"I’m very proud of my research group: the way they complement each other’s strengths and abilities, how they work together as a team to support each other and do fantastic science."

Where did you grow up? Were you always interested in your current field? Why do you love what you do?

I grew up in Queensland. I’m originally from Bundaberg. My dad was in the Queensland Ambulance Service and we moved around every few years. From the time I was about 9 or 10, we lived in the house upstairs from the ambulance centre. Probably as a result of this, I was always incredibly interested in medical things and I loved science. My dad used to get called out to emergencies in the middle of the night and I realised pretty soon that I didn’t really want to be doing that. I also hated the idea of killing rats for animal experiments. After a false start working in pathology labs and toying with the idea of studying medicine, I went back to uni, studied physics and decided that biophysics was the area for me because it allowed me to do all the medical type projects I wanted, but to study them through the rules of physics and chemistry. I think we’re only just at the point where we can do this and I love what I do!

I’m fascinated by how cells work and understanding the machinery of life through simulations. My research is all about understanding the complexity of the cell membrane, how we can design drugs that target proteins embedded in the cell membrane to alter chemical signalling across the membrane, and how bacteria evade the action of antibiotics through drug efflux pumps and other factors, and we do this using Newtonian dynamics. It’s research that combines biology, chemistry and physics and it allows me to collaborate with so many different researchers on a range of problems. There are so many interesting problems and I never get bored! My group is working on a few different problems at the moment. Most of them are focused on the cell membrane. We were very privileged to be awarded an Australasian Leadership Computing Grant to work on Covid-19. We’re trying to understand the protein complex that forms the human receptor for the virus, and screen potential drugs that can stop the coronavirus binding to the receptor and infecting the cell. 


What projects are you working on?

Apart from the Covid-19 project, my group is working on two major projects. One project is a collaborative project where we’re developing a new class of drugs to treat chronic pain. Here we’re looking at a transporter called GlyT2 that is located in nerve synapses to work out how different compounds will bind to it and stop the activation of pain pathways in the brain. We simulate GlyT2 in the synaptic membrane and work out how it interacts with potential drug compounds. We work closely with our experimental collaborators to design more potent compounds that inhibit pain pathways. 

My other project focuses on antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Bacteria contain proteins called efflux pumps that are located in the bacterial cell membrane. These efflux pumps actively pump antibiotics out of the bacteria so it is resistant to their action. They also contain import proteins that allow them to take up essential nutrients and metal ions needed for growth. At the moment, we’re using computer simulations to understand how bacteria modify the their cell membrane and regulate these membrane proteins in response to changes in their environment, such as the presence of antibiotics, to become resistant to antibiotics. We hope that by understanding these underlying processes we can help develop new strategies to treat infections that are resistant to antibiotics.  


What do you want people to know about the work that you do?

My work uses numerical simulations that use Newtonian physics in conjunction with interactions describing the chemical bonding and charge distributions to simulate how biological molecules such as proteins, lipids and DNA interact, and how these interactions evolve in time.  I love it because it’s so interdisciplinary: every day I’m using concepts from chemistry, biology, physics and statistical mechanics to understand and simulate the processes that are constantly happening in living cells. The kind of research I do just wouldn’t be possible without the NCI supercomputer: no experimental technique can identify the changes in interactions between individual molecules in the cell as they happen in real time.


Are you working from home? If so, how’s it going?

I’m still working from home a few days a week at the moment. Some days I like it and some days I hate it. People never seem to realise that we computational types are actually very social people! We need to talk to each other a lot and draw pictures on whiteboards and look over each other’s shoulders to make suggestions, brainstorm ideas and help troubleshoot and analyse each other’s simulations. I really miss talking to my research group in person. We’ve been having zoom meetings at least twice a week, but it’s not quite the same. We have a group challenge for who comes up with the best dad joke each week. Now that lockdown has eased, we’re having weekly group lunches and it’s funny how happy we all are to see each other in person!

Working from home has been a different experience. I’ve been at home with my husband and son, and our very large cat. It’s been nice to slow down a bit and spend more time with them. The cat thinks he helps, but he doesn’t. He just gate-crashes zoom meetings and gets in the way. My son photobombs zoom meetings as well. It’s been a strange new world where you get to meet everyone’s pets and kids on-line during work hours! In some ways it’s made us appreciate each other’s humanity more. I hope we keep that part when life goes back to whatever the new normal is.

Megan O'Mara working with her cat/coworker

What is one specific thing that you have achieved (research or otherwise) that you are most proud of?

Hmm, I’m not really sure if I could name one specific thing I’m the most proud of. A friend once told me to celebrate every victory because they don’t come along that often in science. I think that is very true so I celebrate every paper and every grant that’s accepted, and every student who wins a prize or graduates. Overall, I’m very proud of my research group: the way they complement each other’s strengths and abilities, how they work together as a team to support each other and do fantastic science.