Episode 36 – Interview with immunologist Dr Kylie Quinn
This week we loved talking with Dr Kylie Quinn, who is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow and leads the Ageing and Immunotherapies Group at RMIT University. Her group is developing ways to improve immune responses in older people during vaccination and new cell-based cancer therapies. Immune cells from older people become more difficult to activate, so her team are identifying factors that limit activation with the aim of targeting these factors to improve immune health.
Kylie has received a number of awards for her work on ageing and immunity, including the John and Eileen Haddon Award in 2019 and a Weary Dunlop Award in 2022. More broadly, Kylie has a long-standing interest in issues of equity in science, volunteering with several diversity and inclusion-focused groups. She is also a keen communicator of science and was a key figure communicating on how vaccines work and are developed to the Australian public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You call follow Kylie and find out more about her work here:
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful cohost is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody, and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m Jen and as always, I’m here with my friend and colleague Michael. Hey Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m doing really good today because I’ve got an arm for my microphone, you may have noticed this fancy contraption.
So hopefully the listeners can just tell the difference in audio quality.
I’m feeling, I’m feeling inadequate and outdone.
Well, you should be very excited today because I’m about to introduce you to another wonderful wonderful guest. We are talking today with Dr Kylie Quinn who is an immunologist and a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University here in Melbourne, where she leads the Ageing and Immunotherapy research group. So she’s really interested in ageing and immunity and vaccines. Hello, Kylie.
Hello Jen. Hello Michael. How are you both?
Well, we’re happy ’cause we get to talk to you. So Michael, I have to tell you that Kylie and I met because we were both selected to be part of a really great leadership program called… think it’s called the STEM sidebyside program, run by Veski here in Victoria, in Australia. And we were so lucky to be selected for it.
But then I think also a little bit unlucky because the year that we were selected to be part of the program was 2020. And wherever in the country you’re listening to this, you know that what that means is that we spent most of the time on Zoom with each other.
And then at some point in the program Kylie we did actually get to meet. There must have been a break in lockdowns and we got to have an in-person session. And I remember you and I having this frantic conversation trying to catch up on all the things that we knew we wanted to speak with, with one another about. We had to squish it into a small amount of time. Do you remember it the same way?
Absolutely. I was in the midst of COVID communications and I knew I needed to reach out to people who knew about communication.
So you were definitely someone I wanted to have a chat with.
And I was super keen to talk to you because I just had watched you with amazement and so much respect doing a huge amount of communicating during the pandemic, which obviously we’re going to want to speak with you about shortly. And just thinking, Wow, you, you are really at the coalface of this communication thing.
So Michael, before Kylie joined RMIT, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Monash University and also at Melbourne Uni, where we are. And she was also a visiting fellow at the National Institute of Health in the USA. And Kylie, my understanding is that part of the work that you did there contributed some of the preclinical data for the Ebola vaccines that were then selected by the World Health Organisation for trials in the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Have I got that right?
Yeah yeah, that was pretty great, to be able to contribute some data for you know, selecting vaccines for that, that kind of a trial. It was so exciting.
Yeah wow, that’s amazing. And Kylie you’ve won lots of awards for your work. I’m not going to list them all, but there are plenty of them. And the one that I am going to mention… and some of these are international awards. The one I’m gonna mention is actually a local award, but it was called the RMIT University Rising Media Star Award. And I just love the fact that you’re a rising star, although I think you’ve kind of risen now. I think you’re pretty high up in the sky.
But for all our listeners, that last one should let you know that Kylie has done a heap of science communication work and and obviously that’s part of why we’re so excited to speak with her today, because she really has been a, a massively important and influential and leading voice in the media talking about vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And I know from Kylie, from a few of the conversations that you and I’ve had over the last couple of years that you’ve learned some really important lessons about how to communicate science effectively during a pandemic, which I think also apply more broadly. And Kylie, I know in one year alone you did more than 1000 radio and TV interviews and you were featured in more than 800 online news articles. That’s just in one year, Michael. Are you feeling tired yet?
It was wild. It was wild. So it was very much learning on the go.
Steep learning curve.
