Professor Juliet Gerrard: A protein-packed life

18 November 2014
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If, one day, soldiers wear uniforms made of material that can repair their own rips or sense contact with a toxic substance, biochemist Juliet Gerrard will be one of the scientists to thank. Professor Gerrard, pictured, who has just been appointed the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Chemical Sciences, is a leader in the industrial application of biochemistry. Her work focuses particularly on protein aggregation and assembly and the impact that has on protein function.

Using “molecular Lego” to try and make nanomaterials is one of her field’s major goals, she says: “If you can control that Lego set there are all sorts of different application in different fields – food, materials, medicine and medical materials.” Smart battle fatigues may not be so far away: the United States military is funding her work with Macquarie University’s Bridget Mabbutt “with the long-term view of developing self-healing materials and self-sensing materials – maybe a coating that tells you when it’s been exposed to a chemical.”

Prof Gerrard was born in Nottingham, England, and gained an honours degree in chemistry and a doctorate in biological chemistry at the University of Oxford. She moved to New Zealand 21 years ago, starting her career here as a research scientist at Crop & Food Research.

This year, after 16 years at the University of Canterbury, Professor Gerrard decided it was time for a change and scouted opportunities in New Zealand and Australia. The University of Auckland won “because it looked like the best environment and gave me the chance to work across biology and chemistry. Auckland has critical mass and I already had a few collaborators in both biology and chemistry.”

However, it will be another two years before Professor Gerrard is on campus full-time – she has two years to run on her five-year Callaghan Innovation Industry and Outreach Fellowship, which has allowed her to create an industry-facing protein-science research programme based at Gracefield, Lower Hutt. In the meantime, she rotates between Auckland and Gracefield every two weeks.

It’s a busy life – she is also principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and the Riddet Institute, a Massey University-based national Centre of Research Excellence focusing on food structures and digestive physiology. She’s an associate investigator at the University of Auckland-based Maurice Wilkins Centre, which focuses on serious human disease such as cancer, an investigator at the University of Canterbury-based Biomolecular Interaction Centre, and chair of the 11-member Marsden Fund Council, which oversees science research grants. (Before you ask, yes, says Professor Gerrard, “I do get my share of grumpy letters.”) She has published more than 120 papers.

Ask Professor Gerrard which part of her work has made the biggest impact in Kiwis’ day-to-day lives and she says it’s probably her research for Fonterra – however, it’s confidential and she can’t talk specifics. “But in general, all my research is to do with proteins – how they assemble and how that affects function and functionality.

“So in the food space there’s a lot of interest in how you might structure food proteins to give them more useful properties, such as satiety, making people feel full, or fooling them into thinking there’s more fat in a food that there really is by changing the texture.

“If you rearrange the proteins in a food into different forms, you get different textures. Take an egg: you can scramble, poach, boil or fry it, and you get different textures. So my work is about these processes and understanding them.”