Researcher Spotlight : Stephen Wilkie

Published: 27 September 2018

To kick off this year’s Researcher Spotlight series Ellen Hughes catches up with second year PhD student Stephen Wilkie to see how his research into mechanisms of aging is progressing, and find out what advice he would give to his first-year self.

Stephen Wilkie crop Can you briefly sum up your research topic?
Sure! We want to understand how the ageing process works. If we can tweak the mechanisms that control how and when we develop diseases of old age (for example, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer and others) then we might be able to develop medicines that tackle all of these incredibly serious illnesses in one go.
My project is investigating a gas our body produces called Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S). Research suggests that H2S has powerful effects on the rate of ageing but it is unclear if  H2S is directly responsible or just an indicator of another, more important, mechanism. I have been investigating the production, signalling and clearance of H2S in mouse models to try and clarify this conundrum.

How has your research progressed since we last heard from you?
H2S appears to be strongly linked to dietary restriction (DR: the reduction of calorie consumption without inducing malnutrition). DR produces the most significant extension of lifespan that we know of and is effective in many species across taxa.
We use two mouse models: one that lives longer on a DR diet; another that, unusually, lives a shorter life on DR. Examining the molecular biology in these two mouse models, I have found significant difference in the control of genes and proteins that are involved in H2S production and clearance. This divergence in how these mice control levels of H2S may be vital in explaining why they respond so differently to DR and, in turn, improve our understanding of how DR can so powerfully change lifespans.

 Are you where you thought you would be a year ago?
Not exactly. Initially I thought I would briefly look into the mouse models I talked about above as a dry-run before starting the work that will form the backbone of my project. A pitstop really. However, I quickly found that the molecular biology in these mouse models was substantially different to what other groups found in more traditional mouse models.
Following this thread has produced heaps of interesting data that we are currently working up into a paper. So, while the major themes of my project have remained the same, the work I've done is a lot different to what I thought it would be at the start. 

 What part of your research so far have you enjoyed the most/felt most proud of?
The unexpected findings I just described were intimidating at first but once I got into it I really loved digging deeper into how the two mouse models are different from one another and, more broadly, how they differ from standard mouse models in the literature. Beyond the lab, I went to a brilliant neurological ageing conference at Lake Constance, Austria, where I won a prize for my poster presentation - I thought I had no chance since everyone else had about 10 times more data than me!

 Have you come up against any unforeseen challenges?
Luckily, so far, the things that have gone off track were anticipated from the start. Having a backup plan, or three, helps too!

 What are the most important lessons you have learnt from your first year?
What has helped me the most this year is just saying yes to every chance that comes your way. Colin (my supervisor) is great at sending along opportunities, big and small. Trying them all out means I have a better feeling for what makes up a job in academia.
But, without a doubt, the most important lesson is that everyone wants to help and see you do your best. You just can't do it alone. So, I have to give a massive thank you to Colin, Kate, Billy, Jenny and everyone else. I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't gone above and beyond to help out when asked. 

 If you could tell your first-year self one thing, what would it be?
Just get on with it! You're going to love it.

Stephen’s first-year Spotlight video can be found at

First published: 27 September 2018