What just an incredible amount of appearances as well. It’s like more than a lifetime’s worth for other people, I would imagine. 1000 radio and TV appearances. It’s hard to imagine.
Yeah, I think it’s once you sort of develop a few relationships with people who are working in media and and they understand how you like to communicate, you understand how they like to communicate, then a lot of those, those interactions become pretty fluid.
Yeah, and I know that that was just one year, that was just a snapshot. But I know you’ve continued to share your expertise all around the world. So obviously we’ve got lots of questions for you about all of the communication work you’ve done during the pandemic.
But as you’ve discovered, having done your homework and listen to a few of our episodes, we do always like to kind of go back a bit with our guests.
So Kylie, can you remember a time, maybe in your childhood when you decided that science was your thing? Did you envisage yourself being a scientist or at what stage of life did that, did that happen?
Yeah, so I don’t remember a time where I was ever not interested in science. I was one of those kids who just needed to understand and I needed to understand the world around me. My brain loves patterns and it loves seeing when things fit into a pattern. But it also likes seeing when things don’t fit a pattern and it wants to figure out why.
I was actually doing a double degree in science and and law when I went to university, I was doing genetics and law. The law sort of aspect of things taught me a lot. So it took me you know I, I thought in this really black and white kind of way previously. And then law taught me about the grey and it taught me about the importance of context. It also taught me about the importance of language and nuance, and I think that’s helped my communication a lot. But I was never going to be a very good lawyer.
Why not, why wouldn’t you be a good lawyer?
Pretty, pretty rubbish at contracts and property. And and then in my, in my final year, my honours year, I did an elective in immunology. I went into this lecture, had sort of done some immunology before so I knew the cells, I knew the tissues. Went into this lecture with a guy called Alex McLellan who had just come back, this was his first lecture. And he gave an absolute barnstormer of a lecture, just so amazing.
And it was all about how the structure dictates function in the immune system. So he was sort of explaining how there’s all these immune cells that are out and in the tissues in your body. They kind of survey those tissues and they act as messengers. They come back to the lymph node and the lymph node structure is optimised, so these messenger cells can meet the other cells of your immune system halfway, pass off these messages in a really efficient way and then you can trigger all these immune responses. And he had these incredible pictures you know, electron microscopy pictures which were just cutting edge at the time.
And I, my mind was blown. You know it was just so… it transformed it into this beautiful system. So I walked out of that lecture and I said to my classmates Steph, I was like “That was the best lecture I’ve ever seen. I think I want to be an immunologist.” And she was like, you have to go tell Alex.
It was his first lecture.
So it was just this incredible introduction and and I think that the system of it, the beauty of this system just really got me excited.
Yeah, it’s incredible that you can pinpoint your transition to immunology to one lecture, one barnstormer of the lecture. And that that’s a great word, I haven’t heard that one before.
Yeah, and vaccines for me was, I really loved the the application of it. So it was immunology, all the elegance of immunology but I was doing something very tangible in producing a product.
So it, it felt like we were producing something that would help people. So I think that really appealed to another side of me, you know? That gives you a lot of job satisfaction, I think.
Yeah, absolutely. If you’re managing to harness that, that kind of beauty of a system that you were so enthralled by and then see how that could have direct impact on people’s lives in a positive way, I can imagine you felt pretty excited by the prospects ahead of you.
So Kylie, you obviously worked out really early that there was a direct relationship between the science that you had passion for and people out there in the world. But looking back, what do you think your first experience of being a science communicator was? Can you think of a time that was the first time maybe you explained something complex to somebody or you got a thrill from sort of seeing somebody learn something?
Oh I can very much remember that and that honestly, it’s talking to my mum about science. So my mum was a, our school librarian. So I would head to the library, wait for mum to finish work, and then we’d head home. And on the way home mum would ask me you know, what did you learn that, today?
And if you can’t tell, I love knowledge and love learning. So I couldn’t help myself and I just hold forth on all these fantastic things that I’ve learned. And my mum was and is just a perfect audience. She’s you know she’s, she loves knowledge herself, but she’s sort of gravitated typically to different topics. And so science was always something fresh and new for her. And she was always enthusiastic. So I had this great audience who would always sort of reflect enthusiasm back at me.
