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Avoiding pitfalls in a medical research career

Professor Ian Frazer Professor Ian Frazer

24 July 2009

What are the pitfalls in pursuing a career in health and medical research? How can they be avoided?

Towards the end of a televised National Press Club address, a high school student asked former Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer, for advice about entering the field of medical research.

The questions caught the esteemed cervical cancer vaccine developer off guard and raised a nervous laugh, not only from Prof Frazer but also the audience, most of whom were seasoned journalists.

Rising to the occasion, Prof Frazer answered the questions with the aplomb of a person who had been there, done that, in the process providing some valuable personal insights into the world of a medical researcher.

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Voice-over: At the National Press Club today: Professor Ian Frazer, the award winning immunologist and head of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer research at the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane. And he’s recently been appointed Chair of the Australian Cancer Research Foundation’s Medical Research Advisory Committee. Ian Frazer with today’s National Press Club address.

Introduction by National Press Club MC, Ken Randall:  Professor, we have regular visits at this forum and in this capital from school groups all around the country. We have one today from Melbourne High and we often invite them to ask questions. They’ve nominated to ask you a question today. Kristijan Jovanoski.

Kristijan Jovanoski, student: Professor Frazer, what advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to a career in medical research? What are the common pitfalls of such a career and how could one avoid them?

Prof. Frazer: Well I guess I must have avoided some of them along the way, maybe not all. Look first of all I would say, if that’s your inclination – if you want a career in medical research – go for it. The second thing I would say is, a lesson which I learned along the way is you will be most listened to and also most able to decide what the most important questions are, if you actually train as a doctor or at least as a health care professional as part of the process of training to do medical research. Because it’s quite easy as a scientist to come up with a solution to a problem that no body’s found yet. And it’s really important to focus on at least some aspect of the things that will matter to people. So training in the health professional area somewhere is important.

Once you’ve done that, the important thing to succeed in science is to go to the right places. You have to aspire to be the best in the world and you have to go to the places that are the best in the world to make sure that you get the best mentoring and make sure that you come out as good a scientist as you can possibly be. I came to Australia in 1981 specifically to come to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research because at that time it was the best place in the world to get a training in what I was interested in which is Clinical Immunology, and that was based on a long experience in that Institute of good research in immunology.

So pick out the best place you can go to, never settle for second best unless you absolutely have to. It’s amazing how people sometimes have a cultural cringe and think that because we come from Australia we’ll not be seen as competitive in an international scene, if you apply to go to Harvard, to Yale, if you apply to go to UCLA then you won’t be accepted. In fact they’re desperate to have you, they really want to have you. First of all they want your brains, let’s face it they’re desperate for ideas and new talent and secondly you will benefit from that interchange.

First of all you make a whole lot of friends – the network you have in science is critical. Science is never done by individuals anymore, it’s done by teams. There are exceptions in abstract mathematics perhaps, but other than that it basically is a team effort and your work will always build on the work of other people, it will be done in interaction with other people and in due course you will train the next generation of scientists.

So you want to have all those networks in place and therefore travel – be prepared to travel, it’s important. That’s not to say you can’t travel within Australia, you can. There is nothing wrong with the science that is done within Australia, but you must not simply stay in one place in Australia, in one lab, and expect that you’ll get there because the networks will not necessarily come to you, you must go out and get them.

If you avoid the pitfall of staying in the one place, if you avoid the cultural cringe of saying I’m not good enough for this, you will get a career in medical research. And not withstanding everything that I’ve said about the problems of careers in medical research, I have not yet met a scientist who really wanted to succeed in medical research who has not got there. It’s in your hands.

Press Club MC: Thank you very much.

Page reviewed: 20 June, 2011