Professor Marcus Lee received his Ph.D from the University of Melbourne, where he studied plant defense proteins. He subsequently obtained a Human Frontiers Science Program Fellowship to undertake postdoctoral training in yeast cell biology in the laboratory of Randy Schekman at the University of California Berkeley. Here he used yeast genetics and biochemical reconstitutions to study the biophysical basis for membrane curvature during vesicle formation. During this time, he became interested in the unique cell biology of the malaria parasite, and joined the lab of David Fidock at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. There he initially focused on protein trafficking within the parasite but, was increasingly diverted by understanding mechanisms of resistance to novel antimalarial compounds, work he has continued as an independent investigator and as part of the Gates-funded Malaria Drug Accelerator Consortium (MalDA). Marcus joined the Malaria Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute as a Group Leader in 2015. In 2023 he moved to the University of Dundee as Professor of Parasite Molecular Genetics. His current work continues to focus on drug resistance and target validation, and to complement these investigations, he has been developing genome editing tools to demonstrate causality associated with parasite genomic changes upon selective drug pressure in the lab and the field.
Question: What is your earliest science memory ?
Answer: It’s not exactly a science memory, but as a kid in Malaysia we would sometimes catch fireflies and release them in our bedroom at night. Who knew we were studying reporter genes.
Q: Did a particular person(s) or event start your career as a scientist?
A: This is probably true of many scientists, but I’d nominate David Attenborough. My Dad only ever watched documentaries, and even as a kid there was something captivating about how Attenborough would present the world.
Q: What characteristics make a good scientist?
A: Ability to deal with failure. I’m a big baseball fan, and even the best batters only get a hit 3 times out of 10. It’s ok to strike out.
Q: Do you think being a scientist impacts the way you approach everything in life?
A: Yes and no. I can’t follow a protocol when cooking. Or rather, I won’t follow a protocol when cooking.
Q: Do non-science life experiences contribute towards success in the lab?
A: I’m sure they do, if only to step into a different headspace for a while and come back a bit refreshed.
Q: What motivates you to come into work every day?
A: For times when I’m at the bench, it’s getting data – just the basics like smearing cultures, harvesting drug assays, running a gel, whatever it may be. When I’m at my desk, that first cup of tea. Simple pleasures, I guess.
Q: Is there any part of human lives where science can’t help or inform?
A: Probably not – at one level or another it’s all just chemical reactions!
Q: Was there a ‘sliding doors’ moment when you could have chosen a different career path?
A: No, I never had a specific vision for what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’ – I was just interested in biology and kept making choices based on that.
Q: Do you ever wish you had chosen a different career?
A: See above! There are other careers that I think are cool (making things with wood would be amazing if I knew how), but nothing I’ve seriously considered.
Q: Do you think the current research environment needs to change to a) improve life for the scientists and b) to adapt to the way research is now such a team and international effort? ?
A: I think we all recognise the benefits of flexible working, especially given the experience of the last few years. And I think there should be recognition that the outputs of many researchers now will be as part of large collaborative efforts. When I first started, even a Nature or Science paper would have just 3-4 figures and no supplemental material. Now these papers are vast, and not everyone can be first or last author even if they make key contributions.
At WCAIR we believe public engagement is a key priority for researchers.
Q: How do we help the science community and general public understand each other better?
A: Going back to David Attenborough, it does help to have some wonderful science communicators in the media, and I think as scientists we can all learn to do a better job of speaking, in a jargon-free way, about what we do and why it’s exciting.
Q: How do we encourage people from communities where there a few science role models to train as scientists?
A: Perhaps demystifying what scientists actually do might help, starting in school but also at the undergraduate level. Spending a week in a real lab, not a practical class. It’s easier to imagine yourself doing something once you know what that something really is.
Q: What do you think scientists need to learn from the public?
A: What are the problems that need solutions, what are the unmet needs.
Q: Is there a science/natural world fact or concept (maybe) from another scientific field which excites/astounds you or blows your mind?
A: I just learnt yesterday (watching Richard Osman’s House of Games no less) that the human body has 60,000 miles of blood vessels. I was way off.
Grew Up: Malaysia (kid), Singapore (teenager), Melbourne (late teens), after that in theory I’m an adult.
Favourite Book: It has to be The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and probably anything by David Mitchell (the writer).
Favourite Film: Moneyball.
Favourite Box Set binge: I know I’m not alone here, but The West Wing
Favourite thing to do at the weekend: I’ll watch almost any sport – football, cricket, baseball, whatever is in season.
Desert Island Luxury: A towel (see Q2).
Which record would you save from the incoming Tay tide: I only have five actual records. Under those circumstances, Closing Time by Tom Waits seems appropriate.