So I think I got to learn how fun it is to share knowledge very early on and we still do it. I called home the other weekend and mum, mum gets on she’s like “Kylie, I’ve been reading a book, I heard about these things called telomeres” and I was like “Yeah, telomeres on the end of your chromosomes”. She’s like “yes”, and so we had this big conversation. And she’s, she’s just a great person to reflect that enthusiasm back at you.
Yeah, sounds like those conversations with your mum were you know really, really wholesome and it’s great that you still do them. And now I’m thinking about other types of communication that you’ve done that are maybe a little bit different. So you know, doing TV appearances and doing radio and things like that where you’re maybe not necessarily getting the same feedback. It’s maybe not as you know, relaxed, but you’ve still done an incredible amount of those kind of appearances. They take time and you were doing it at a time when you know, the pandemic was raging. Presumably your life would have been easier and simpler if you didn’t put yourself in the spotlight. So I guess I’m just curious to know what was your motivation for really putting yourself out there and doing a whole lot of this important communication work?
Yeah, well I think working in vaccines, I’ve always been very conscious that the communication associated with, with that science is really important. And you know, it was very apparent very early on in the COVID pandemic that understanding vaccines and understanding vaccine development was, was going to be really important for the public. I understand vaccines and I understand what’s, what’s happening. And so I can, I can talk about the nuts and bolts of vaccines and and help people ’cause it was, it was a very uncertain time.
Yeah I think absolutely. And and now that we’re sort of in a different phase of the pandemic, I think in some ways it can be I don’t know, almost a little bit hard to remember exactly how uncertain we felt.
Now we, we at least live in a country where we’re so fortunate to have access to vaccines, and now it’s more questionable how many boosters have you had. But of course, for a while there there were no vaccines and we weren’t quite sure how soon they’d be coming. So we’ve really moved a long way very quickly.
Yeah, I mean we weren’t even sure whether the vaccines would work. And you know there was, there was a lot of legitimate concern that we may be in a situation where we might not have a vaccine for a very long time.
And so to get to a point under a year where we’ve got vaccines, that work was… I don’t think the public are quite aware of how, how remarkable that really is, you know. We were so fortunate.
Yeah, I think that’s, that’s absolutely true. So obviously one of the difficulties then in communicating about this science is the uncertainty. You know, wanting to make sure people understand that we, we know what we’re doing, we’re good at it, but we still can’t make you any guarantees,
So what, what do you think was most difficult about your communication role during the pandemic? And do you look back now and think that you made mistakes in the early days when you were trying to communicate some of the complexities?
The uncertainty factor is, was one of the biggest challenges of communicating about the science during the whole pandemic. And you did really have to state what we know right now, but then also flag that things may change with most of the communication that we were doing.
And I think for some, for some folks in some situations, that message was dissatisfying. You know, people really wanted certainty and and wanted clarity and wanted like a, a short you know, non-nuanced fact that they could really latch themselves onto. But it was just such a, a changeable situation. Particularly for the pandemic, there were so many moving parts, so many different topics.
And often like the topic that you were really an expert on, there were parallel topics that you were kind of drawn into conversations about. And you had, really had to make, make it clear what you were an expert on and what you weren’t an expert on, and would be careful to comment within your expertise I think.
Hmm yeah. Yeah, I think you do have to be careful to yeah, stick to your message and you don’t necessarily know, you know, where your comments are going to be taken out of context and that sort of thing. So you yeah, it’s a, it’s an area where you have to tread carefully. But it’s great that you kind of kept going back to that area again and again and again.
I think probably the reason why it’s so good is because you know, there’s a fire hose of information at that time and having you know, a familiar voice or a familiar face communicating about these topics I think is really important for public trust in science. That you know, you trust this person and kind of listening to the most updated information.
And I think perhaps this type of communication was maybe a bit of a window into you know, public trust in science. I’d love to get your thoughts on that kind of the relationship between trust in science and then you can kind of measure that, right? With the uptake of vaccines, whether people are actually changing their behaviour based on that trust.
