The perfect environment to foster excellent research

Dr Audra Shadforth has just completed her PhD at the Queensland Eye Institute.  I’ve worked with many PhD students, graduates, undergraduates and honours students over the years and I can honestly say, I’ve never met a PhD graduate who seemed so genuinely happy and content. 

In the current scientific environment of funding stress, job insecurity and rising living costs, to say I was intrigued was an understatement.

Reading Dr Shadforth’s research is captivating. Listening to her talk starts to give you a glimpse into why she’s not the average PhD graduate. Actively involved in finding a treatment for Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of severe vision impairment in people aged over 40 years in Australia, Audra’s work is already recognised internationally. Clearly, this area of research is something Audra feels in her heart. Leaning towards me, her passion is obvious as she states, ‘the highest risk factor for developing AMD is simply ageing. Working all your life, looking forward to enjoying your retirement, and you may get to that point in life and not have your central vision. The simple things like reading, watching your favourite tv shows, watching your grandchildren grow…all of these require your central vision’. There is a sense of both frustration and despair when she states, ‘there is no treatment, no cure for AMD. The vision loss experienced by patients can lead to feelings of isolation, a higher incidence of falls and injuries, anxiety and fear for what the future holds. As researchers, we must help prevent this’.

In a recent survey, ten characteristics were found in employees who tended to be both content in their work environment and happy to stay with a company for as long as possible. These included: mentored, challenged, promoted, involved, appreciated, valued, on a mission, empowered and trusted. Most scientists graduate from a PhD feeling involved in their work and on a mission to improve disease or other social problems. However, sadly many of the other feelings are often missing. Audra feels them all!

When I challenged Audra about this it became clear that the difference lies in the working environment at the Queensland Eye Institute. As a former researcher, I’ve spent many years involved with major universities in Australia. The Queensland Eye Institute strikes me as unique; it has a positive and energised culture. Audra spoke highly of senior executives, Professor Mark Radford and COO Ms Kelly Langdon as ‘having a big vision for QEI, and providing support for all staff and students’. The QEI is rare in academia in that researchers are nurtured; this, very simple, lesson should be adopted by all academic institutions.

Under the supervision of Associate Professor Damien Harkin, Audra has been given the opportunity to drive her own research direction at QEI in recognition of her capabilities. As a child she ‘just knew’ her future was in science, and joining a research institute like QEI in 2009 was a dream come true. Coincidently, or perhaps not, her beloved ‘Pop’ developed a corneal cancer when she was in primary school. His doctor, Professor Lawrie Hirst, former QEI Executive Director, was a family hero after saving his eye and eliminating the chronic pain. This link between her past and present is poetic to say the least.

Much research has been performed around the world focussed on finding a treatment for AMD. As with all scientific research it takes time and financial investment. The AMD research at QEI is focussed on repairing the structural changes that occur in the early stages of AMD development, which will hopefully slow progression, or even prevent vision loss. ‘The focus of all research at QEI is directed towards improving the life of the patient’, she tells me proudly, ‘if the research can’t be directly translated to help our patients, we discard the idea’. I am sincerely touched and impressed by Audra’s commitment to her work.

In the recent National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant round awarded by the Australian Government only 2% of funding was directed towards vision research. This lack of priority is surprising when considering the latest report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012), in which half of all Australians reported having a long-term eye condition. Unsurprisingly, QEI researchers are consistently among the recipients of NHMRC, and specific eye research, grant funding. If we highlight Associate Professor Damien Harkin, he has been awarded four NHMRC grants since 2008, a level of success which is almost unprecedented in this time of continuing budget cuts in support of Australian Science.

The Queensland Eye Institute is clearly doing something right. Although they have no direct government funding support, by selecting researchers carefully and then supporting and nurturing them they have created a culture of excellence that the community is proud to get behind and support.  I believe they provide a model of how researchers should be treated in Australia to gain the maximum benefit for the community.

If Dr Audra Shadforth is anything to go by, her future, those of the Queensland Eye Institute and all of us are in good hands – congratulations Audra!