Zebrafish helping earn research stripes ...

... as lateral thinking brings Dr Yann Gibert to Deakin.

Dr Yann Gibert
Dr Yann Gibert

Deakin University research recruit, Dr Yann Gibert, is a bloke, or should that be a homme, who thinks laterally.

If you’re born in France and want to learn English, where else would you go but Limerick, in Ireland?

“I had never been out of France before, so I thought it would be great experience to have to learn English in just few years, particularly when I was being employed as a Master’s student and teaching assistant,” he says without much hint of an Irish accent, but still plenty of his delightful southern French accent.

“They didn’t seem to have much trouble understanding me, so it seems like it was the right choice to make for me.”

It’s a more recent bit of lateral thinking that has now brought him all the way from Boston to Geelong: If you’ve made it to Harvard, been feted in respected journals, and you want to take your research career even further, where else would you go but Deakin?

“Deakin, with its Medical School, the Metabolic Research Unit (MRU) and researchers like Professor Andy Sinclair and Professor Alister Ward who helped bring me here, is a young university going places,” Dr Gibert says.

“Especially in my area there are a lot of things going on that are really exciting and I thought it would be better for me to come to a University like Deakin that is on the way up than to go to a more traditional University.”

Dr Gibert’s “area” is the use of Zebrafish as a vertebrate model to study metabolic disorders: obesity and diabetes now among them.

The Zebrafish is a useful model organism for a lot of research projects, in fact it is one of the few fish species to have been taken into space.

Its application in genetics and how it can assist in the battle against obesity and diabetes is what appeals to Dr Gibert as he sits in his office at the MRU, overlooking one of the lakes on the tree-lined Waurn Ponds campus.

“I have really been looked after with the view,” he smiles, before continuing to talk about his research.

“The Zebrafish is a rapid and reliable model to study gene expression during the embryogenesis and larval stages.

“Gene mutations can lead to obesity. There is a case of a young boy who at three years old weighed 42 kilos.

“At seven years old, he only weighed 32 kilograms, normal weight. They did this by using the hormone leptin.

“These are the sorts of things I want to explore further because as we know obesity and diabetes are a problem for our communities.”

Dr Gibert has also successfully used the Zebrafish to show the unexpected actions of bisphenol A (BPA) on the inner ear of certain vertebrates, a project the results of which have just been published in the journal BMC Development Biology.

Used to make plastic containers, CD, glasses, even baby’s bottles, there has been a lot of concern about the impact of BPA on human health around the world for some time, with a number of recent research breakthroughs confirming that to be well-placed.

Dr Gibert’s work found that following exposure to BPA, most of the Zebrafish embryos developed abnormalities of the otoliths, small structures in the inner ear that control balance and play a role in hearing.

“The project clearly demonstrates that BPA at quite high does affect embryonic development,” Dr Gibert said.

Last year, Canada became the first country to declare BPA as a toxic substance.  More and more products, particularly baby products, are being made without it.

At Harvard, they even produced a drink bottle with a huge free-of-BPA logo.

At Deakin Dr Gibert intends to continue studying the effects of BPA exposure on metabolic disorders

Dr Gibert’s initial appointment is for four years but he and the University wish that he will stay longer. He has settled in a house close to the Barwon River and plans to get a bike.

“It is a very nice place and I am looking forward to riding around the river,” he said.

“And my house has a garden with room for a barbeque and for someone who comes from Europe that is very special achievement, to have a garden space for a barbeque.”

Looks like he will settle in here in Australia as quickly as he did in Limerick!

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