Alumnus at the forefront of Animal Science

Monday 6 August, 2012
by Jonathan Billingham
Alumnus Claire Wade is now Professor and Chair of Computational Biology and Animal Genetics in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney

Professor Claire Wade was a New Collegian in the early 1980’s and remembers that time very fondly.

"My first year at New College was the most memorable. I was in a highly social group (1A) and we had the most wonderful times together. I remember the communal trips in O-week always accompanied by renditions of “Two little boys”, bucketing in the courtyard, and various pranks including one where the guys of 1H built a mini minor in somebody’s room and a wombat was taken in a “treasure hunt”. Of course there were always Thursday nights down at the Regent hotel."

Claire studied Wool and Pastoral Sciences at UNSW and always loved genetics. Claire says, “the course was wonderful because we not only learned much about animal science, we also travelled extensively in rural NSW”. She continued her studies at UNSW with a PhD in Merino sheep selection programmes.

In 2000, the human genome was sequenced. Claire, then working as a lecturer in genetics within the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Queensland, was inspired that the future would be in genomics and information technology. Claire saw these two fields as a perfect confluence of her interests in genetics and her computer programming skills. Claire contacted the group responsible for the public human genome project, The Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, to ask if she might go there on sabbatical. They eagerly accepted Claire, giving her the opportunity to work on the mouse, American opossum, neospora, ustilago (both fungi), dog and horse genome projects. Claire was very pleased to be invited to lead the horse genome project as she enjoyed working with all kinds of animals and was most interested to work with dogs and horses. Since then, these two species have formed the backbone of her research into the understanding of the genetics of inherited disorders, behaviours, and coat characteristics.

Now Claire is a Professor and Chair of Computational Biology and Animal Genetics in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. She says that much of her day to day work is like doing puzzles.

"I spend most of my time at the computer, working with my wonderful research team manipulating large DNA based data sets to discover where the differences between sick and healthy animals originate in the DNA. My current work is focussed on understanding the genetics of deafness, cleft palate, cartilage defects, haemophilia, and behavioural disorders in dogs and horses (anxiety and compulsive disorders). Recent genomic research into canine behaviour has shown us that sometimes things which seem quite complex can have relatively simple genetic control. Behaviour is challenging to study because of the large amount of environmental influence on its expression. Nonetheless, by targeting dogs with behavioural extremes from the same breed, we believe that we can gain a greater understanding of how behavioural tendencies are inherited."

Currently Claire is working with a team that aims to develop systems which more accurately select working kelpie breeding dogs to have pups that proceed to a long and successful working life. Claire is also part of a project working to help save the Tasmanian Devil. Using DNA sequencing technologies, Claire and her Colleagues can better understand the differences between devils that succumb quickly to cancer, and those that have tumours that regress. They hope to discover a better way of fighting tumours so that one of Australia’s very special native mammals may have a brighter future.

Photo provided by Al Dodge Photography |