Research Review 2018 Editorial
by Dr Rebecca Grainger
[Read the full review.]
Each evening I saved my thesis onto a floppy disc and hoped that the next day the PhD student in my lab would not need the Macintosh Classic computer we shared. My experimental notes were meticulously handwritten in a hard cover lab book with dot matrix-printed flow cytometry plots stuck in. I can’t recall how the plots were then incorporated into my thesis but it is probably blocked from my memory as it was undoubtedly labourious and with suboptimal appearance. To complete the literature review for my work, I had spent hours in the library pouring over the biblically-thick volumes of Index medicus and scouring bibliographies of relevant papers. When I presented my work at a conference, the poster was prepared weeks in advance, as it had to go off to the university printers. Similarly, slides (actually physical slides for a projector) required several weeks for the photography department to prepare. The laboratory research had explored what characteristics were required for immune cells to start and re-start an immune response against foreign bacteria. I made one or two small, novel observations, which still hold true today. That one-year laboratory project was my first foray into medical research. It was 1994.
A decade later I found myself in another lab, again in immunology. Now my focus was on how immune and inflammatory cells orchestrated inflammation in gout. Fortunately, the internet was now a thing and most of the scientific literature was available online, vastly improving access to information. PowerPoint and data projectors now meant I could write my talks up to the last minute – not necessarily an advantage. Again, I made a couple of interesting and novel observations. My PhD research was enabled by a generous grant from the then Wellington Medical Research Foundation. This grant was essential to buy the reagents and equipment required for the laboratory work. My PhD launched an academic career, combining work as a physician with medical research.
Just more than two decades after I was fist in the lab, I am now in the fortunate position to lead teams and collaborate with others in medical research. My focus has moved from the lab to clinical research, but still has the end-goal of improving human health and wellbeing. Information and communication tools for science have changed beyond recognition. A researcher can access powerful databases of information from anywhere, anytime, via a hand-held computer, or email any international researcher for information or advice. However, the process of science remains the same: find an important topic, ask a question, find out what is already known, construct a hypothesis, test with an experiment, analyse data, and draw conclusions. Then, communicate your results. All this requires time and money and writing applications for grants is part of the cycle of any researcher’s year.
One aspect of my work that I thoroughly enjoy is supervising students as they enter medical research. They share the curiosity, excitement and hope that I brought to my first project. We differ in that these students belong to the millennial generation, who grew up during the period of massive technological change and never remember a time without the internet. As a hyperconnected group, they are collaborative and team-oriented, and also not afraid to challenge the status quo. Since they are digital-natives they are adept at managing instant access to information and integrating this into daily life. Millennial researchers also have a heightened need for work to have authentic purpose and real-world outputs. The attributes of millennials are ideally suited for work in medical research, which is about as real-world as science gets. I have noticed that my young millennial students still prepare PowerPoint slides right up to the last moment!
A great privilege in my work now is to foster innovative and exciting medical research by serving on bodies that distribute funding for research. Research for Life (RFL) is the new face for the Wellington Medical Research Foundation, which has been supporting medical Research in Wellington since 1960. After serving on the RFL scientific advisory committee since 2011, I took over from Professor Brett Delahunt as Chair in late 2017. I thank Brett for his 20 plus years of service and leadership and leaving me with a team of dynamic, experienced researchers who bring a broad range of skills, experience and knowledge to the committee.
The research advisory committee advises the Board of RFL regarding priorities for funding grants to support the medical research that is undertaken across the region’s universities and institutes. Each grant round the committee are impressed by the extraordinary science happening right here the capital of this tiny island by clever and committed people who would be right at home in esteemed institutions anywhere in the world. The grants provided by RFL often support doctoral students or early-career researchers, many of whom go on to establish careers in medical research. These millennials, with fresh thinking and using current and evolving technology, maintain my optimism for significant developments in medical science that will lead to improvement in human health and reduced suffering from disease.
In the few short decades I have been involved in medical research, the ability to progress medical science has accelerated. There has never been a better time to invest in medical research that can actually lead to better health outcomes. We can all contribute to the investment. Millennials can invest their time in training as medical researchers. Established researchers and their institutes can provide a supportive environment for these young researchers to learn and flourish. Members of the public can support medical research in Wellington by contributing financially to RFL so more grants can be distributed. Please share my optimism for the future of medical research and the discoveries that will be made. Support this by supporting RFL however you can. I look forward to a future where our current young researchers can look back and tell us how far we have come.
I hope you enjoy reading the fascinating reports in this year’s review as much as I have.
Dr Rebecca Grainger
Research Advisory Committee (2018)
Dr Rebecca Grainger (Chair)
Dr Peter Bethwaite
Dr Lisa Cooper
Professor Anne La Flamme
Associate Professor Peter Larsen
Professor John H Miller
Dr Jeremy Owen
Dr Michelle Thunders
Dr Robert Weinkove