Monday 19 March 2018

From Booterstown to Brisbane

Rebecca Coll recently won a big science award in Australia. She spoke to our reporter about the culture shock of life Down Under

Scientist Rebecca Coll defies the stereotype of the Irish in Australia
Scientist Rebecca Coll defies the stereotype of the Irish in Australia
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Taxi drivers who ferry Rebecca Coll around Brisbane generally assume she works in a bar or building site, like so many young Irish in the city. But in fact this brilliant young scientist left Dublin in 2014 to undertake scientific research in Australia, and has already won national recognition for her work there.

Last November at a ceremony in Sydney she was awarded for her work in identifying promising anti-inflammatory compounds that block the NLRP3 inflammasome (or protein) - a key driver of inflammation.

It's only when Rebecca explains her magnificent achievement, that we non-science types can begin to comprehend just how her research stands to improve the quality of all our lives.

''Uncontrolled inflammation contributes to the progression of many diseases including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," she says.

Her work has been described as "groundbreaking" and the CEO of Research Australia has described Coll as ''one to watch''.

"The award thing was honestly not a big deal," Rebecca says modestly. "On the foot of the research we've done in trying to block the protein, a company was formed, although I should point out I don't have a direct role in that company. It's recently had a really big round of funding."

Rebecca grew up in Booterstown, Co Dublin. She is the daughter of the noted sculptor John Coll, who has created many works of national importance including monuments to poet Patrick Kavanagh and writer Brendan Behan on the Dublin canals.

She attended St Andrew's College and later studied science in Trinity, where she was a standout student. She did a PhD in Trinity and ended up collaborating with researchers from the University of Queensland.

Her first impressions of Brisbane were of the "oppressive heat", she says.

"I also didn't think it would be so much of a culture shock. It's more American than I realised - in that you see everyone driving everywhere, and it's extremely multicultural. I don't like the presumption that the Irish are drunks - but at the same time, you do have a lot of young people coming over and wrecking the place, so there is some truth in it."

Other cliches about Australia depend on the context, she says.

"People in my circle are not like this at all, they're very liberal - but in the media and so on I would say there is a certain macho, maybe sexist, way of talking that you wouldn't get in Ireland."

The vastly multicultural population of Brisbane, together with her own line of work, has meant she seldom encounters other Irish people in her day-to-day life. She decided to deal with the initial homesickness pangs by joining a GAA club - despite having never previously shown much interest in Gaelic games.

"I was a bit lonely or whatever. I'd never played anything like football - I'm from south County Dublin! I would say that I managed to 'pass' for a while but eventually a few people began to figure out that I hadn't a clue."

She began living with an Australian couple who had Irish connections and through them made more Irish friends in Brisbane.

Rebecca intends to stay in Australia for the foreseeable future but doesn't rule out a move home either. "Some of my friends are having kids and I'm missing out on seeing them. If I met an Australian I could definitely make a life here.

"Wages are great in science, especially compared to Ireland where the wages are not high enough to get the talent, at my level anyway. It's my home for now - but I always miss Ireland.''

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment