Associate Dean (Research Training)
“My role is to make sure that each Research Higher Degree (RHD) student has the best possible experience. I also want to improve the process of finding and attracting the best students to the faculty and ensuring that their environment is as good as it can be,” says Professor Ian van Driel.
“As Associate Dean (Research Training), I try to ensure that students receive the support and the resources they need for their work and that they receive pastoral care. ‘Pastoral care’ means that problems are fixed as they arise; whether they be personal, professional, or a resource problem,” he explains.
Ian also serves as an Associate Dean of the Melbourne School of Graduate Research and a member of the Research Training Advisory Committee, Research Higher Degree Committee and the Graduate Research Scholarships Committee to represent the needs of the University’s and the Faculty’s students. He works closely with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graduate Research of the University and the Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty, developing policies to look at better ways of structuring the RHD program; including more innovative programs, to produce a better researcher.
“It’s important that RHD students develop flexible problem-solving talents, because their future work environments are diverse and ever-changing. The nature of biomedical research means that they will work in teams, sometimes quite large, so they need to be good team players and work cooperatively and to face challenges.”
“A PhD student will be trained to be an independent thinker and problem-solver, to put forward ideas in a persuasive and logical way. These are sought-after qualities in positions of leadership, not just for those pursuing a research career. “
“One of the major challenges we face is the number of students who do not complete their PhD. Some of the reasons for this are out of our or their control, such as the student’s life situation changing. However, with the right mentoring and support it may be possible to better identify students who are facing difficulties and help them get the support they need, and so avoid a negative experience for all involved.”
“We also need to get better in attracting quality students. Barriers to students coming to Melbourne from other national Universities may be a lack of cultural mobility, in that students do not realise the outstanding opportunities at the University of Melbourne for graduate research students given that we are Australia’s leading research university. Or it could be that they are not receiving the support they need to make the move to a new city, like college accommodation, such as that which exists in the US. Also, the Honours system favours students staying in the one place.”
"Students need to be well-resourced for their projects; have the opportunity to attend conferences, build networks and publish their work; as well as a supervisor who initially keeps a close eye on them and is attentive to them, and who helps them into the next phase of their career.”
The central University of Melbourne also offers support in the Melbourne School of Graduate Research, where students can attend workshops to improve their skills, learn about intellectual property and attend seminars.
As a student…
Ian undertook his PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. “During my own PhD, I was well-resourced, surrounded by great people, a great intellectual environment with a good supervisor,” recalls Ian van Driel. At the time his supervisor was Professor James Goding. “We had daily conversations about my experiments and more general scientific topics,” he recalls.
The environment that Ian experienced as a PhD student working at the WEHI made a great impression on him: “It’s the sort of place where a lot is expected of you. If you’ve got your eyes, ears and your wits about you, you can learn a lot about how to achieve excellent research,” he recalls. “It’s a nurturing, but, at the same time, a critical environment. People care about quality and there are regular conversations and regular seminars, where you receive good ‘no holds barred’ feedback.”
Ian faced some challenges during his PhD and this is a common experience for students. “I faced the biggest hurdle at the beginning of my PhD. I had to make an specific antibody that no one had made before. All my other work depended upon it, but it took me six months to do. It involved a huge amount of work, with large, very long experiments. It was very frustrating and I felt under a lot of pressure to succeed. In the end, luck played a part in successfully finding the right antibody, because based on probabilities, it might have taken twice as long.”
"Nearly every student who undertakes a PhD faces some make-or-break situation. It’s rarely easy and it takes resilience and maturity to overcome the problems you face. But it’s when things get difficult that you learn the most and about your science and about yourself. A PhD is as much a personal as scientific journey.”
As a supervisor…
Now a supervisor, Ian tries to guide students on their path to becoming independent researchers. “As a supervisor, I make sure I get as much contact as possible with my students. Regular contact is critical, especially in the early phases of the projects, and I try to make it a minimum of a face-to-face meeting once per week. I also ensure that new lab members get the support they need from other more experienced lab workers.”
“It’s important for a student to start thinking about the thesis as being their own work as early as possible and to take ownership, so I try to get students as soon as possible to come up with their own ideas rather than just tell them what to do. After all, it’s their name that will end up on the thesis not mine.”
“I never thought about doing anything else,” says Ian van Driel when asked why he chose a science career. For his own PhD, Ian cloned a gene called PC1 that is expressed by antibody secreting cells.
Ian went on to work as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas South Western Medical Centre at Dallas. He studied the LDL receptor that plays a role in the absorption of cholesterol, to find out how the structure of the receptor relates to the function of the molecule. “Going overseas was essential. I got a sense of how ‘big science’ works and how competitive science is internationally. It's also a great personal experience and one of the great benefits of a scientific career” Ian explains.
“In order for Australia to compete, we need to be a bit cleverer, to bring in a different perspective. I think we do this well,” says Ian, reflecting on his time the US.
A CJ Martin Fellowship of the Natonal Health and Medical Research Council funded two years of his research in the US, and also provided the ticket back home to Australia for a further two years. He was able to find a lectureship when his former supervisor Professor James Goding, who was then Head of the Department of Pathology and Immunology at Monash University, offered him a position. Returning to Australia, Ian collaborated on some work into an autoimmune disease called autoimmune gastritis, which is a very common disease and a good model of autoimmunity. “We wanted to know what prevented disease occurring in normal individuals, so called immune tolerance, so that we could work out what goes wrong in disease” Ian says.
Immune tolerance is the ability of the body’s immune system to ‘turn a blind eye’ to its own tissues, cells and proteins. Autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system begins attacking its own tissues and organs, because the process of immune tolerance has not worked properly.
Ian has been studying the mechanisms causing autoimmune gastritis for the past 20 years. Autoimmune gastritis is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks the lining of the stomach, or gastric mucosa. It is one of the most common autoimmune diseases; affecting two percent of the population over the age of sixty. Sufferers develop a vitamin B12 deficiency, pernicious anemia, or even gastric cancer, but nowadays it is rarely fatal as it can be easily treated by vitamin B12 injections.
Vitamin B12 deficiency occurs as a result of the destruction of the stomach’s parietal cells that are responsible for producing stomach acid and a protein called ‘intrinsic factor’ that binds to the vitamin B12 receptor and allows the uptake of vitamin B12 in the intestine.
Ian is particularly interested in a group of immune cells, called regulatory T cells or suppressor T cells, that dampen an immune response in normal individuals. They play an important role in the gut, where they prevent an immune reaction taking place against the foreign proteins in the food we ingest. He is studying mice with autoimmune gastritis and trying to determine whether injecting them with the regulatory T cells will cure the disease. The mechanism of disease is similar in a cluster of gastro/endocrine autoimmune diseases, such as: Type I diabetes and thyroiditis.