Chemist of the Month

Associate Professor Alice Lee

Written by William Li (NSW Branch Committee Member)


Alice Lee is the Chemist of the Month for April 2021. She is an Associate Professor at UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, and the founder and lead scientist of the Food and Allergy research laboratories at UNSW. Her research is primarily about food safety, with respect to food allergy in particular, as well as food (bio)chemistry and immunodiagnostics, which are of high importance in the Australian society today with increasing awareness of food allergies. However, the pathway she went to being an established food science researcher started off in the environmental sector.

Interviewed conducted by William Li.

WL:  How long have you been an RACI Member?

AL:  I have been an RACI member for a very long time – 15 years!  I am also a member of the NSW Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Group for several years now.

WL:  What motivated your interest in science in general?

AL:  My favourite colour is green – to me, it represents nature.  I was always fond of nature and was particularly interested in what happens in nature.  That drew me into science, and I got to study things around us in nature.  Why chemistry specifically?  I like precision and things that you could measure more precisely rather than an estimate.

WL:  That’s really interesting you’re quite into the concept of precision.

AL:  Yes.  The fundamental chemistry of molecular principles and building it to macromolecules (such as allergenic proteins) and how they may impact on human health (such as allergy) are quite important to me.

WL:  Okay, that clearly leads into your career as a researcher, so what do you do in your research work?

AL:  I’ll give you a little bit of my research path.  I didn’t get an industry job straight out of my first degree but did find an opportunity to do a PhD with CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in North Ryde, jointly enrolled at the University of Sydney.  My project was developing immunological assays for pesticide residues.  There was an issue with fish kill at the time, caused by endosulfan used in the cotton industry.  The cotton industry funded this project.  That was around the time mass spectrometry was just introduced!  I used GC/ECD for detecting organochlorine insecticide residues, which was fairly easy but very time consuming as it involved extracting residues from a large volume of water and soil, then redissolving into hexane before GC analysis.  I was very successful in developing the endosulfan assay that was selective to the toxic forms (i.e., endosulfan and endosulfan sulfate).  Since then, I developed an array of immunochemical assays for pesticides, herbicides, mycotoxins, endocrine disrupting chemicals, veterinary drugs, plant biotoxins, off-flavour compounds, food pathogens and food allergens.

WL:  So you started off in the environment!

AL: Yes.  So my research started from environmental chemistry.  I did my postdoctoral work at the US Department of Agriculture in Texas, where I engineered recombinant bodies for dioxins.  When I came back to Australia, my research moved from an environmental focus to a food safety focus, investigating on mycotoxins.  I was involved in several projects funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with partners from Vietnam and Indonesia.  During that time, we trained many scientists in Vietnam and Indonesia to help them develop rapid tests and use them to manage pesticide and aflatoxin residues in fresh produce and crops such as peanuts and corn respectively.  From there, I moved to work on endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the aquatic environment in NSW, through an Australian Research Council funded project.

WL:  Which leads to what you do today!

AL:  Nowadays, my research is very much focused on food (proteins) and allergy.  I was the co-director of the ARC-funded Training Centre for Advanced Technologies in Food Manufacture.  The Centre made it possible to expand on food-centric allergy research in Australia and, more importantly, it allowed us to connect to clinical aspects of food allergy – unlike my other research areas, this is very important in food allergy research.

Regarding my current research, I study why certain food proteins are allergenic, and that involves studying protein properties and molecular interactions with an immune system.  I also look at how food processing techniques and conditions could impact allergens and their allergenic potential, and how these molecular changes can impact on the immune system.  Such fundamental questions could help us design appropriate foods to help prevent food sensitisation.  Right now, I am collaborating with clinical colleagues at the Children’s hospitals at Westmead on peanut-specific immunotherapy (OPIA study) as a treatment option for food allergy.  We are investigating specific mechanisms of action of the therapy, aiming to develop tools to predict responses to therapy.  I am also interested in developing novel immunotherapy agents to make the treatment safer and more efficient.  So, I am looking for a new collaboration here.

Thereby you can see I started in environmental chemistry but now firmly in food allergy.

WL:  That’s quite an interesting journey!

AL:  What’s really interesting is that, with the experience I had, all my research was somehow relevant and related to each other, whether it’s mycotoxins or endocrine disrupting chemicals (e.g., bisphenol A) or peanuts as an allergen.  There appears to be some relationships between foods prone to mycotoxins and allergy.  Exposure to certain chemicals such as bisphenol A during childhood can also influence on a body’s reaction to allergens.

In all, you don’t know where your research leads to – it’s full of surprises and opportunities!

WL:  Clearly you’ve found opportunity through CSIRO and made use of your passion in this sort of research and now you’re into food allergens.  That’s a big problem among the Australian population today.  Also, very interesting to hear, as a person with a history of food allergies.

AL:  From the public health perspective, food allergy definitely is up there with other chronic diseases in my opinion.  Food allergies impact almost everyone, directly or indirectly.  Around 10% of the world’s population have at least one form of food allergy.  Food manufacturers will have to deal with allergen control in some way with their products.  There are other stakeholders, for example, clinicians, dieticians and regulators.  As we are moving towards more plant-based proteins in our diet, we will see an increase in the prevalence of adverse reactions to some of these proteins.

WL:  How did Covid-19 impact your work in the past year?

AL:  Covid-19 impacted us with our lab being shut down, and when reopened, there was only a limited number of people allowed in the lab, slowing down my research.  In particular, our OPIA study that was in its last phase of recruitment had to stop, and it was only resumed earlier this year.  Also, all teaching was moved to remote learning mode, including the labs, and we have only returned to face-to-face teaching in Term 1 this year.

WL:  I see the disruptions around the campus.  I don’t think I’d want to be a student back then, without the labs and face-to-face learning!

AL:  A lot of effort was devoted to make online learning more effective and I am still on a journey to make it a fun learning experience.

WL:  If you have one piece of advice to give to people who want to be like you, what would it be?

AL:  “Life is like a box of chocolates!”  You get all sorts of things in it!  Same with your career.

I don’t plan my career as such – life plans it for me.  The interesting thing about research is that you have opportunities to work with so many wonderful people who are also great scientists in different areas of expertise and together we try and solve grand challenges of our time.  That is a thrill to me!

WL:  Last question.  What do you do in your spare time?

AL: I do gardening, especially orchids and walk with my dog!