Yeah, I found that to be a really interesting aspect. And you know, something that I learned a lot about during this whole process was I was contributing to a conversation. It, it became much more about maintaining trust as you say, and maintaining a conversation with the public, not over just one individual media engagement but multiple. And so yeah, I had to kind of think about how I was going to achieve that.
And I think I was an expert in the nuts and bolts of how vaccines worked, but I wasn’t an expert and the social aspects of vaccine uptake and vaccine hesitancy in the, in the public. And so I needed to educate myself as best I could. There’s the collaboration of social science and immunisation, who I leaned on heavily and got some advice from and reached out to other communicators.
And I think I learnt pretty early on that it’s really important to make people feel listened to. So a journalist might ask you a challenging question, but that challenging question is what some of your audience is thinking. And so you have to hear it. You have to listen to it. You have to acknowledge that that is perhaps that person… you know, it’s out there, it’s a concern, and try and correct it where it may have some factually incorrect things, but then also acknowledge where things get challenging.
You know, the vaccine side effects was, was one. People going and getting their vaccine feeling rubbish afterwards. Ideally we’d design vaccines that don’t do that. But you know, it’s really challenging to do, to do that. But on balance, these vaccines give you fantastic protection against severe disease, so that was a good outcome. So you just had to, it was thinking about the conversation and developing that ongoing trust in acknowledging the challenges, but also putting good information in front of people.
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point about the good information. But I don’t know, when I look back and think over the last two and a half years, certainly in Melbourne, it really is remarkable to think about how quickly people increase their understanding of COVID-19, were willing to change their behaviours. I mean we, we really saw remarkable changes in behaviour in response to advice from from scientists. It’s pretty remarkable couple of years to look back on.
Yeah, I was really happy to see a lot of my colleagues stepping forward and communicating really authentically about vaccines. So there were a diversity of voices who were contributing to that.
So I think, I think there was some really remarkable communicators who emerged out of the past few years. And it, I think it shows the public as well a little bit about how we do science.
And I think that’s another aspect of what I would like to see communicated more on, rather than just communicating on a subject and and and exposing people to the, the subject of science, also communicating on how we achieve those insights.
And so seeing that there’s you know, large teams of people or large groups of people who will build a consensus and and have a similar line of thought that, that is science, you know. It’s, it’s the consensus, and I think that was really helpful for people to see.
Hmm, and you mentioned you know, vaccine hesitancy there. And I guess there has been a lot of that out there and it does vary from place to place. What do you say or what have you been saying to those people who have been vaccine hesitant?
Yeah it’s, it’s different if it’s it’s one-on-one. I think if you’re sort of talking to your friends and your family. I think you start by listening to them and asking them what their concerns are, those sorts of things. And and a lot of it is frustration or discomfort with the mandate sort of approach that was taken early on, those sorts of things. And I think just come back to the point where you’re putting that good information in front of folks, highlighting where the benefit is, acknowledging the challenges and making people feel listened to.
And I think as well, it’s been interesting with vaccine communication that you’re not trying to convince everyone, but you want to give them access to that information, where they can make good decisions. And I think as well when you’re doing that to think about how you’re framing that information. I’ve been very wary of using fear or trying to use scary concepts or… For people, I think it’s much more powerful if you can achieve it. Like you, you have to sort of communicate to people what what the risks are, but then as well if you can communicate to people what the benefits are and and empower them to make it, make it their choice that they go out and do this really positive thing, then that’s so much more effective.
And I, I think for me particularly, for older people that was something I was trying to do. To sort of say “This is something older Australians have been really good at. A lot of people have gone out and made that choice to go and get the vaccine. They’ve chosen to, to protect themselves in a really proactive way”. You know, it promotes action, and I think that’s a a, good message.
Yeah, absolutely. And it just reminds us all that the way we frame messages can, can just be so important in terms of how they’re received and the kind of subtleties I guess that are behind the messages when we share them.
But Kylie, listening to you something that really strikes me is that over the last few years, and perhaps earlier than that already, you were, you’re very comfortable in communicating something that’s potentially a really divisive and controversial topic. You know, we know that there are protests against vaccines. We know this is something that really stirs a lot of emotion in people.
So if there’s a younger scientist listening who wants to communicate about their research, but is really concerned about the fact that they know it’s a topic where people have very strong opinions. What’s your number one piece of advice for them?
