Welcome from the Head of School

What a year we are having. First came the devastating bushfires that consumed more than twice the land burnt months earlier in the Amazon. Then a new threat arrived by stealth, just as the World Health Organisation warned it would: “Disease X could be a completely brand new pathogen, something we have never seen before, or it could be a pathogen that we already know but is presenting itself in a modified or unexpected way”.

Photo of John Prins

Disease X, of course, turned out to be the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. At the time of writing, Australia had been extraordinarily successful in flattening the curve. Nonetheless, COVID-19 is here to stay and has transformed the way we live and work.

It is in crises like these that our clinicians, researchers, alumni and students really show what they’re made of. Your School, working with the University and our organisational partners in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct, has been and continues to be, intimately involved in the pandemic response.

In the early days, we witnessed the brutality of this virus unleashed on our colleagues, families and friends overseas, and braced ourselves, on a personal and professional level, for the virus to hit here. Many clinicians and researchers are in advisory roles at the highest levels of government, setting up fever clinics, establishing clinical guidelines and protocols, creating apps, sharing expertise and developing devices to help the world. Initially seen as primarily a respiratory disease, it is clear that virtually no specialty is untouched by this virus, given its devastating impact on multiple systems.

This is also a breathtakingly turbulent time to be a medical student. Our students have taken in their stride the transition to online learning and disruption to their clinical placements, and have done an outstanding job converting the annual Medical Students Conference into an entirely online event. They have also embraced opportunities to contribute, with all students signing up to the Students’ Assistance in Supporting Healthcare (SASH) program to assist in the pandemic at our major hospitals.

Meanwhile, the School is continuing to grow in exciting directions. Our newest department – our tenth – is the Baker Department of Cardiometabolic Health, a partnership with the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, headed in the first instance by Baker Director and CEO Professor Tom Marwick.

Work continues on the new Doctor of Medicine (MD). Our strategy to move core content online has been vindicated by the lockdown. Moreover, the pandemic has really put the spotlight on clinician scientists – an endangered species nonetheless responsible for a good many Nobel prizes – and this is a focus in the new MD. Under the capable leadership of Associate Professor Margie Danchin (MBBS 1995, PhD 2006), our new Director of Clinician Scientist Pathways, we hope to see more students opting for this challenging, rewarding career.

Our annual Open Day has been moved online, and will include student experience webinars to give prospective students a taste of what a Melbourne medical education is like.

This edition of Chiron celebrates just some of the world-class work being done on the COVID-19 front line within the School and beyond. It features interviews with Professor Patrick McGorry (MD 2003), Associate Professor Steven Tong (MBBS (Hons) 1990) and Dr Stephen Warrillow (MBBS 1996, PhD 2020); just a few of our alumni doing all that they can to combat this virus. You can also read about the work of our researchers who, in collaboration with Western Health, have developed a personal ventilation hood for hospital beds, and over at Austin Health and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, 3D printed medical equipment.

It’s not only the year of the frontline health worker, but also the year of the epidemiologist, the vaccination researcher, the mathematician and the mental health specialist. There has also been huge grief and personal cost worldwide. I acknowledge the dedication and hard work of those in our extended community in rising to its challenges.

Professor John Prins
Head, Melbourne Medical School