Meet The Team


Leanne Pearson

Dr Leanne Pearson is a researcher and science writer specialising in environmental microbiology, water quality and natural product research. After completing her PhD at the University of NSW in 2007 on the biosynthesis of microcystin tailoring and transport enzymes in toxic cyanobacteria, she expanded her research to include a variety of other environmental biotoxins and natural products. She is particularly interested in ‘how’ and ‘why’ these ‘specialised metabolites’ are produced, as well as their impacts on human health and the environment.

Since relocating to the University of Newcastle in 2017, her research has shifted focus to the exploitation of so-called environmental ‘toxins’ as industrially or pharmaceutically valuable products. Because many natural product producers are difficult to culture and manipulate in the lab, a synthetic biology approach is often necessary to harness their biochemical potential. This emerging field involves mining microbial genomes for biosynthesis gene clusters (BGCs), characterising the pathways encoded therein, and manipulating and overexpressing these pathways in a heterologous organism, such as E. coli.

In her ‘down-time’, Leanne loves to bushwalk, cook, grow veggies, and hang out with her kids, cats and chooks.

Matt Jordan

Matt is an early career researcher specializing in genetic manipulation of microbes and the development of molecular tools. He completed his PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2016, and after a stint at UT Austin, began a position with the Neilan lab in 2019.

Having focused on transcription regulation and complementation in pathogenic bacteria for his PhD, Matt’s research has diversified to focus on the expression of large biosynthetic gene clusters in E. coli, as well as the development of tools to expedite “mining” of metagenomes for novel gene clusters. The specialized metabolites encoded by these gene clusters are often relevant for human or environmental health, however their size, complexity, and diversity make them time consuming and difficult to manipulate in the lab. By developing tools to rapidly screen the expression of these large gene clusters from complex microbial communities, those that are most tractable to expression in laboratory strains can be focused on, helping to alleviate the research bottleneck.

Outside the lab Matt enjoys fishing, cooking, yoga, and being emotionally manipulated by his dog and young daughter.

Suong Nguyen

Suong Nguyen earned her B.S. in Biotechnology (2007) and M.S. in Genetics (2010) from the University of Natural Sciences, HCM, Vietnam. She completed her PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2017. Her PhD project was to investigate the molecular mechanism underlying the development of transfer cells – a unique cell type specialised for nutrient transport in plants. In March 2020 she joined the BlueGreen team of Prof. Brett Neilan at UON as a Postdoctoral Research Associate to study cyanobacteria. She is interested in bloom dynamics of cyanobacteria and their toxins in water bodies, and has been using molecular approaches to detect toxic cyanobacteria in these ecosystems.

Toby Mills

Dr Toby Mills has been a member of the Neilan laboratory since early 2000. After completing his honours project on the phylogenetic distribution of cylindrospemopsin toxin gene clusters he worked at the biotechnology start up, Fluorotechnics, manufacturing fluorescent compounds and fluorescence protein stains. Toby returned to research at UNSW completing a Masters in Analytical Chemistry and Laboratory Management followed by a PhD investigating the microbiome and antimicrobial compounds from Australian native stingless bees, Tetragonula carbonaria and Austroplebia australis.

Working as a Laboratory Manager in the Neilan laboratory has provided a diverse range of experiences including, industry focused consulting projects, a lab relocation from UNSW to University of Newcastle and the design, certification and management of a cross disciplinary PC2 Chemical Biology Research Facility. Toby’s current research is focused on cloning and expression of cyanobacterial toxin and UV filtering compound gene clusters with diverse applications; including analytical standards, pharmaceutical development and material science. Leveraging his grounding in separation and analytical techniques Toby is interested in the application of synthetic biology to discover and produce high value compounds and their potential benefits to society.

Research Staff

Jesse Cain

Jesse graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours, First Class). For his honours project he focused on the isolation and elucidation of bioactive molecules from traditional Chinese medicinal plants. This sparked an interest in natural product discovery, which is a direct focus of the Neilan lab. Jesse joined the lab as a PhD candidate where he specialises in the heterologous expression of secondary metabolite genes from both bacteria and fungi. His primary project concerns polyketide biosynthetic gene clusters from a novel endophytic fungus from a traditional Chinese medicinal plant. The most interesting aspect of this project is that it covers a variety of disciplines; including gene amplification and cloning, protein expression and purification, and the structure elucidation of natural products using nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometry. In the future Jesse hopes to apply his skillset to a wider variety of microorganisms and natural products, for the discovery of novel bioactive molecules.

PhD Students

Alescia Cullen

Alescia Cullen is a molecular biologist/ biochemist who has experience in natural product biosynthesis and cloning of large geneclusters. She graduated from the University of New South Wales (2016) with a Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours, First Class) in Biotechnology. During her degree she interned with Prof. Torsten Thomas characterizing the antagonistic activity of marine sponge symbionts. She was also awarded a Vacation Scholarship to work at CSIRO (Waite Campus) with Dr Gupta Vadakttu on the screening of cereal crop endophytes for plant growth promoting abilities. Alescia wrote her honours thesis under the supervision of Prof. Brett A. Neilan investigating the enzymology behind the transformation of one paralytic shellfish toxin into another. She continued this work as a research scientist at the University of Newcastle under Prof. Neilan. Alescia is currently at PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. Her research investigates the mechanisms driving cyanotoxin biosynthesis, modification and their possible biotechnological applications.

Caitlin Romanis

Caitlin graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Science with First Class Honours in Microbiology from the University of New South Wales. During her honours degree, Caitlin focused on the identification and isolation of a novel lanthipeptide through heterologous expression. Throughout her time in the Neilan lab Caitlin has developed an interest in the microbial diversity and ecology of niche environments and has since worked on identifying potentially novel bioactive metabolites from various niche environments including caves, stromatolites, and volcanic hot springs. This interest in microbiome analysis has lead to Caitlin becoming the primary bioinformatician  in the laboratory.

Caitlin is currently undertaking her PhD studies at the University of Newcastle in Biology (Microbial Ecology). Her work involves identifying the molecular triggers of cyanobacteria bloom development and characterising the factors pertaining to cyanobacterial recruitment from the benthos.

Joachim Steen Larsen

Joachim graduated from University of Copenhagen (Denmark) in 2017 with both Bachelor of Sciences and Cand. Scient. degrees in Biology-Biotechnology with specialization in Applied Enzymology. He initially studied alkaloid biosynthesis in plants, then later specialised in glycosylation pathways from plants, yeast and humans.

In 2018, he relocated to University of Newcastle (UoN), focusing on polyketide synthesis and their biological function in cyanobacteria (‘blue-green algae’). Deciphering the potential of cyanobacteria to produce polyketides are of importance due to their antimicrobial and immunosuppressive properties. However, the potential of polyketide production in cyanobacteria has been understudied. Therefore, heterologous expression of genes encoding polyketide synthases are carried out in different host organisms to study their product formation and the biosynthesis of these polyketides.

Combining the heterologous expression with knockout studies in the native organisms will help decipher the function of these metabolites. Looking at the difference on the proteomics and metabolomics levels between the knockouts and the WT cells can help elucidate the biological function these polyketides have in their native organisms.

Outside the phd work, Joachim is on the advisory team for the iGEM 2020 team from Newcastle. Otherwise, he enjoys hiking, reading, and playing video games.