I was born and raised in Croatia, and completed my BSc in Molecular Biology at the University of Zagreb in 1997. We studied in suboptimal conditions, in a country devastated by war and with little money for experimental work. But the Molecular Biology course was in today's terms a "boutique course": the University recruited a small cohort of students and we studied everything from biology, to chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics intensively. I was surrounded by a group of very talented and ambitious colleagues - the majority of the 40 students that were in my year went on to do great PhDs and postdocs and have internationally successful careers in science around the world. We keep in contact to this day, and I feel lucky to have several close friends and scientific collaborators from amongst my University colleagues.
I did my PhD at the Rudjer Boskovic Institute in Zagreb from 1998-2002. My studies focused on understanding the fundamental principles of transcription, i.e. how genes are turned on and off. In 2000, I spent a year in the Banting and Best Department at the University of Toronto, as a visiting student in the laboratory of Professor Jim Ingles. Jim is one of the greats in transcriptional control and being in his lab was a fantastic experience that set me up for being able to work as an independent scientist. I was working with the yeast system, which had just started to be developed as a model for Systems biology. The University of Toronto is now a leading institution for Systems biology in the world. In Jim's lab, I used microarrays (a new technology at the time) to discover how cells change the expression of their genes in response to mitochondrial dysfunction. We published the first paper describing the communication between the nucleus and the mitochondria at the genome-wide level in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. This was my first paper, and is still one of my best - it has been cited more than 100 times, and continues to be cited regularly even now, more than 10 years since it was published.
In 2003, I started a postdoc at the St. Vincent's Institute in Melbourne, mentored by A/Prof Jörg Heierhorst. In Jörg's lab, I became interested in posttranscriptional gene regulation. In 2005, I was awarded a Peter Doherty postdoctoral fellowship from the NHMRC. My work in Jörg's lab uncovered some very interesting connections between posttranscriptional gene regulation and developmental pathways in yeast, e.g. the ability to switch from round to elongated cell morphology or grow as multicellular biofilm communities. In these discoveries, I saw an opportunity to develop an independent line of research-the above mentioned developmental transitions are essential for the ability of the pathogenic fungus Candida albicans to cause life-threatening disease in people. So, I decided to transfer what I was doing in the model yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to Candida. To Jörg's great credit, I had his full support. I contacted Professor Aaron Mitchell, who runs one of the best laboratories in the world studying Candida and applied for a Fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program to do a postdoc in Aaron's lab at Columbia University in New York. I won the fellowship and in March 2008, my family and I went to New York. This was a great move. We enjoyed New York very much, Aaron was an incredible mentor, and I had a very good time in his lab, discovering new genes required for virulence of Candida.
Upon my return from Aaron's lab, in 2009 I started my lab at Monash, the first lab in Australia working on Candida at the molecular level. Setting up a new lab in a brand new research field for Australia was a considerable challenge, but I was lucky to recruit a talented team of people to work with me. My research assistant Tricia Lo, my PhD student Nathalie Uwamahoro, Michael Dagley (a postdoc with me at the time) and I worked hard and, in early 2011, we published a study discovering a new pathway important for Candida to survive treatment with antifungal drugs. This work led to invitations to talk at major international and national meetings and it won me my first NHMRC grant in 2012 - so, I was very happy! Monash has been particularly great for establishing collaborations, in particular with Dr. Traude Beilharz (Biochemistry) with whom we study posttranscriptional regulation in Candida and model yeast systems, and Dr. Anton Peleg (Microbiology) with whom I collaborate to use the worm infection model to screen for new regulators of Candida virulence in an in vivo host system. Moreover, the Monash MicroImaging (MMI) and BioEM facilities provide us with fantastic support to use sophisticated imaging for understanding how Candida builds drug-resistant biofilms. The collaborative work that we did with Traude, Anton and the imaging facilities has recently been published in the prestigious journal PLoS Genetics.
My lab continues to study how Candida responds to antifungal treatments, and to characterize novel pathways necessary for virulence. We also work on gene expression control and look at how gene expression programs evolve between Candida and the non-pathogenic yeasts. Our fundamental work on gene expression is supported by ARC funding. I really enjoy working on the biology of Candida and the control of developmental transitions, because this has both fundamental significance for understanding how developmental switches are achieved and maintained, as well as having biomedical relevance for human disease. To give a "translational research" angle to our work, I have recently started a collaboration with a company, Hexima Ltd, interested in antifungal molecules, and also with the CSIRO, lending our expertise in fungal biofilms to surface chemists who are trying to develop new biomaterials that are refractory to microbial biofilms. If they succeed, this would be a huge deal for preventing life-threatening infections in the most vulnerable patients in hospitals. All in all, the move into Candida and coming to Monash have been very positive, and I hope we can continue to do exciting research.
Link to Dr Traven's Lab Fungal Pathogens and Gene Expression Control Laboratory