ANU), Man leads a group of scientists working to understand how our immune systems can be harnessed to fight disease and infection.
“How can something we can’t see cause so much harm?” he says. “We are a million times bigger – how can bacteria make us sick? That’s what fascinates me about this area.”
Bacteria are everywhere – on our skin, clothes, phones and everything we touch and breathe, But as Man points out, the good guys are always trying to fight the bad guys. The researcher uses the analogy of a hammer to describe how our systems react when under threat.
“The immune cells try to use a hammer to attack the bacteria,” Man explains. “So, we’re using genetic engineering to try to turn an ordinary hammer into a superpowered Thor’s hammer.”
In this context, Thor’s hammer, ‘Mjolnir’, is not a mythical weapon but an antimicrobial drug created using proteins from our immune systems. The drug, which is being developed in collaboration with the CSIRO and Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, could become an alternative to antibiotics, which have become less effective as bacteria have grown more resistant.
Man and his lab are also investigating inflammation, which he calls “a double-edged sword”. On the positive side, “inflammation is like an instructor that tells immune cells to clear out invaders,” Man says. “But when you have too many instructors giving different orders, the cells in your body run wild and don’t know what to do. This can cause things like rashes and fever, or more seriously, septic shock leading to death.”
Man was recently awarded a Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for this world-leading immunology work. Although he feels honoured to have received the 2022 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, he admits he thought he was being pranked when the Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, called him with the news.
He is thrilled to have the opportunity to act as an ambassador for Australian science on the global stage.
“It’s an exciting time to be a scientist with so much going on in the world. There are always new challenges and scientists are ready to face them.”
Man plans to use some of the prize money to take his team on a retreat on the New South Wales South Coast to ensure everyone is feeling reenergised and refreshed ahead of the New Year. He makes a point of spending time with his students outside of the lab, often taking them for pizza dinners, movie nights and games of laser tag.
“Science can be a very tough type of work because we’re constantly in the lab thinking about difficult problems,” he says. “I want everyone to feel like they are a family member and for us to have an atmosphere that inspires.”
Though the work the team is doing is complex and could have life-changing implications for people’s health, it is relationships and collaboration rather than technical expertise that Man sees as integral to success.
“You can teach someone how to operate an instrument and how to think like a scientist, but what counts is helping them to become the best version of themself,” he says.
“The scientists I was working with when I was younger had this unique ability to bring the best out in me, and that’s the key lesson I took with me when I was ready to lead my own lab.”
While Man consciously avoids fostering a sense of competitiveness in the lab, it’s a different matter in the laser tag arena.
“If you’re on my team, then we’d better win,” he says. He’s joking—mostly.
This article was first published at ANU Reporter.