Dr Jess Frith
Senior Lecturer, Head of the Frith Lab
Materials Science and Engineering
Jess is now a senior lecturer at Monash and heads up her own lab, but I met her first back in 2015 when she delivered a guest seminar here. Her research into the extracellular cues directing mesenchymal stem cell fate blew me away, both with its potential to regenerate tissue, and also with its scientific rigour. I don't think I'd ever seen such a presentation before - it really underlined how beautiful science can be. I'm lucky enough now to be one of her students!
Jess started off at the University of York (where she received not one, not two, but three degrees!), then emigrated to Queensland where she went from strength to strength within the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. She has received more than $375000 in ARC funding and published widely over the 8 years since she received her PhD. She's currently lecturing, supervising and conducting her own research within the Monash Institute for Medical Engineering - can't wait to see what she does next!
Check out some of her papers here, and have a look at the research her lab does here.
On her cutting edge research;
I work in the area of stem cells and tissue engineering, in particular focusing on cell-biomaterial interactions. Our research aims to increase our fundamental understanding of how cells interpret cues from biomaterials and also to apply this in the development of new therapies for tissue regeneration.
In tissue engineering we combine cells with biomaterials- the properties of the materials provide signals to the cells that tell them what to do. For example, the mesenchymal stem cells we use form fat when cultured on soft substrates but bone on stiff substrates. It’s fascinating to try and work out how this information is interpreted by the cell and subsequently leads to changes in growth, motility or differentiation into a mature tissue type. Understanding this will create exciting opportunities to design biomaterials that specifically channel the potential of stem cells for different needs – like forcing the cells to generate bone
or cartilage, rather than fat. Such knowledge could also yield ways to artificially shape stem cell fate, for example, by using biomaterials to deliver drugs that change how cells interpret their environment, and override unwanted signals if the biomaterial properties can’t be precisely matched to the desired tissue type.
On why she’s come to love Materials Science and Engineering;
I love the fact that people with so many different backgrounds and interests come together tackle some really important problems. For example, tissue engineering relies on polymer chemists, engineers, biologists and clinicians, and everyone has their own perspective. You never know what fresh approach can come from these diverse places and so, for me, the really interesting research happens when you mix everything together. As a fairly new member of the Department, I’m happy to find everyone here is so open to new ideas and collaborations.
On balancing research and motherhood;
My daughter was just one year old when I joined Monash so there have been some exciting, busy and sometimes challenging times juggling motherhood with establishing my research group. I guess we are told we can ‘have it all’ and perhaps we can, but certainly don’t expect to sit down and relax at the same time. Luckily my partner is very supportive and has played a big role in making things work so far- all our family are overseas so between us we juggle daycare drop-offs and emergency pickups. One of the benefits of academia is the flexibility so working from home with a sick child can be done when needed. Everyone at Monash has also been great, my group don’t hesitate to pick things up if I have to leave suddenly and some very polite students have pretended not to notice when a little person crawls onto my lap during a Skype meeting.
As with many of the challenges facing women in STEM, I feel our own worries about what others think of us have one of the largest roles to play. It can be hard to walk confidently out of the door at 5 pm when you know that colleagues without young families may be there much later. What they don’t see is that once dinner has been eaten and bath-time and bedtime are sorted, you are often back online. But, more importantly, if you are doing all the things you are supposed to be doing, I don’t think anyone cares (or often even notices) how or when you get it done! Getting past that feeling that you are not devoting enough time to either your research or family is not easy-I have been following the principle of ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ and luckily both sides seem to be holding together so far….
I used to be a pretty good trombonist, although I don’t get a chance to play much anymore and I’ve spent some happy, muddy times playing rugby (Union- the real game!). I can also cook a decent Yorkshire pudding, for those who know what they are.