Research: the excitement and the challenges


Associate Professor Marc Achen and Associate Professor Steven Stacker

11 December 2009

Chief investigators at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research reveal the excitement and challenges in their work of trying to understand why and how cancer spreads.

Associate Professor Marc Achen feels the most exciting parts of his job are making new discoveries and helping people. His colleague, Associate Professor Steven Stacker, finds the greatest challenges lie in asking questions to which he doesn’t yet know the answers.

Here both men tell Dr Andi Horvath about their day-to-day activities as chief investigators and describe the paths that led them to their research careers.

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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. Come with me to visit Associate Professor Steven Stacker and Associate professor Marc Achen. They’re at the Ludwig Institute of Cancer Research in Melbourne.

Interviewer: Steven and Marc, glad I could find you both in the same office at the same time. Okay, you two have to imagine you’re sitting next to my grandma at Christmas. Steven, how do you explain to my grandma what you do?

Assoc Prof Stacker: How I explain to her is to say that we work in an area of cancer research. So one of the big problems in cancer is that cancer spreads, so it’s not the fact that it’s in the first site, is that it spreads to other sites in the body and that’s one of the things we work on here is trying to understand why the cancer spreads and actually how it spreads. So what are the pathways within the body that uses the spread and can we understand and control those and by doing that, help people with cancer.

Interviewer: What is the most exciting part of your job? Associate Professor Marc Achen.

Assoc Prof Achen: My favourite bit is new discovery, when we discover something novel that maybe we didn’t expect and particularly when you can envisage or imagine how this discovery might be beneficial for patients suffering from serious diseases – linking those two things, the discovery and the ability to help people. Those aspects are very exciting.

Interviewer: Can you both tell me what you do day-to-day? Steven you start.

Assoc Prof Stacker: I guess being a scientist what I do is I think of experiments and then I act them out. Now I guess as a younger person I was the person in the lab who used to do those, but now I run a research team and supervise people who do the experiments. So now I do a lot more thinking about the experiments and planning them, but I also do a lot of what’s called administration – so a lot of paper work associated with that.

Interviewer: Fair enough and Marc, is what you do the same?

Assoc Prof Achen: It’s really quite similar. It’s really enjoyable to interact with young people who are doing exciting research. These may be post doctoral scientists or young students or research assistants, and every so often there’s travel involved in this job as well, as we have to keep up to date with what’s happening around the world.

Interviewer: Sure. Well we’re really keen to find out how you got interested in this field. What started the ball rolling for you Steven?

Assoc Prof Stacker: Well I guess at highschool, sort of maths and science were something that I was probably better at than maybe English, so it was sort of a natural area for me to go to. So I think I did that at the end of highschool and then once I went to university I did a science degree and it’s gone from there. From a science degree you go on and do other higher degrees in research and then before you know it you’ve been in research for twenty years.

Interviewer: And Marc, what’s your story?

Assoc Prof Achen: Well I was very interested in biology at school and then when it came time to go to University I thought, would I like to medicine or would I like to do science. And it seemed to me that discovery was a really exciting thing, something I’d like to be involved in, so I decided to take the scientific direction rather than the medical direction. So that’s how I got into science and research and I’ve been doing that ever since.

Interviewer: I’m keen to find out why you do this research and will you do it again? Steven.

Assoc Prof Stacker: Well look, I think the reason you do it is that there is a degree of inquisitiveness in all of us, that we want to know things that we don’t know. So I think that’s part of research – you’re asking questions that you don’t know the answers to, and you want the challenge of trying to find that out. So I think that’s one of the reasons we get into research is to find out things that we didn’t know before. Will we do it again?

Well I guess we do. We keep on asking new questions in different ways and trying to find out new knowledge and, you know, I guess we’ve been doing that for twenty years but we probably need other people to come in and ask those same questions. So the younger students that are out there, they need to come in and they’re the next generation that needs to ask new and different questions so we can keep building on knowledge.

Interviewer: I’ve got to ask, Marc what hours do you work and do you manage a work-life balance?

Assoc Prof Achen: Yes I work approximately between 50 and 60 hours a week, but there’s a lot of freedom associated with this so although you have to work hard on occasions you can work the hours that you want to. Sometimes you work a bit on weekends – extra on weekends and a bit less at other times. But this freedom that you have to do things to some degree when you want to and when the science demands, does help in achieving a work-life balance because with flexibility you can help make your work fit a little bit around the other things, important things, you have to do in life.

Interviewer: If you weren’t a medical researcher, what do you think you would have been?

Assoc Prof Stacker: Probably an engineer maybe or an architect. Something along those lines, although I’ve always been very keen to be that person who writes those funny little titles on the newspaper. So if that was available I’d take that.

Interviewer: How about you Marc?

Assoc Prof Achen: Well when I was at school, or towards the end of school, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to go into medicine or to go into science. And as I said before I decided on the science because I liked the discovery aspect and I liked new things. So I guess it’d be fair to say that if I hadn’t gone into the science I probably would have gone into medicine.

Interviewer: How long does this take, how long until I can call myself a medical researcher?

Assoc Prof Stacker: Well I’d say if you plotted your life say from when you were at your last part of highschool, so say years eleven and twelve, usually you’ll do a basic science degree which is three years. I guess for Marc and I we both did honours degrees which is another year. Then you’ll go ahead and do a PhD which is probably four years then usually what happens is you’ll usually go overseas and to get other experience. So Marc spent three years in Germany and I spent three years in America. So probably by the time you’ve done that you’re now experienced enough to sort of be able to carry out your own research program, so it’s probably a good decade before you know, you’re ready and qualified. But to be honest it goes very quickly because it’s so enjoyable and before you know it you’re up and running as your own laboratory head.

Assoc Prof Achen: It’s true that the training is quite long but I think once you’ve started a PhD you are involved in medical research in a real meaningful way. You are doing professional research so although you can’t say you’re fully trained until you’ve finished your PhD – which admittedly is quite a long road – you are involved truly in medical research well before that process finishes. I think one of the things you learn in science as you become more senior is you have to bring together teams of people to work on an important problem in a successful way and so team work becomes very important. And learning to encourage team work is something that can benefit you in other aspects of your life as well – whether you’re coaching a football team or a basketball team or doing other things in life. So I think there are skills that you learn as you develop a research team that can be of great benefit to you in many different ways.

Interviewer: And that was Associate Professors Steven Stacker and Marc Achen.

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