26 November 2009
How many young people expect when they finish high school they should know what to do with the rest of their lives?
Dr Julia Pitcher, whose team is investigating the effects of premature birth on children as they grow older, says that sort of expectation about life planning is unrealistic.
Here she tells Dr Andi Horvath how it took her 20 years to go from high school to her postdoctoral training and that it was only around the time of starting her PhD that she realised her life’s path lay in medical research.
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Transcript of podcast
Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.
Introduction: I’m Dr Andi Horvath. Come with me and meet these Chief Investigators of medical research projects.
Interviewer: We’re going to call Dr Julia Pitcher. Let’s see if she’s there. Hi Julia, thanks for talking to us. When people ask you what do you do, what do you say?
Dr Pitcher: Well, what I say is that I’m interested in the way that the human brain controls movement.
Interviewer: Some of your research is involved with premmie babies. Is that right?
Dr Pitcher: Well, we’ve not actually done any research on the babies themselves, but what we’ve done is look at these children when they’re about ten to twelve years old. So what we’re wanting to see is whether there are things to do with how well they grew in their mum’s womb, and to see if they’ve persisted or whether in fact the brain’s been clever enough to overcome any problems that they might have been born with.
Interviewer: Julia, we’re keen to find out about scientists, about medical scientists and the things they do from day-to-day. What do you do day-to-day?
Dr Pitcher: Funnily enough my day usually starts in the shower because I have my best research ideas in the shower in the morning. I’ve had to think a lot faster though since the drought hit, I’ve got a maximum of two minutes to think of something good these days. So at the moment most of our studies are up and running so I actually don’t need to spend a lot of time in the lab with the research assistants and the students, and that’s probably a bit of a downside for me because I wouldn’t mind being able to spend more time in there. But most of my day’s probably spent doing things like analysing the data as we go, to make sure that we’re on the right track, or to see if there’s something new coming out that we weren’t expecting, and I do a lot of writing of research papers for publication, and things like grant applications and ethics applications.
Interviewer: Julia, how many people in your research team?
Dr Pitcher: Apart from me, there’s about three research assistants who do different things and we’ve got some PhD students and some honours students. The research assistants and the students might actually look at the potentials and then measure how big they are and how long they are, and then what I might do is do some statistical analysis to see if the questions that we’re answering are being answered in the way that we might expect by that data, or if there’s something new and unexpected in there.
Interviewer: Now, how did you get interested in this field, where did it all start?
Dr Pitcher: I thought I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon actually, and we actually live next door to a vet in the country, and he was nice enough to let me go out on his calls a lot – although I’m sure I was a very annoying pest to him – and as I got older I got more interested in medicine and things. But if we track forward a few years, when I was an undergraduate I did a bit of bio-mechanics which is really looking at, or measuring, how the body moves and how it does things, and that was quite interesting but it was a bit limiting and a bit prescriptive. And so I got into more exercise physiology and one of my first jobs was working in the physiology department of Adelaide Uni. But there was another guy in the department called Tim Myles and he worked on how the brain controlled movement and worked right down at the level of motor neurones and nerves and things. And I got really interested in that and I ended up doing an honours year and a PhD with him after my contract ran out.
Interviewer: So it was really a bit unplanned in some ways.
Dr Pitcher: Very, very unplanned. I was thinking about this the other day and I think the gap between when I left high school and when I actually first started my postdoc was 20 years. And I spent a lot of time sapping around trying to work out what I wanted to do and I think, you know, some kids think that you finish school, you’ve got to make a decision about what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, and it’s actually a bit unrealistic, and some of us take a bit of time before we find what we really like doing and what we’re good at. Everyone says, ‘oh do you have to do medicine?’ or ‘do you have to do science?’ and if I look at the people who are sitting in our laboratory now, we’ve got people in there who have done everything from psychology to physiotherapy, speech therapy, bio-medical engineering and even people who have done arts degrees can actually – if they’re really interested in medical research – there’s a spot here for you somewhere.
Interviewer: Julia, how many hours do you work and do you manage a work-life balance?
Dr Pitcher: (laughter) There’s a good question. Well, the hours I work vary a lot, so I was trying to count this up the other day and on average I work about fifty hours a week, although it doesn’t seem that long when I’m doing it. But you know during busy times of the year that might mean that I’m here from early in the morning until after eight o’clock at night. You do get sort of other times when, you know, it’s less busy and, you know, if the sun’s shining we can sort of bug out early and enjoy the sunshine.
Interviewer: Good advice. Dr Julia Pitcher, an NHandMRC Peter Doherty Fellow at the University of Adelaide, thanks for talking to us.
Dr Pitcher: My pleasure Andi.
Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other Health and Medical Research issues on our website at www.nhmrc.gov.au.