Professor Suzanne Cory has just celebrated her first year of office as the Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. In an interview with Rob Ramsay she discusses some of the issues facing the WEHI and how her role has changed since taking the helm from Professor Gus Nossal.
Q. Five years ago would you have thought that you would be in this office as WEHI Director?
A. Not at all. I had a very satisfying career as a researcher and was happy doing science.
Q. Surely you would have expected that a call to such a position would come your way sometime, and not unlikely from the search committee at WEHI?
A. Perhaps, but I didn’t see such a step as essential to the fulfilment of my career. Of course we all knew that Gus would retire and WEHI would need a new director, but you ask yourself is this what you want to do with your life? On the other hand, to be shaken up every 10 years or so is a good thing. And
I have never been one for walking away from a challenge. So I was very proud to accept the directorship but would have been equally happy if someone else had been made director who I thought would do a good job.
Q. It is very difficult to talk of new directorship for the Hall without thinking of Gus Nossal and his style of leadership. How do you compare in terms of leadership style?
A. Well first let me say that Gus is still very much an intrinsic part of our scientific community, and will continue to make major contributions at the national and international level. Gus is a true Renaissance Man. I could never try to be Gus—he has his own style, and I have mine. But we share many of the same ideals and attitudes. For instance, our love of, and belief in, basic science. A passion for its beauty, its importance. An insistence on excellence. We also both believe in the importance of maintaining state-of-the-art technology in order to remain competitive on the international stage.
My style of leadership is still evolving. I like to consult widely and contemplate decisions for quite a long time before I act or move in a new direction.
I like to draw on the wisdom of my faculty, but ultimately I make the final decisions.
Q. Was there a sense of isolation from the mainstream Institute life after you became the leader?
A. I have had wonderful co-operation from my colleagues since I moved to be Director and I still feel that strong connection. But it is true that life here is very busy and it is easy to become a little isolated from every day Institute life—it will be important to maintain connectivity.
Q. What has been the best and worst part of being director?
A. The worst part is easy. It’s not having enough time to think about my own science. Maybe next year it might get better but I guess there will never be enough time. I suppose there is never enough time to do all you would like to do with your life. As for the best part I suppose it has been the challenge of the position, having the chance to influence, being able to network on a broader scale.
Q. Has the networking been what you expected?
A. It has been very stimulating—I really have appreciated having had my horizons broadened.
Q. What do you see as the major scientific challenges of the future?
A. The Human Genome Project is rapidly revealing all our genes. The challenge that remains, though, is to determine the function of each of those genes, how they interact to program life, how faulty alleles determine disease susceptibility. We need to turn the explosion of new knowledge about cancer into rational new treatments. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to determine how the brain works and the molecular basis for neurological disorders.
Q. Your appointment has been seen as an important milestone for women scientists. Do you see yourself as a role model for younger women in science?
A. Before answering that question, let me point out that other women have gone before me. For instance, Fiona Stanley is the Director of the Institute for Child Health Research in Western Australia, Adrienne Clarke has her Special Centre for Plant Cell Biology and has been Chairman of the CSIRO Board. So I am by no means the first such role model. However, it is very important that there are more and I have certainly been besieged by girls’ schools to give talks.
Q. Talking about role models, who would you say were the most important influences in your career?
A.I had some wonderful teachers at high school and at Uni. I would not have thought of research as a career option, for example, had I not been invited to do a masters degree in the Biochemistry Department by Michael Byrt. I can still vividly remember the place and time I was asked. Jerry Adams has been a very important influence, ever since Cambridge. And at Cambridge there was of course Fred Sanger, such a wonderful gentle man, so down to earth, always so interested in new techniques, always at the bench.
Q. How do you see the growing pressure for research into public health issues at the expense of basic research?
A. Public health research is certainly important. But it should be subjected to the same rigorous peer review as basic research. And it should not be funded at the expense of basic research, which is where the medicine of the future will come from.
Q. You have just passed the big test, the NHMRC institute review. How did you find this most daunting responsibility when you were so new to the job?
A. I was made director in June and the review was in August so it was very much baptism by fire.
I had to prepare much of the background material in Paris where I was on a mini-sabbatical. Being so far away was helpful in some ways—I could look at the Institute more easily from an outside perspective. We were reviewed by a perceptive committee and I was delighted by the outcome and felt supported in my plans.
Q. Has the structure of the Institute changed at all and how would you sum up this first year as WEHI director?
A. Our principal research emphasis remains unchanged—the lymphomyeloid system and its diseases, such as leukemia and lymphoma, and autoimmune disorders, particularly diabetes. We shall continue our work on malaria and leishmaniasis. In early development, we are concentrating on the nervous system and the heart.
The biggest change will be a greatly increased commitment to the genetics of disease susceptibility. In the past we were organised as 8 Units, and the heads of four of these retired—Gus Nossal, Jacques Miller, Don Metcalf and Tom Mandel. We have re-formed the previous Units into 5 Divisions and created two new groups: Development & Neurobiology, and Genetics & Bioinformatics. We participate in three CRCs: Cellular Growth Factors; Vaccine Technology and the new one, Genetics of Common Human Diseases.
For me this last year has been intensely hard work with a long list of challenges, but I feel that things are moving well. I have come to appreciate even more the talents of our faculty and support staff. And I am delighted to have Nick Nicola as the lnstitute’s Assistant Director.
With a successful review behind us we have made a great start for a new era.
Editors’ note: This article was reprinted, with permission, from The University of Sydney News, 14 August 1997.