28 Aug 2017

CCS PhD student profile: Nikolce Kocovski

Nikolce Kocovski at the 2017 CCS 3MT heats.
by Matt Jane

Nikolce Kocovski is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology and Pathology supervised by Professor David Tarlinton. Nikolce completed a Bachelor of Biomedicine and his Honours degree at Melbourne University.

Nikolce has also worked as both a Research Assistant and Research Technician at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.


What is your research about?

My research is actually about snake anti-venom. What I’m trying to do is look into the anti-venom response in horses, because that’s where most anti-venom is actually made in, and I’m trying to understand the nature of cross reactivity. For instance some anti-venom you generate for tiger snakes has shown evidence to react to venom from sea snakes. So we want to know how that comes about, how it is generated and can we then isolate those particular anti-venom molecules. If we can produce in a more refined way to isolate those particular anti-venom molecules that can cross-react, then that would help simplify the process of making anti-venom and understanding how cross reactive antibodies are generated to snake anti-venom.

Have you always been interested in this area? What made you choose to do this for your PhD?

I first came upon this project actually thanks to an old mentor of mine (Professor Stephen Turner) after this project came across his desk. I saw what the project was about, monoclonal antibodies to snake venom, and I saw that these three very prominent professors, David Tarlinton, Andrew Lew and Steve Rockman, were supervising the project. I was familiar with the first two from my time at Walter and Eliza Hall institute (WEHI), I thought, "Okay, this is immunology and has more of a clear translational outcome that it wants to achieve and hopes to uncover." I felt it would be great to apply the research to an industry entity, which is CSL.  It’s great to have some sort of connection with both WEHI and also with the CSL.

What have you enjoyed about thus far in your research?

I’d have to say my lab. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that we have, a really collegial group of people. Every day we take part in the lunch time quizzes and have special social events that we do once a month. Everyone has established really good relationships with each other. These relationships allow us to bounce ideas off each other and be critical of each other’s work without offence being taken.

Personally I’ve had a couple of moments during my PhD that I am proud of. I’ve managed to make a successful molecular cloning experiment ligating a horse heavy chain and light gene onto an expression plasmid, after months of trial and error. I was also able to generate a PCR system to amplify horse heavy chain and light chain immunoglobulin genes, by creating a set of primers that can amplify all known horse immunoglobulin genes. I went through the effort of creating the primers myself, which was difficult by the fact that not all immunoglobulin genes in the horse are known.

You recently competed in the Three Minute Thesis competition. What were the difficulties and benefits of participating in this competition?

For me the most difficult aspect was summarising your work in three minutes. I was somewhat lucky because everybody knows what snakes are and everybody is aware of what anti-venoms is, broadly speaking.

The challenge for me was trying to do it succinctly and clearly.

A really good point my supervisor has made is that you should be able to discuss your research with your neighbour at home. Communication on any level is crucial. It’s a skill that all researchers should work towards. It was a really great opportunity for me to practice how to communicate.

What are your plans post PhD?

I’m not entirely sure at this point, so I don’t want to close any doors. I’d be interested in staying in a research role or potentially going into the more industry side of things. I’m really interested in doing applicable research, which is another way of delivering research to the public. That’s why I believe that my work has been really beneficial.

I think the important thing though is not to worry. For instance, in 2015 I didn’t even know I’d be undertaking a PhD until my mentor emailed me that fateful day.

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I enjoy going out with friends to the local bars. We often frequent a gaming bar in Hawthorne called Beta Bar. I also enjoy great T.V shows. Of course the usual like Game of Thrones, but I also really like to watch history based T.V shows like Vikings or Spartacus.

I’m also an avid reader. My house is slowly starting to look like a library. Currently I enjoy reading National Geographic and Time magazine.

My crux however is video games. I’m currently playing a game called Heartstone, which I thoroughly enjoy.

What advice do you have for others starting a PhD?

There’s two really important pieces of advice I have to give. Firstly, find a good lab. Find a lab that will support you, give you advice, feedback. You’ll have to do this talking to people. Try to get a feel of the lab before you decide to commit to it.

Secondly, it’s important to have a good mentor. Someone you respect and can look up to. Mentors are not great just for practical advice but are also really good for personal support.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received whilst studying?

There’s just so much great advice that I’ve been given. Whether it’s been from my colleagues within my lab or my supervisors I’ve been really lucky and have received countless great advice.

One example that sticks out to me was when I was having a really tough time with some of my experiments.  Things were constantly failing and my supervisor told me “If it was easy, everyone would do it”. I think you need to take heart in knowing that it’s hard. This type of work is a challenge, not everyone can do it. The fact that I am here now is a feat in itself.

Prior to actually starting my PhD I had applied a couple of times and had been knocked back, and as disheartening as that was, I kept trying.

My father has always said, “If you fall down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.”

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