Going viral: from vet to immunologist

Bacterium under the microscope

Image: dimdimich/iStock

Image: dimdimich/iStock

Growing up in Toowoomba surrounded by horses, cattle, and chickens, a young Gabrielle Belz dreamed of becoming a vet.

It wasn’t long before her love of animals brought her to The University of Queensland for the first, but not the last, time.

“Initially I came to UQ to do my veterinary degree. It was the only place in the state to do this.

At the time it seemed that it was just a course I wanted to do but in retrospect, many aspects were ahead of their time.

“I learned from lecturers like Trevor Heath and Mike Rex, who inspired talented veterinary students to pursue veterinary studies and research and to extend themselves. I later learned that Nobel Prize winner and Laureate Professor Peter Doherty was also a vet from the school when I trained with him in Memphis.”

Now Chair in Immunology at University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, Professor Belz is candid about her ‘accidental’ journey from being a vet to becoming a viral and molecular immunologist.

“I guess you could say that my career has taken some unexpected turns. We did immunology in the vet course but, like most vet students, I hadn’t prioritised this subject as it wasn’t necessary for testing cattle for pregnancies or performing animal surgery.

“I was, however, really interested in viruses, and immunology was at the time an incidental accompaniment. Little did I know I would end up in the lab of the person who discovered MHC Class I restriction!” says Belz.

“During my postdoc, I used to do month-long stints at a friend’s veterinary practice in Tanunda, South Australia. At the time, I didn’t intend to stay in research – I was anticipating going to Cornell to do a large animal medicine and surgery specialty, but there was a six-month difference in timing for applications.

“I ended up getting a fellowship to go to an immunology lab in Canada, but I had been speaking with Peter Doherty and before I knew it I found myself in Tennessee doing viral immunology in his lab.

“I got interested in the work and doing experiments and the experience of moving around the world. My career in immunology evolved from there,” says Belz.

After her stint in the USA, Belz returned to Australia and took up a position at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne.

It was here that her career flourished, and her love of cycling developed into what she calls ‘a reasonably obsessive pastime.’

“I do a lot of cycling and racing – and believe the correct number of bikes is n+1,” she laughs.

“I love the fresh air and exercise, and the friends I’ve made through cycling. These have all proven to be integral to my life, especially during this year’s lockdown.

“My cycling club is in Melbourne and even though I’m now based in Queensland, we have all stayed connected and meet regularly to ride on one of the online cycling platforms. This has given us a way to check in on people during what’s been a tough year for many,” says Belz.

So, just what was it that attracted Belz to return to her home state and take up her role at UQDI?

“I am motivated by challenging myself, discovery, and vibrant discussions with emerging scientists, and I could see how each of these elements presented themselves in the position at UQDI.

“It’s given me the chance to progress my research amongst key leaders in related areas while mentoring and inspiring the next generation of scientists. It has also meant for the first time I could be a bit closer to my family,” she says.

A country girl at heart, Belz is looking forward to spending Christmas with her family, enjoying some of the simpler things in life.

“Every year we are together is special but maybe we will now have time this year to make the special Christmas cake and pudding,” she smiles.

Perhaps there’ll be a Christmas bike ride, too.

Gabrielle Belz

Gabrielle Belz

Gabrielle Belz

Professor Belz in the velodrome.

Professor Belz in the velodrome.

Professor Belz in the velodrome.

This story is featured in the Summer 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.