Joel Mackay took his first real step into the world of research by moving from Auckland to the University of Cambridge (holding Commonwealth, Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and Merck Scholarships), where he carried out his doctoral research with Dudley Williams. This work centred around the use of physical methods to characterise the mechanism of action of the vancomycin antibiotics, a family of glycopeptides that form the last line of defence against the multiply resistant bacterial strains (such as Golden Staph) that have caused much alarm in recent years. Dudley was a top-class mentor who emphasised the importance of thinking about scientific problems, rather than simply churning out experimental data.
After completing his Ph.D., Joel came to Australia (fortunately before the tough laws about NZ immigration came into force) and was awarded an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship to work with Glenn King in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Sydney. The year 1995 saw Joel plunge headlong into the world of zinc finger domains as regulators of gene expression, as an alliance was struck up with Merlin Crossley in the same department.
This partnership blossomed after Joel was awarded an ARC Research Fellowship in 1996 and established a protein structure laboratory by moving about 20 metres down the corridor. He has devoted much of his research effort since then to understanding how zinc-binding domains, which are one of the most common protein domains in the human genome, modulate the activity of transcription factors. Together with Merlin, Joel has dissected the zinc finger domains of two transcription factors involved in hematopoiesis, GATA-1 and FOG, and used the information gained from molecular biological and structural studies to understand how these proteins interact, as well as how mutations in the GATA-1 protein can cause disease.
A recurring theme during Joel's brief career in research has been the remarkable way in which very small natural products, ranging from glycopeptide antibiotics (~1 kDa) to zinc finger domains (< ~6 kDa), have developed multiple binding surfaces; in particular, zinc fingers appear to have been used as molecular scaffolds upon which a variety of functions have been grafted by evolution.
Since coming to Australia, Joel has been awarded the Australian Society for Biophysics Young Investigator of the Year Prize (1998), and was nominated for both the Minister's Prize for Achievement in the Life Sciences (2000, 2001) and the Commonwealth Prize for Science (2000), as well as being selected by The Australian newspaper as one of the ten most promising young scientists in Australia. He is currently the President of the Sydney Protein Group and NSW State Representative for the ASBMB. The only negative aspect about his time in Australia is that it has coincided with a downturn in form of the All Blacks.