Tara Fernandez

Down with the 'flu. But science never stops!

Favourite Thing: Looking at cells down high-powered microscopes! It’s fantastic to be able to zoom in and discover the secret lives of cells…



Tuart College in Perth, Western Australia, Class of 2000


Uni of Western Australia, Monash University and now Queensland Uni of Technology

Work History:

I’ve worked in a clinical lab at a big hospital, doing diagnostic testing.


Queensland University of Technology

Current Job:

PhD student at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.

Me and my work

Growing human skin in a test tube…

Skin cancer is a major health issue in Queensland – which experiences EXTREME levels of ultraviolet radiation! UV

How and why skin cancer forms is still not fully understood by scientists.

This got me thinking…

“How can we study how cells behave after being exposed to UV radiation in the lab?”

First, I looked at what models are currently being used in labs to study cancer.

1. Growing cancer cells 

Cancer cell culture











“Hmm…no, I really want to know how normal cells behave when they’re in sunlight.”

2. Animal models









No! Mice are completely different from humans! We’re not covered in fur with big ears and whiskers!!”

3. Human volunteers




“No one would agree to that!”

Then, it struck me….

“What if we could GROW skin in the lab and see what happens when we expose it to radiation!”

So that’s exactly what I did!

My research involves growing human skin (a process known as tissue-engineering). We get cells from excess skin tissue that is discarded during surgery. Then, we bring it back to the lab and grow it using a technique called cell culture.

Once the lab-grown skin is fully formed and is similar to the skin on our bodies, it looks like this:

Now, I expose it to a wavelength of UV radiation called UVB which is most harmful to the skin cells. Then, I can investigate the changes in the biology of cells by studying them down the microscope.

My Typical Day

In the cell culture lab chopping up bits of skin!


I usually spend most of my day in the cell culture laboratory. Here, cells are grown in very clean conditions to prevent infections from bugs in the air.


I have to check on the growth of my skin cells daily, sometimes even on weekends! They require a lot of love and attention, just like little pets!!


Although I spend many hours in the lab, it’s fun when there are fellow scientists around to chat to!


It’s important to wear protective gear to prevent injuring yourself around the lab. Here, I am freezing down some of my cells in liquid nitrogen, which is extremely cold, to use at a later time.

My human skin model takes around 3 weeks to grow in the lab, and once it’s ready, it looks like this:


It’s not all work though, I also get to go for conferences all around the world and present my research!


The latest big conference I went to was in California, USA!


And of course, taking time out to hang out in the sun 🙂


What I'd do with the money

Let a group of students spend a day in the lab to find out what it’s really like…

I would like to host some high school students to spend a day in our lab to discover more about the amazing things that Queensland researchers are doing.

I also would like to share with them what I’ve found about the dangers of sun exposure through my research which will hopefully change their perceptions about getting a tan! I hope that this will start them asking questions and being more curious about scientific research, because we definitely need more inquisitive scientists in the labs!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Creative, curious and crazy!

Who is your favourite singer or band?

The Presets

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Driven across Australia from Perth to Brisbane in a caravan!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To grow an extra arm so I can do lab work faster, to have a personal chef and to go on a big trip around the world.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist or a marine conservationist.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yup!! Usually for stirring up trouble with my friends during class!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Watched HIV (virus that causes AIDS) infect a cell in real time!

Tell us a joke.

My friends find my jokes terrible…but here goes! What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire??? … frostbite!