‘It’s discovery science. You may have a setback, but you don’t take it lying down’
Monash University life scientist Professor Jamie Rossjohn – recently awarded one of world science’s highest honours, a Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS) – grew up in the town of Llantwit Major in South Wales. One of his earliest influences in science was his grandad, Foster Lewis.
“He was a great man,” Professor Rossjohn says. As a boy, he would share his homework with his mother’s father, talk to him, listen to him, and learn from him.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandad, who wrote a book about his experiences as a South Wales coal miner. He emphasised the importance of getting an education. He started to instill in me the need to study.
“My mother and father, Janice and Brinley John, also from South Wales, fully supported and encouraged my education. I always remember looking at my dad’s university textbooks and being amazed by the complexity.”
Professor Rossjohn FRS is just the second Monash academic in the University’s 60-year history to be made a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society, a UK-based science fellowship that’s been recognising exceptional scientists since 1660 – it’s the oldest science academy in the world.
The Royal Society inducts about 60 distinguished scientists a year from around the world. Some previous inductees only require surnames – Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Hodgkin.
Immunity on the molecular level
Professor Rossjohn is based at Monash’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute within the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. He investigates the molecular bases underpinning immunity.
He’s internationally recognised for using structural biology to investigate how T cells can respond to viral infections or cause autoimmunity. Alongside his colleagues, he’s published more than 460 research papers, and is a highly-cited researcher.
He received the news from the Royal Society in early May, and will travel to London in July to deliver a presentation, meet other Fellows, and sign the 350-plus-year-old Royal Society charter book.
“You don’t do science to get awards,” he says. “You do science to investigate the unknown. Then, if you ultimately get recognised by your peers in this manner, that’s overwhelming. So it’s certainly a special moment.”
Professor Rossjohn was influenced by schoolteachers and university supervisors who helped him chart a course in scientific research. He also credits his family’s strong support.
At Llanillitud Fawr Comprehensive School in Wales were Mrs Griffiths and Mrs Thomas, biology and chemistry teachers, respectively.
“They were both brilliant in terms of the passion that they instilled, which helped drive the desire to learn. I became, I think, better and better under their guidance, and started studying and questioning more. They really helped shape me.”
He says Griffiths and Thomas – who he met up with four years ago in Wales – suggested if he did well enough at school, he could go to university for a degree in biochemistry.
In his final years at school, he was finding maths challenging, so went to his father’s books.
“I just remember one summer borrowing one of my dad’s university textbooks on differentiation and integration, and just making myself understand it.”
The path to Bath
After high school he crossed the border into England and did what his teachers had suggested – study biochemistry at the University of Bath.
“I remember the first person I met there during my undergraduate interview was Michael Danson (now Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Bath), and I was talking to him about biochemical pathways, straight off the bat, even before I had been accepted. He ended up being my tutor all the way through my undergraduate degree, and was one of my PhD co-supervisors.”
Professor Rossjohn spoke with his PhD supervisors recently about being made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
“I simply wanted to thank them for all that they did for me at university,” he says.
He recognises that, outside academic circles, relatively few know much about the Royal Society. He says he would describe it as the “International hall of fame for sport, or Oscars’ lifetime achievement award”, but he’s one of those researchers who doesn’t seek the limelight.
“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,” he quotes a well-known proverb.
“To be internationally competitive for a sustained period of time, you need to be a team player. I’ve been fortunate to have some great collaborators and researchers within my team, including honours and PhD students, research assistants and post-docs whom I’ve mentored over the past 20 years. In total, members of the lab have been awarded about 40 nationally competitive fellowships.”
Honoured by the Royal Society
The Royal Society citation describes Professor Rossjohn’s science in detail. It says:
“[He] is principally known for his contributions to the understanding of disease and the vertebrate host response, both from the aspect of protective and deleterious immunity. Namely, he has used structural biology to understand how T cell receptors recognise peptides, lipids and metabolites. Specifically, he has unearthed structural mechanisms of Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) polymorphism impacting on viral immunity, drug and food hypersensitivities and T cell-mediated autoimmunity.
“Rossjohn has pioneered our molecular understanding of how T cells bind lipid-based antigens presented by the CD1 family,” it says. “He has elucidated the structural basis of how vitamin B metabolites are presented by the MHC class I related protein, MR1; this revealed an entirely new class of antigen for T cells.”
The scientific focus towards these exact elements of science came near the end of his undergraduate degree when Professor Rossjohn had started to consider a PhD.
“I was fortunate to meet Professor Garry Taylor, a structural biologist recently recruited to Bath University, and I was fascinated by protein molecules rotating on his computer screen. I thought, ‘OK, you can get direct insight into protein structure and function here.’ I think that just naturally appealed to me. Garry was also a really generous person, and we hit it off. But I’ll never develop his interest in organ recitals.”
“You don’t do science to get awards. You do science to investigate the unknown.”
For his PhD, he studied the protein structure of a thermophilic enzyme, during which time, in China at an x-ray crystallography conference, he met Professor Michael Parker, a structural biologist, whose work interested him.
Professor Rossjohn then secured a one-year travelling scholarship from the Royal Society – the same Royal Society that honours him now – to enable him to work in Professor Parker’s lab at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, in Australia.He had met his wife, Lisa, in 1987 at Bath University. They married in 1994, and embarked on a life in Australia. They have three children – Siân (25), Bevan (22), and Hannah (13).
