Dr Riccardo Natoli's vision for preventing sight loss
In his 20th year at the ANU, Dr Riccardo Natoli still has a fire in his belly for the science behind preventing vision loss and his favourite molecules, RNA.
His other passion is for people's career development, and Dr Natoli (School of Medicine and Psychology), who leads the Clear Vision lab within the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR), says he's proud of his dedicated team, as well as the culture of investing in others that has stretched throughout his career.
"You can have the best ideas and infrastructure, but if you don't build your people - their confidence, capabilities, networks and opportunities - then you'll fail," he says.
"In research, the conversation needs to shift towards creating an environment that is conducive for everybody to flourish, especially the next generation of researchers."
The Clear Vision lab studies retinal diseases, with a focus on finding novel diagnostics and treatment options for Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) using a specific type of RNA called microRNA (miRNA) and extracellular vesicles (EV).
"I'm excited by the idea of cells talking to each other, and what this could mean for protecting against vision loss," Dr Natoli says.
"Cells communicate via a language that we're starting to understand, and we're looking at how RNA is moved from one cell to another to initiate a completely different biological response."
At the start of his career, following an undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology at Sydney University, in the lab of Professor Patrick Tam at the Children's Medical Research Institute, Dr Natoli became a research assistant working with Professor Jan Provis.
"I have always wanted to help mobilise others, which I learned from my time as a research assistant from 2003 to 2016, and I found a love for working with exciting new technology and conducting experiments.
"I realised though, that the only way I was going to be taken seriously was if I had a PhD, that 'piece of paper' that would allow me access to 'the research club'."
Having gained his PhD in neuroscience in 2009, Dr Natoli says he found his niche through working closely with the Business Engagement and Commercialisation (BEC) team, in the office of Research and Innovation Services (RIS), and was awarded a three-year Translational Fellowship in 2019-21.
"It's funny how you can spend a decade at an organisation and how one conversation in a corridor can completely change your trajectory," he says.
Dr Natoli says he will be forever grateful to Chris Pugmire, Director of Our Health in Our Hands at JCSMR, and Keats Nelms, Chief at RIS, for opening other opportunities for him.
"Through the Fellowship, I built good relationships with both business engagement and philanthropy, which helped me understand how to engage with donors and bring funds in," Dr Natoli says.
"I also learned how to liaise with industry and generate ideas. The questions asked by academia are identical to those being asked by industry; it's just that one is purely for knowledge and the other is applied. This understanding helped me see the need to diversify our thinking and collaborate with individuals that make life easier.
"I prefer collaboration and engagement to traditional academic work, and seeing a fast result in terms of whether the partnership will progress and generating ideas with real-world value."
Dr Natoli's translational work has culminated this year in multiple patent positions, a $3m Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-p) grant with industry partner VivaZome, and a focus in developing a spin-out company in the next 18 months.
As part of his passion for supporting the next generation of early career researchers, Dr Natoli helped establish the JCSMR HDR Mentoring Program and created the Clear Vision Research Initiative. His latest role with the new School of Medicine and Psychology as the Associate Director of Research Development completes the picture.
"I'm forever grateful for the support, funding, mentorship and friendship I've received at my second home, the ANU, over the years," he says.
"I'm looking forward to being able to pay some of that forward."