I think you do have to start communicating with people to get a good sense of what their concerns are, you know. And think of it as a conversation. And you don’t have to have all the answers. But start to engage in that conversation in different ways.
So I think using different forums, talking to your friends and family is good. And then if you can sort of branch out into some of the, some great sort of public lecture forums like Nerd Nights and Pint of Science and stuff like that, which were really helpful for me for getting some of the feel of what, what kind of questions the public has about these topics which can be challenging, right?
And just prepare yourself, but some strange questions may come your way, but that’s fine. That’s, that’s where people are and you got to meet them where they are to help them sort of build their knowledge.
Yeah, so right you know, being aware of what the audience is thinking and what questions they might have in their mind. And yeah, I guess if you are in touch with that and I guess a conversation is the best way to do that right? To, to be in touch with that. And I guess you’re going to connect on a more meaningful level. So yeah, I think that’s fantastic advice Kylie.
And you know, we could keep chatting vaccines I think for a lot longer. But we are getting to that time in the podcast where we must move to some more lighthearted rapid fire questions.
So don’t need to think about them too much. But first question off the rank Kylie.
If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?
We’ve already talked about the fact I would be a rubbish patent attorney.
So not that.
I worked in a movie theatre during my student days, and I mean, it’s pretty ideal.
You get to watch lots of great movies. There’s choc-top icecreams at your… easily accessible. Generally you know, good fun folks.
So maybe I’ll, when I retire I’ll, I’ll buy myself an arthouse theatre somewhere and eat lots of icecream.
Yeah, that sounds sounds good.
Oh, isn’t that heaven? The smell of popcorn, always wafting through the air?
Absolutely, yeah yeah.
OK, I think that’s an excellent response to the first question.
Your next question Kylie is what is your proudest professional moment?
That would be… we sort of talked about it at the beginning. When I sort of got the call from my old boss in there in the US and he said Kylie, WHO wants to use your data. Can you prepare a report?
And so I spent most nights that week staying up very late, making a report. And yeah it was… I felt useful. It’s wonderful when your data gets used for something. So it was just, that was probably the highlight.
Hmm yeah, that’s a great example of impact for sure.
So Kylie, Twitter or Instagram? What’s your favourite and why?
Probably Twitter, I’m a pretty rubbish Instagrammer. It’s pretty much a feed of my… I like sewing. So I like, I follow a lot of sewing accounts and that’s about it.
But it’s a great way to kind of get a sense of what people are thinking out there. What’s, what’s a hot topic at the moment?
Agreed. OK Kylie, what’s your favourite science related movie or book or joke?
So, I would say one of my favourite books of all time was a science book which is called “This is Your Brain on Music” and it’s by a guy called Daniel Levitan. He was probably a bit pop neuroscience. But it was a really, really cool book about like how humans evolved to enjoy music. Why do we like music so much? And my brain loves… As I said, my brain loves patterns. So it loves science and it loves music. So it just really resonated with me. So yeah, it’s a cool book. It’s a very cool book.
Hmm, my brain loves music too, so I’ve written that suggestion down.
Yes, a good one. That’s a good one.
So last question, Kylie. You’ve given us some great advice on effective science communication already.
But if you had to pick your very top tip for effective science communication, what would it be?
I would say think about what your audience needs to know, not what you want to tell them, not what you think is fun and interesting, but what do they need to know. And I think that that helps you think about your audience. It helps you think about your aims. It helps you simplify the message. And I think that’s been really helpful for me and my communication, talking about a topic that people, that’s really important for people’s health decisions and those sorts of things. So yeah, that would be my, my top.
Awesome advice Kylie and just you know, on behalf of Australia, here I am speaking on behalf of Australia, thank you for all the work that you’ve done. I think we’ve been so fortunate in Australia to have people like you who not only are experts but are also brilliant communicators.
And on top of that, are also willing to put a huge amount of time and effort into sharing their knowledge. So thank you for everything you’ve done over the last couple of years, and of course thank you for making time to speak with us today. It’s been really wonderful.
Thank you Jen, and thank you Michael.
Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. Always good to chat.
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