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Once a physicist: Jennifer Rollo

Jennifer (Jenny) Rollo is a systems biologist who studies Alzheimer's disease at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Jennifer Rollo

What sparked your interest in physics? I always loved finding out why and how things worked, but from a very early age I actually wanted to be a doctor, and throughout secondary school I studied biology, physics, chemistry and maths with a medical career in mind. Then in my last couple of years at school I got really ill. It became physically difficult for me to leave my family and as I lived in Wellington, New Zealand, and our medical schools were either in Auckland or down in Otago, I decided to do engineering instead. I then changed to physics because I really enjoyed that aspect of my studies.

You earned a Master's degree in geophysics. What attracted you to that? In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I found physics becoming more and more theoretical, and I remember thinking: "There has to be some practical aspect to all this." Because New Zealand is a land of earthquakes and volcanoes, we had a very active earth-sciences faculty at Victoria University of Wellington, so I stayed on for my Master's. Geophysics suited me down to the ground – I loved the practical component of it and I could really see where physics was being used in a real-world application.

What did you do next? I looked at ways of getting into the mining industry from an environmental perspective – mine rehabilitation, that kind of thing – but as I was finishing my degree, the government in New Zealand started taking away a lot of funding from research and the opportunities just weren't there. So instead, I got out of academia and worked on commercializing a fan design that my father had developed. It was a great experience and working with venture capitalists, legal teams and business-development people gave me lots of really valuable new skills. Eventually, we realized that to make the fan design commercially viable, we needed to know more about how it worked, so we approached the University of Sydney to see if they had any interest. And they said, well, since you know so much about this fan, why don't you do a PhD with us? So I did an experimental and numerical analysis of the fan to determine why it was so much better, why it was quieter and how the airflow reacted with the fan blades.

How did you get into medical research? During my PhD, my mum developed Alzheimer's, and later my aunt (her sister) developed it too. Before then I didn't know anything about the disease, apart from that it makes you lose your memory. But since my mum was diagnosed, I've seen exactly what devastation it causes and learned the extent of the problem worldwide. And I suppose by the time I finished my PhD I was really questioning what I was doing with my life. I felt like I'd done what I wanted to do with the fan, and I started wondering whether I could be part of finding a way to prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease. Eventually I found somebody at the University of Sydney who did research in complex systems and he said computational systems biology would be a perfect fit for me. People working in that area love engineers, physicists and mathematicians because they can come at biological problems with a new set of eyes.

Did you do any additional training? I've had to learn a lot of basic biology, genetics and neuroscience, and it's been a huge learning curve – there's so much jargon in the life sciences, it's like learning a new language. However, when you do research, I think the training you get at the start means that it almost doesn't matter what area you go into because that training gives you the fundamental tools you need for cross-disciplinary research.

What are you working on right now? I'm trying to piece together the network of signalling pathways and protein interactions to find new genes and proteins that haven't previously been associated with Alzheimer's disease. This is where systems biology really comes into its own because it looks at how genes interact over a whole network, whereas traditional medical research tends to take more of a reductionist approach by looking at one gene at a time.

Any advice for today's physics students? It's a really exciting time to be in science. There are so many opportunities that just weren't available when I started because we didn't have the computational processing power or software. I also think physics gives you some great skills in terms of logical thought processes and being able to break down problems. You can translate that into so many different areas in life, and it's a shame that some people in schools think that maths and physics are boring and only for geeks. Don't listen to those people – they couldn't be more wrong!

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Once a physicist

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