“Bruce gave me a great piece of advice, which is: ‘Momentum in science is so hard to get, but so easy to lose.’ You should not rest on your laurels,” Rossjohn says.
“You capitalise on your breakthrough so you’re not a follower of the field, you’re a leader, and you bring the team with you, always in the pursuit of new knowledge.
“Science is written in chapters, not books. Sometimes these discoveries can take a decade to complete. So you’ve got to be pretty determined to do that.”
The beginnings of a 20-year collaboration
After being awarded a Wellcome Trust Fellowship, Professor Rossjohn started at Monash in 2002, which is when he began looking into the functioning of the immune system and T cells.
He met Professor James McCluskey FAA AO, from the University of Melbourne, and the two began a highly productive 20–plus-year collaboration to look at T cell function in protective and aberrant immunity.
“From acorns, oak trees grow,” he says. “We made some insights with a string of papers on antiviral T cell immunity in the early 2000s.
“We started to build momentum in the research program, and collaborations extended to numerous immunologists, including professors Tony Purcell, Steve Turner, Nicole La Gruta, Andrew Brooks, Katherine Kedzierska, Dale Godfrey and Mariapia Degli-Esposti [from UoM and Monash], David Price and Andrew Sewell [Cardiff], Laurent Gapin [Colorado], and Branch Moody [Harvard].
“Simultaneously, a structural biology program at Monash Clayton was established with the support from Professor Christina Mitchell and Professor Warwick Anderson.
“My colleague, Professor James Whisstock, was instrumental in co-establishing a vibrant structural biology community. It was a lot of fun up in the old biochemistry building, Building 13D.
“Monash provided me with an opportunity to flourish. A little bit of success, a little bit of grant support, and then the momentum kept on building.
“It’s fair to state we ended up becoming quite a powerhouse in structural biology in Australia, with the continuous support from Monash University senior executives, including professors Christina Mitchell, Edwina Cornish, Pauline Nestor, Ian Smith, and John Carroll.”
A breakthrough Nature paper
In 2007, Professor Rossjohn and colleagues published a paper in Nature that showed for the first time how a T cell receptor can interact with a lipid-based molecule when presented by a molecule called CD1d.
“That was quite important and rather … let’s just say, intense. That’s when we started to really make our international mark in the field, and now we sought to make a sustained high-level contribution.
“With grant and fellowship-based funding, including from the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council, we were able to conduct more basic and applied investigations.”
Read more: Revealed: Our cellular guardians
A string of highly influential papers in T cell-mediated immunity, published in Nature, Science, Cell, and many more high-impact international journals, followed.
As an aside, Professor Rossjohn enjoys walking his dogs (Ziggy and Amber), serving his cats (Jett, Simba and Fudge), and runs long-distance after about 10 years doing judo at a reasonable level.
“I’ve always been OK at running, and I decided just to start doing a bit of competitive running as a member of Glenhuntly Athletics Club in more recent times. It’s a good counterbalance from work.”
Artist-in-residence makes science accessible
The Rossjohn Lab has had a unique addition since 2018 – a legally-blind artist-in-residence. Professor Rossjohn says one of his interests – aside from running a long way, and T cell receptors – is making science accessible.
He says he reflected not too long ago and wondered if he would have had the same opportunities in his career if he had a disability. The answer, he concluded, was “most unlikely”.
The artist, Dr Erica Tandori, came on board four years ago to make tactile, artistic displays of immune receptor concepts, an initiative that’s since won the Monash University 2018 Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity and Inclusion Award, been a finalist in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for STEM Inclusion in 2019, and in 2020 a finalist in the “Science Breakthroughs of the Year – Science in the Arts” category at the Falling Walls Conference and Berlin Science Week.
“We take the beauty of the light microscope for granted,” he says. “We can see the marvels of the natural world, and with a high-powered microscope (the synchrotron) we can see atomic details of molecules. And it dawned on me that the microscope is essentially inaccessible to the low-vision and blind community”.
Read more: Placing microscopic life into people’s hands
Not long after Dr Tandori arrived, in May 2018 a Sensory Scienceexhibition was held at the University’s Clayton campus.
“I wanted the exhibition to be on campus, because I wanted the low-vision and blind community to experience being at a university and to learn some science,” Professor Rossjohn says. “We had about 100 people from the community come to the exhibition, and numerous volunteers from the laboratories within the Biomedicine Discovery Institute.
“I’ve been doing science for a very long time,” he says, “and this was probably the most instantly rewarding day ever.”
Maintaining the momentum
Meanwhile, the lab at Monash is continuing its work on the immune system.
“We’re constantly looking at problems related to immune recognition. We spend a lot of time investigating how different molecules can activate the immune system, and how this relates to viral immunity, cancer, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease.
“Support from the biotechnology industry continues to be instrumental in being able to fast-track basic discoveries towards novel immunotherapies.”
The challenges are many and the science difficult, but Professor Rossjohn’s mantra of “momentum” holds firm.
“It’s discovery science,” he says. “You may have a setback, but you don’t take it lying down. You’ve got to fight your corner. That’s why we fight so hard to work at the highest level, and we’re still fighting extremely hard 20 years later, and always will.”