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Meet the Faculty

Breaking New Ground in Biochemistry and Cancer Research

Words like bioenergetics and metagenomics roll effortlessly off the tongue of Dr. Shane Austin, a young biochemist and cancer researcher in the Faculty of Science and Technology, at the Cave Hill Campus.

A Barbadian and a graduate of the Combermere School, most famous for being the alma mater of singing star Rihanna; Dr. Austin had visions of becoming a doctor.   However, after completing the first year as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Cave Hill, it suddenly dawned on him that he wanted to be a scientist.  After all, which other career would allow him to play such an integral part in tackling the many genetic and metabolic puzzles confronting the scientific and medical world?

From Cave Hill to the World
Dr. Austin’s undergraduate years at Cave Hill provided a springboard for the launch of his career into cancer research.  His research collaborations with two of his final year lecturers (Drs Angela Alleyne and Emma Smith) not only helped paved the way to a National Development Scholarship, but also brought him to the attention of Associate Professor Julie St. Pierre, a gifted researcher about to establish her laboratory in the Goodman Cancer Centre at McGill University in Canada.To this day, Dr. St. Pierre is still singing Shane Austin’s praises to her graduate students. This is not surprising given what they were able to accomplish together in quick time.

Dr. Austin at the first Vienna Science Ball with colleagues
Dr. Austin reports on the long, but fulfilling hours of working with Dr. St. Pierre to study the influence of the master regulator PGC-1α gene on mouse muscle; the findings of which comprise his Masters thesis.  What made the time at the Goodman Cancer Centre even more exciting and rewarding, was the race to publish their findings before another group of researchers working on a similar project.  Not only did they get to the finish line with a novel and fundamental contribution to knowledge, but Drs. Austin and Pierre also published a review article which went on to becoming one of the most cited works in the globally rated Journal of Cell Science (see Volume 125, Issue 21). 

Intent on learning the latest and most innovative techniques for conducting scientific research and eager to see how scientists in different parts of the world operate, Dr. Austin applied to several PhD programmes in Europe before settling on a project jointly supervised by mentors at the Medical University of Vienna and the Centre for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Once again, he was privileged to be a part of a team doing seminal medical research.  In this instance it was a study of a single gene involved in the presentation of the rare, but deadly childhood disease known as Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome.

Dr. Austin’s tireless drive to know more has caused him to make great strides in academia. His collaborative work with other international cancer researchers has already featured in premier journals such as Oncotarget, Free Radical Biology and Medicine and Cancer Research. He has also won several prestigious scholarships and awards including the Michael D’Aviro Fellowship in molecular oncology research 2011 – 2012 and was accepted to the AAAS/Science Program for Excellence in Science, while at McGill University.  In 2013 , he coped the best PhD Presentation, from the Gruppo Italiano Biomembrane e Bioenergetica while at the Medical University of Vienna.

No doubt, after graduating from his doctoral programme in 2016, Dr. Austin could have secured a postdoctoral fellowship in another globally renown university.  He, however made the decision to come home to the Cave Hill Campus when a position for a Lecturer in Biochemistry opened up.  This decision created the opportunity to give back to his alma mater and to his country, as well as to be close to his loved ones and friends.

Future Research
For the future, Dr. Austin is especially interested in learning more about mitochondria, in essence how cells in human and other organisms are provided with energy to carry out their functions.  Much of the research on the role and operation of mitochondria dates back to the 1960’s, so many research avenues exist as this field increases in popularity.
Dr. Austin receiving the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science DOC fellowship in the Festival Hall of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
Cognisant of the particular issues faced by the Caribbean region and the world with respect to the Zika virus, Dr. Austin joined a research team led by Professor Christoph Steininger in 2016.  This very exciting project is using informatics to predict where Zika outbreaks are likely to occur in Barbados. Provided that the team can develop a big data algorithm to accurately predict Zika hotspots for the island, this knowledge can be translated to pinpoint where the virus will present in larger geographical spaces such as countries and continents. 

Dr. Austin is also gunning for the Giant African Snail. Whereas quite a bit is known about the metabolism of hibernating mammals such as bears; much less has been discovered about the estivation  (hibernation during the hot months) of pests such as the Giant African snail using systems biology techniques.  In studying the snail’s metabolism during estivation, he is hoping to develop a superior pesticide for control and/or eradication.

Though not actively researching the influence of bacteria on cancer, his interest is piqued by the findings coming from a small number of cancer researchers who are making strides in this area.  He maintains that the heterogeneity of cancer mandates the investigation of all potentially probable causes. 

Hobbies and Interests 
Despite being busy with teaching and research, Dr. Austin still tries to make time to practice yoga as a means of exercise and relaxation.  He also finds great enjoyment in reading, as is expected of those with a strong curiosity to learn about new processes, places and things. 
Celebrating after hiking to the top of a hiking trail in the Prein an der Rax region of Lower Austria during a lab retreat.

The Way Forward
Dr. Austin has every intention of collaborating with his expert colleagues at Cave Hill Campus as well as with dedicated research students who share similar interests and passion. He is particularly interested in collaborating on investigations into the role of mitochondria, bioenergetics and metabolism in the development of cancer. The Cave Hill Campus looks forward to the strides that will be made as these research partnerships are established and begin their quest for answers and solutions.

Click here to view some of the research done by Dr. Austin »

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