L-plates for discovery
From now on I will be using this webpage at irregular intervals to blog about research. While intended primarily for my fellow researchers, I hope that what I write will be of interest to anyone who wants to know how research is done, and what motivates scientists to do what they do. In this inaugural blog, I comment on the key role PhD students play in the research enterprise at Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI) and similar research organizations.
It's important to realize that some of the most important discoveries in biomedical science have been made by PhD students. Two of CMRI's cancer research laboratories are keenly interested in an enzyme, telomerase, on which 85% of all cancers depend for their continuing growth. Telomerase was originally discovered in Professor Elizabeth Blackburn's laboratory in California by her PhD student Carol Greider. Carol shared the Nobel Prize for this work.
The Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres mechanism, upon which the other 15% of human cancers depend, was discovered in my laboratory by Tracy Bryan who was my PhD student at that time. Tracy subsequently trained as a post-doctoral researcher with a Nobel Laureate, Thomas Cech, and was then recruited back to CMRI to set up her own laboratory. Although this may be the most widely known discovery by a CMRI PhD student, there are very many other examples of important advances made by CMRI researchers during their PhD training.
To people outside of our sector, the word student conjures up images that include lecture theatres, tutorial groups, and examinations. Our PhD (and Masters) students are more like apprentices who learn by carrying out real research. They are not given pretend projects that train them to do real research in the future. The reality is that they work on questions that are at the cutting edge of their research field in an internationally competitive environment. Often, they make a major contribution to the research programs of their host laboratories.
CMRI invests a lot of time and money in training its students, so we have a very competitive process for selecting outstanding students who we think are worth this major investment. Students come from all over Australia and New Zealand, and some come here from overseas. Most of our students have science degrees, and we also warmly welcome students with medical degrees and clinical training. The majority of the students have undertaken an Honours degree, an excellent feature of the Australian university system which allows students to experience full-time research for a year and gain perspectives that are simply not possible through university coursework.
The reason we invest in these students is not a purely altruistic commitment to education. It is not just because we want to train the next generation of researchers and research leaders, who can eventually replace the current generation. It's not only because it's fun and invigorating to have enthusiastic young people on our research teams. The reality is that this is an excellent way to achieve our research objectives. Although the training of the student is an added bonus, funding a PhD student's research funds research - usually in a very cost-effective way.
Although they usually start off with little prior research experience, PhD students make up for this by the long hours they spend in the laboratory. To make discoveries you need to look for things that no-one has seen before, and as a general rule the more you look the more likely you are to find things. Students can bring new ideas and fresh approaches to research programs. They can challenge the established ways of thinking. This is precisely how advances are made - so investing in PhD students and their research is a very effective use of funds provided for medical research.
A local fundraising organisation that supports cancer research at CMRI has taken this to another level. They decided more than a decade ago that the best way they could contribute to the effort to solve cancer would be to support two PhD students annually. Every year they visit the institute to spend an evening with their students and hear what they have achieved in the preceding year. They also have an annual social function where they meet with the students, and they keep in touch with what's happening at the institute in many other ways. It's a great experience for the students to get to know the people who spend a lot of time raising funds for their project, and who have a very personal interest in their success.
As the new students start arriving here at the beginning of the University year, I think it's very important for them to understand where they fit in the scheme of things. They have a huge amount to learn, long hours to work, and an unpredictable mixture of frustration and successes ahead of them. But very soon they will be right at the core of our research effort, and will have the opportunity to discover things that no-one has seen before.
Lorimer Dods Professor and Director
Children's Medical Research Institute