Associate Professor Noel Whitaker

Deputy HoS & Director of Teaching/Associate Professor
3109, L3 West, Bioscience South E26
(+612) 9385 2041
(+612) 9385 1483

UNSW Research Gateway page:

Professional Experience

  • 2011-current: Associate Professor, School of BABS
  • 2015-2017: Associate Dean International, Faculty of Science
  • 2013 (3 months): Acting Head of School, BABS
  • 2011-2013: Deputy Head of School & Director of Teaching, School of BABS
  • 2007-2010: Senior Lecturer, School of BABS
  • 2009-2009: Acting Associate Dean (UG Programs) Faculty of Science
  • 2003-2008: Associate Dean (Education), Faculty of Science
  • 2000-2007: Lecturer, School of BABS, UNSW
  • 1999-2000: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biochemistry, University of Cologne (Martin Scheffner)
  • 1995-1999: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, German Cancer Centre (Harald zur Hausen)
  • 1988-1992: Research Asst, Cancer Research Group, Children's Medical Research Foundation (R.R. Reddel)
  • 1986-1988: Science Teacher (Physics, Science, Maths), NSW Dept. Education (Ashfield Boys High School)
  • 1985-1986: Research Assistant, Dept of Virology, Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney

Research Contribution

I have established three primary research areas:1) Elucidation of the role of high risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) E6 transformation protein in the degradation of p53 and in the immortalisation/transformation of human keratinocytes; 2) Identification of viruses which may be involved in hormonally responsive cancer (including breast and prostate); 3) Threshold concepts in biology education.

I completed my MSc (Med) (1992) and PhD (1996) in the laboratory of Roger Reddel (Children's Medical Research Institute). While working as a Postdoctoral fellow (1995–2000) in the laboratory of Harald zur Hausen (German Cancer Research Centre. Nobel Laureate 2008) and then with Martin Scheffner (University of Konstanz, Germany), I focused on establishing the role (and mechanisms) of high-risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) E6 transformation protein in the immortalisation and eventual carcinogenic transformation of human cells. Since establishing my laboratory at UNSW in 2000, my focus has expanded to establishing a role for viruses in a number of different human cancers.

Elucidation of the role of high risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) E6 transformation protein in the degradation of p53
It has been known for some time that human cell lines established by the introduction of HPV E7 (a transforming gene known to degrade/inactivate the protein product of the retinoblastoma tumour suppressor gene, p110RB) contain high levels of the p53. The assumption was that this was due to the effects of E7 but it was also possible that this was due to the immortalisation of the cell lines. Using retroviral transduction, we can analyse the affect on p53 stability/amounts in cells immediately after transduction of E7. These experiments have shown that the presence of E7 is sufficient to increase the amount of active p53 in the cells as a result of stabilisation of the half-life stability of the p53 protein. This has important repercussions for the treatment of cervical cancer as it indicates that disruption of E6 targeted degradation of p53 would result in high levels of p53 accumulating in the HPV containing cervical carcinoma cells and the subsequent inhibition of growth or even apoptosis of those cells. In fact, a data from other groups have demonstrated that indeed, an aptamer which disrupts E6 targeted degradation of p53 did result in the rapid apoptosis of HPV-18 containing HeLa cells, in culture.

