Much has changed since I started my research career. However, the driving force behind conducting research, namely the pursuit of knowledge and excellence, has not
I have always been fascinated with understanding ‘why’. I have spent all of my research career trying to answer a single question – how does the brain grow?
From my initial work to determine the hormonal mechanisms regulating brain growth during early development, to my later research – where it became apparent that similar mechanisms were also involved in the growth of tumours and degenerative disorders of the brain – I have been driven to understand growth.
As my career progressed from researcher to Chair of the Australian Research Council, and now as Chancellor of UTS, the significance of discovery and of knowledge has not changed. Over the years however, there has been an increasing recognition of the importance of sharing this knowledge and ensuring the impact of the discovery is realised. In my experience, every researcher, from PhD student through to Professor, wants to see their research improve the world.
In the higher education sector we can be proud of efforts to make university education more accessible. The implementation of the Bradley review will radically change the makeup of the university landscape and enable a whole new generation of Australians to enjoy and be empowered by education and discovery.
As a result, the connection between teaching and learning, and research must be further strengthened. It is only through teaching that is informed by the latest research techniques and breakthroughs that we can produce the leading professionals that Australia needs.
Coupled with that is the responsibility researchers have to talk about their work, its outcomes and the potential benefits for the community. Too often research is seen purely in terms of publications, citations and peer review. These are concepts which frequently mean nothing beyond academia. To truly be relevant and have impact, research should be accessible to all. In communicating research however, it is essential that integrity and academic rigour are maintained in the discussion.
I consider myself, indeed, most fortunate in having a career in research. As a student my interest focussed on understanding the biological mechanisms underpinning intellectual capacity – how do we think and how do we remember?
I was excited by the discovery of Jacob, Lwoff and Monod that resulted in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965. They found messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) – a single-stranded molecule similar to DNA – translated information encoded in the gene to the protein product, and that this could underpin long-term memory storage of information.
In seeking the structural basis of memory, I realised the structure of the brain was laid down in the early period of life, and that insult during this period could permanently impair mental capacity. This started a lifelong quest to understand how the brain grows and develops.
Along this path, I have been inspired by many people, amongst them Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine in 1986 for the discovery of nerve growth factor; Kerstin Hall for her identification of insulin-like growth factors; and Rolf Luft for his groundbreaking work on insulins.
Great scientists such as these inspire young people to seek to understand ourselves and the world around us.
Research has, and will continue to, change our everyday lives. Medical, technological and cultural advancements that were simply not thought possible have become routine. From safely paying a bill online to new treatments for diseases, these things are all made possible through research.
If people are unaware of the social, economic and environmental benefits of research, the work that is being done can be perceived as irrelevant or even a waste of money. Producing research that has impact, and has demonstrated benefits for society and industry, is at the heart of what we do at UTS.
Examples of this ethos at work include developing new construction techniques that help make mud brick houses earthquake proof, wheelchairs that can be driven by thought to give independence to the disabled, and developing SWITCH – a hybrid car that can be charged directly from a normal power point and feed power back into the electricity grid.
As Chancellor of UTS, I have been fortunate to have been involved in the establishment of the award of annual postdoctoral fellowships. These were created to support talented young researchers, but at the very heart of the awards is the goal of supporting research that will benefit the community.
UTS Shopfront is another excellent example of actively involving communities in research. UTS Shopfront links under-resourced community groups to UTS academics, students and resources to undertake projects that matter and have real social benefit. Since it opened in 1996, more than 500 pro-bono projects have been successfully completed.
This is why I think events like Inquiring Minds. Inspiring Solutions are so important – they can help showcase research achievement in a way that is accessible and inspirational. The exhibition here is a snapshot of pioneering UTS research in the fields of diabetes, groundwater management, ecosystem protection and bacterial antibiotic resistance.
Inquiring Minds. Inspiring Solutions is open from 1 June to 5 September. During this time, more than 10 000 school children will experience and engage with the exhibition during scheduled visits and events at UTS. There are also talks and events being held for people of all ages, including a UTSpeaks on the value of Australia’s ecosystems.
Research has been my passion for many years. While initially driven by a desire to understand growth, I am now also driven to help research grow. As such, I am pleased and proud to be part of a university that delivers relevant research results, and to see the results of this research truly making a difference in the community. The challenge for us all is to showcase our innovations and help the community understand our discoveries.
Professor Vicki Sara AO
Photographer: Chris Bennett