"Medicine is so much more caught than taught," Professor Susan Walker told the third Melbourne Medical School (MMS) Research Symposium on 5 December. Susan's work as a clinician and researcher on complex, high-risk pregnancy care has garnered her an Order of Australia, belying the "bumps on the road", such as being hauled up before the Unsatisfactory Progress Committee in 1985. "The last 30 years have taught me to make friends with failure," she said.
Susan's was one of four The Moth-style talks that headlined the event, with speakers sharing the uncertain origins of what became stellar research careers variously forged around, despite and because of, curve balls in life and work.
Dr Vanessa Cropley spoke of her journey from her parents' dairy farm to being the first in her family to complete a four-year degree, followed by a neuroscience PhD at the National Institutes of Health: "I didn't want to be a farmer, I didn't want to be a farmer's wife … I wanted more meaning. I didn't know what that was at the time, it was just a feeling that I had."
Associate Professor Natalie Hannan's tale was an extraordinary meeting of life and work. Her upbringing in a large family in Manchester, and then Karingal, led to an abiding interest in women's reproductive health. Her sister, who had gone into nursing, told her firmly that she asked too many questions to cut it as a nurse, so she studied science. She first met Susan Walker as her patient – "She's the doctor you don't want to meet when you're pregnant". Now, at Mercy Hospital, the two collaborate on research on preeclampsia and other pregnancy complications.
In her new role as Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Natalie said the Faculty was focusing on people in under-represented groups, and those whom, with the right support, could thrive. "We want to make sure there are systems and programs in place to make sure we're not having attrition of those women at level C and D and make sure we get those women into level E and beyond."
Associate Professor Tilman Ruff, who is on the board of International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate, spoke of "the crucial role of evidence-based advocacy by scientists and health professionals… one of the most powerful tools we can harness in that work" in efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, especially as climate change destabilises entire regions.
Deputy Dean, Professor Jane Gunn – highlighted the speakers' themes of "really wanting more … what happens when you're first in the family, having the courage to get out of your comfort zone and the important roles of sponsorship and serendipity that come into play".
The symposium also heard from the winners and finalists of the School's Publication Prizes across the early career researcher and student categories.
Early Career Researcher Publication Prizes
Winner: Dr Leila Ibrahim (Paediatrics, MCRI)
Finalists: Dr Ada Cheung (Medicine – Austin Health); Dr Ahmed Al Saedi (Medicine – Western Health)
Presented by: Associate Professor Margie Danchin (Director of Clinician Scientist Pathways in the MMS).
For children, a hospital stay can be psychologically traumatic and result in acquired infections. Laila Ibrahim led the world's first RCT that compared outcomes in children receiving treatment at home for cellulitis – a skin infection – to those in hospital. Treatment at home resulted in better clinical outcomes and economic outcomes. Read more in Pursuit.
Ada Cheung's work on discrimination in transgender healthcare – and as the author of new guidelines for GPs – was recently profiled in Chiron, the alumni journal's cover story, Extraordinary Women of MMS and an MJA podcast.
Ahmed Al Saedi's work on the role of fat in the development of osteoporosis has opened up a promising research avenue exploring the potential of the compound rapamycin to combat the toxic effects of fat accumulating inside the bones.
Student Publication Prizes
Winner: Gregory King (Paediatrics)
Finalists: Mervyn Kyi (Medicine – Royal Melbourne Hospital), Martha Blank (Medicine – St Vincent's Hospital)
Presented by: Professor Fred Hollande (Department of Clinical Pathology and UoM Centre for Cancer Research)
Gregory King's research on patients born with a single ventricle (when the heart has only one pumping chamber) who've undergone the Fontan procedure is already having an impact. Gregory showed that up to two thirds of patients will experience valve failure by the age of 30; with their risk of transplantation or death almost twice that of the general population. His research has led to calls for earlier, more aggressive intervention.
Mervyn Kyi set out to test whether patients with high glucose levels would benefit from treatment by specialist diabetes teams within 24 hours of their admission. The results of this intervention were stunning: severely high glucose levels fell by 55 per cent and hospital-acquired infections fell by 80 per cent.
We don't understand how some people with normal bone mass have impaired bone strength (osteoporosis). Martha Blank's work showed new way of understanding how bone strength is controlled and could be used in the future to develop new methods for assessing and treating various forms of bone fragility.