Involvement of viruses in hormonally affected cancers
In collaboration with Emeritus Professor Jim Lawson, Dr Louise Lutze-Mann, Prof Bill Rawlinson (SEALS, POWH), Warick Delprado (Douglass Hanly, Moir Pathology) and Laurence Gluch (Strathfield Breast Centre), we have established our group as a leader in the identification of viruses which may be involved in human cancers, with a particular emphasis on breast and prostate cancer. We have been successful in obtaining a large number of breast and prostate cancer (and normal control) specimens (fresh and fixed). We are currently screening these specimens with published and novel PCR primers to confirm or refute evidence that MMTV, HPV, CMV and EBV may be involved in these cancers.
Although it is generally accepted that viruses are commonly involved in animal cancers, researchers working with human cancers (of these types) are sceptical that viruses play a causative role. A small number of laboratories around the world, including our own, have reported extremely important supportive evidence for the role of viruses in these (breast and prostate) cancers. A key publication from my laboratory demonstrating that HPV is present in breast cancer while being absent in normal surrounding breast tissue (Figure 1. From Heng et al, 2009) supports a role for HPV in breast cancer. This, and the fact that HPV is readily able to transform milk epithelial cells in vitro, strongly suggests that HPV is a candidate virus for involvement in human breast cancer. In addition, we have recently demonstrated that human breast cancer and mouse mammary cancer are histologically remarkably similar (Lawson et al., 2006), and evidence that MMTV is present in human breast cancer and not the normal breast tissue (Figure 2. From Lawson et al., 2010).

We are also collaborating with a number of labs overseas (e.g. Beatrice Pogo in New York and Walter Guenzberg in Vienna) to push this project along. In fact, after a lot of hard work and negotiating, we now have one of the largest sources of breast and prostate cancer specimen collections in the country which puts us in a unique and strong position.

Using threshold concepts to generate understanding of teaching and learning biology
The notion of threshold concepts is a recent development in the study of student learning. Threshold concepts are central to the mastery of a specific discipline, and are those concepts which many students find difficult to learn and teachers find difficult to teach (Meyer & Land 2003, 2005). Once understood, threshold concepts allow passage through a portal or conceptual gateway to a previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. These conceptual gateways or thresholds are characterised as being transformative, irreversible and integrative (Meyer & Land, 2005). This transformed internal view is typified by a cognitive and ontological shift, often accompanied by an extension of the use of language (Meyer & Land, 2005).

These ideas resonate strongly with academics in a range of discipline areas (Davies & Mangan, 2005; Taylor, 2006) and have stimulated vigorous discussion on approaches to teaching and student learning. This was an ALTC-funded project carried out in collaboration with Dr Louise Lutze-Mann, A/Prof Chris Hughes, Dr Charlotte Taylor (USyd), A/Prof Pauline Ross (UWS) and Dr Vicky Tzioumis (USyd). The project was designed to improve student understanding of biology through the use of novel research into the definition of a threshold concept in biology, enabling the development of teaching that is appropriate for diverse learning strategies. At the same time, the process of strategic change in approaches to teaching biology in Australian universities was modelled through extensive discussion and consultation with biology teachers. The project was enhanced and supported by workshops and regular communication with a national biology teaching network.

We identified a web of threshold concepts (, developed interventions addressing threshold concepts across the undergraduate experience, at three universities, and generated a dynamic community of biologists interested in curriculum development using this powerful heuristic. 

Professional Activities

  • Established and chaired UNSW Faculty of Science Learning and Teaching Interest Group (2002–2008)
  • Established and chaired the Sydney-basin Network of University Educators (2003–2008)
  • Convened the SNUSE Forum “From Teaching Practise to Scholarly Publishing” 2006
  • Co-convenor iSSOTL Sydney July 2007
  • Co-convenor Education symposium at Combio Sydney, September 2007
  • Committee member Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) 2009-present
  • Organisation committee for Thresholds meeting (UNSW 2010)
  • Member of Reference Group fo the UNSW Promoting Excellence Initiative (ALTC funded) 2009
  • Co-organiser 3rd Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium (UNSW 2010)

Professional Memberships

  • Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR)
  • American Association of Cancer Researchers (AACR)
  • International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (iSSOTL)

Honours & Awards

  • NSW Department of Education Teaching Certificate, 1988
  • ITET Fellowship, 2002
  • Carrick Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning, 2006
  • UNSW, Faculty of Science Staff Excellence Award (Teaching Excellence), 2008

Active Research Projects (with A/Professor Louise Lutze-Mann)


Click here for A/Professor Whitaker's publications list