Cancer patience: thanks and farewell to Nicole Cloonan

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Our curator for the past week on @RealScientists, Dr Nicole Cloonan aka @ncloonan, is a newly-minted group leader at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute on the northern fringes of the Brisbane CBD. Her research looks at the roles of microRNAs in gene regulation and disease, particularly in cancer. Nicole’s tweets deposited us directly into the life of a new lab head, navigating the trials and tribulations of establishing new experiments, new collaborations, competition, publication, and finding and protecting work-life balance.

MicroRNAs are small molecules, generated from long ribonucleic acid (RNA) precursors, which target specific genes, and regulate the expression of their protein products. As Nicole explained, what we think of as individual microRNAs are effectively a suite of multiple microRNA molecules with similar, overlapping specificities, and it is through this spectrum of on- and off-target effects that seemingly non-specific microRNAs enact their observably specific function. The profile of microRNAs in a cell can be seen as a shorthand ‘readout’ of the cell status, and because of its size, is quicker and easier to characterise via sequencing than other genetic ‘readouts’ such as the entire genome (the DNA) or transcriptome (all the transcribed RNA of the genes being expressed at any one time).

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan lab

Nicole’s first major programme of experiments in her first six months at @QIMRBerghofer (yes, it’s taken that long to get all the data together – patience is a virtue!) has been looking at microRNAs in cancer, to see if there are any microRNAs that affect the way cells respond to chemotherapy drugs. Basically, this involved taking approximately 2000 known human microRNAs, introducing them into human-derived cells in culture one at a time, then blasting them with chemo – compared to chemo-treated cells without introduced microRNAs. The data is fresh, so it’ll be a while before this makes it to publication – which was another big issue Nicole touched on, from battles over authorship to the real problem of open access, and how to pay for it.

All in all, it was a good week for Nicole – she got a paper out, entertained & informed more than 10,000 people on the internet, and found a name for her lab robot!

QIMRBerghofer Cloonan robot

Meet ‘Tik-Tok’. I thought that was a Teletubby, but apparently not.

A big thanks to Nicole for her great week on the account. We’ll have a link to a Storify of her tweets here shortly. You can follow Nicole at @ncloonan, and she also has a website for her lab and a research blog at

Next week, we head to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Center for Virology to meet postdoctoral researcher Dr Greetchen Diaz, aka @greetdiaz.


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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