Research strikes a chord for singing Irish student

07 Aug 2019

Trinity College Dublin student Karl Hegarty is singing his way around the world with acapella group the Trinitones, but stops off in Australia to broaden his scientific horizons with a research internship at UNSW.

The Trinitones – a student choral ensemble from Trinity College Dublin – are an online sensation who also perform internationally. They sang at the 50th Anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Washington DC and performed the US national anthem at Yankee stadium for a 50 000-strong crowd. Classically trained by the age of 13, Mr Hegarty auditioned to join the collegiate singing group in his first year at Trinity College to have fun and make friends.

Taking a break after completing the third year of his Bachelor of Science degree, Karl is currently en route to North America, where he will tour the west coast with the rest of the Trinitones. But, before the tour, he interned at UNSW Medicine’s Single Molecule Science (SMS) to get his first taste of research. His work focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms in biology and medical sciences. “I felt the internship would really help me decide what future paths I take,” said Mr Hegarty.

Working with the research teams at SMS, Mr Hegarty was helping to identify proteins involved in the interaction between the human immunodeficiency virus-1 and its host cells. He spent 12 weeks at UNSW engineering proteins and protein fragments from host cells and viruses. He wanted to figure out which proteins interact with each other and how they interact. 

The momentum and the constant challenges of doing research appealed to Mr Hegarty. “In research it feels like you’re constantly moving forward, even when you’re stuck on something,” he said.You’re coming in and trying something new all the time. It’s really exciting because you don’t always know what’s going to happen that day.”

Coincidently, one of his supervisors at SMS, Dr David Jacques, is also a singer. “I thought that was hilarious,” laughed Mr Hegarty. “In one of my first correspondences with David, he said ‘here’s a list of papers you can read, and also, I’ll be singing in a choir at the Sydney Opera House if you are interested.’”

The research experience at UNSW helped Mr Hegarty decide the next steps of his career path. He will finish his Science degree in Ireland next year. “I had been deciding between doing postgraduate research and studying Medicine,” said Mr Hegarty. “Doing research at UNSW and doing this internship has really clarified things for me. I’m definitely keen on pursuing a PhD after fourth year.

Since it was established in 2017, 35 interns from Ireland, Singapore, France, Germany, USA, Canada, Mexico, India and Chile have come through the pre-doctoral internship program at SMS. Many of the former interns are now enrolled in PhD programs at UNSW and other universities around the world.

Post-doctorate Researcher, Dr Ailis O’Carroll, remembered having limited opportunities for research experience abroad when she was an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin. So, when she heard group leaders at SMS lamenting about the challenges of attracting international students to Sydney, she had the idea to create a research internship at UNSW. To kick start the program, Dr O’Carroll reached out to the head of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at her alma mater to help establish a partnership between Trinity College Dublin and UNSW.

Experience in a working laboratory is a great way to discover if research is the right option.

“After this internship, I understand better what it takes to become a good scientist,” said Mr Hegarty.

Find out more about research internships at Single Molecule Science at