Perseverance pays off for UQ's 10,000th PhD

18 Dec 2012

Perseverance is an essential quality for any postgraduate student, but for The University of Queensland's 10,000th PhD conferral Dr Martin Smith, it led him to drive six hours through a Canadian snowstorm for the chance to meet his future research mentor. 

Dr Smith, who at the time was deciding where to pursue a PhD after completing a Master of Science in Bioinformatics at the University of Montreal, said the opportunity to meet Professor John Mattick and join his team at UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) came about almost by chance. 

“In 2007, I was in Quebec City and was interested in pursuing a PhD, and two labs really caught my attention,” Dr Smith said. 

“One was in Austria, and the other was in Professor Mattick's group at UQ which was my number one choice. 

“Canada is clearly a long way from Brisbane, but when I sent him an email, by sheer coincidence, or maybe destiny, he said he was travelling to Montreal a week or two later and that we should meet. 

“That was not an opportunity I was going to miss, so I drove from Quebec City to Montreal and back through a snowstorm to meet him, which paid off, as I was eventually accepted into his lab at the IMB.” 

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience is a UQ research institute that aims to improve quality of life by advancing personalised medicine, drug discovery and biotechnology. 

Dr Smith's PhD project, Revising the evolutionary imprint of RNA structure in mammalian genomes, expands on Professor Mattick's hypothesis that challenged the existing belief that up to 95 per cent of the human genome had no function. 

A genome is an organism's full set of DNA, and Dr Smith said by demonstrating that more of the genome is functional than had been previously proven, researchers could focus their resources more efficiently in the fight against diseases such as cancer. 

“Results from my PhD research show there are over four million regions in the genome that are predicted to be functional, just over 13.5 per cent of the genome, and these regions may function through RNA structures,” said Dr Smith, who now works as a research officer at the Garvan Institute in Sydney.. 

“This will make a difference when we analyse a patient who has a disease such as cancer, where we sequence the entire genome and look for mutations that are different to a healthy individual. 

“The problem is the majority of these mutations are in regions of the genome that don't have known biological functions. So ideally, we would use the results of my research as a tool to assign function to these disease-associated mutations. 

“If the mutations arise in regions that are identified as RNA structures, we can focus medical research on how these structures impact a disease's development or evolution.” 

As UQ's 10,000th PhD, Dr Smith follows in the footsteps of the University's first PhD students, Dr Raymond Newton-Langdon and Dr Helena Whitehouse, who were conferred on 30 April 1953. 

UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Max Lu congratulated Dr Smith and all of the 500 plus PhDs who have graduated from UQ in 2012. 

“The University is extremely proud of our PhDs and excited by their potential,” Professor Lu said. 

“They embody the future of research and innovation, and may help drive improvements in health, sustainability, well-being and prosperity in their state, national and global communities. 

“They are original, creative thinkers who also have skills that deserve particular recognition from employers. 

“In fact there is some evidence of positive links between rates of PhDs employed in private industry, and relatively healthy national current account balances. 

“UQ has one of Australia's largest communities of research higher degree students, and focuses strongly on continually improving their training and career skills, which would benefit the society through increasing the stock of knowledge and contributing to economic growth.” 

Graduate School Dean Professor Zlatko Skrbis said Dr Smith's project highlights the complexity and diversity of research taking place at UQ. 

“Our graduates are highly sought after by employers not only in Australia, but around the world,” Professor Skrbis said. 

World-class training of research students through programs such as PhDs would become increasingly important. 

“The link between research excellence, and the level of resources that are dedicated to research training, is indisputable," Professor Skrbis said. "The most successful organisations in any industry recognise that the transfer of knowledge to the next generation is critical.” 

In addition to having outstanding facilities and access to thousands of experts, UQ research higher degree students gain an advantage through the development of the Australia-first ‘Career Advantage PhD Program' as well as other initiatives such as the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and year-round skills training workshops. 

Watch a video on Dr Martin Smith here. 

Media: Mark Schroder, UQ Graduate School Marketing & Communications, Tel: 3346 0509 or


In 2012 IMB graduated a recent record of 31 PhD and MPhil students.

A very big congratulations to each of our wonderful graduates and to our hard working Postgraduate Office who supported them along the way.

Congratulations to IMB's 2012 graduating students:

  • Kalyana Akondi
  • Tram Anh Do
  • Pierre Cattenoz
  • Angeline Chan
  • Michael Clark
  • Lena Constantin
  • Marianne Diaz
  • Leith Fremlin
  • Praveer Gupta
  • Chang jin Shin
  • Rhonda Kan
  • Darren Korbie
  • Oleksiy Kovtun
  • Christina Kulis
  • Lindsey McFarlane
  • Robert McLeay
  • Vicki Metzis
  • Carolin Offenhauser
  • Basar Oku
  • Sandy Pineda Gonzalez
  • Fabien Plisson
  • Aaron Poth
  • Ranee Singh
  • Elizabeth Skippington
  • Martin Smith
  • Pippa Smith
  • Rathi Thiagarajan
  • Soumini Vijayasarathy
  • Simone Vink
  • Winnie Waudo
  • Rilei Yu