2022 was a year of transition. Coming out of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns, ARMI and the greater Monash University campus began buzzing with activity anew. There was excitement about accelerating research, reuniting with friends in-person and resuming connecting with local and international peers at conferences. ARMI Institute Director Professor Peter Currie reflects over the past year, the achievements and the challenges, as well as hopes for the new year.
Q: What was the theme for ARMI in 2022?
A: Re-establishing partnerships and creating new ones. We started to deliver on industry linkages and partnerships, such as the emergence of the Cartherics relationship, the AstraZeneca relationship, and the maturing of the CCRM Australia project. And then there’s the joy of several members of the Institute being awarded very prestigious fellowships and good grants. I think that’s what separated this year from others; it was this sort of a broader engagement with stakeholders maturing.
There was also, of course, the restoration of some level of normality. Notably, we had our first outreach program for three years with Convergence Science Network. It was really exciting to welcome the public back into the Institute again, and to see the energy that was generated among the researchers who volunteered that night. So it was a slow removal of the cocoon and emerging to have these relationships on a number of different levels.
Q: What were the highlights of the year?
A: There was the announcement of our first company ever, which is a real sign of maturation and the move towards impact. It’s baby steps, but it’s still a significant milestone in the Institute’s lifetime to see the IP we’ve generated beginning to be commercialised. And there’s clear signs of research excellence with grants awarded (several MRFF grants, Investigator awards and a large ideas grant to the del Monte Nieto Group and the Viertel Fellowship to Jennifer Zenker being the standouts) and we’ve been involved in some high-profile publications with a clear highlight being the McGlinn Group’s amazing trilogy of papers in Nature Communications.
Another highlight was the Diversity and Inclusion Committee really taking off. Jennifer [Zenker] and the committee have done an extraordinary job there. It’s reinvigorating to see the internal culture at ARMI rebounding. One of the great strengths that we have as an Institute is the environment and it’s all grassroots driven. The committee’s work should be acknowledged…I think that has been very positive.
Q: What were the challenges?
A: The major challenge has been the fatigue from dealing with a less-than-optimal work environment and the emotional stress from navigating the past three years. I feel this took a particular toll on the student cohort, who have had a limited opportunity to meet their research output goals. The pandemic wasn’t a great time to be a student. You miss all the “value-add education” of being with your peers, and peers can be your best educators in many ways. Although, remarkable resilience was shown. The Students teams should be acknowledged because they’ve done an awesome job in a difficult situation. The university has also arisen to that by extending scholarships and providing support.
The Institute has survived, but I wouldn’t say unscathed. No-one came through unscathed. But we’re still here, fighting. I think there’s been some tremendous individual wins. Before the pandemic, the driver of the Institute was embracing a broader community and the “value-add” environment and we’re beginning to see that restored.
Q: What’s in store for ARMI in 2023?
A: The EMBL recruitment during the pandemic was a real highlight. This has produced a result of such high quality, with William Roman joining ARMI in the new year. And that, again, was a partnership story, because that was a partnership with the Baker Foundation. When the University was struggling, no one else was allowed to recruit, we were only allowed to recruit because we had those resources that were given to us externally. That’s where partnerships really do build resilience and strength. And at the moment, we are in the middle of a massive recruitment phase, so that’s very exciting.
I’m just halfway through reviewing pipelines of the research group leaders and that, to me, is the greatest joy that I have. I think next year, there’ll be some amazing papers…some are already submitted or in revision. And I just think the quality of the work that’s being produced by the groups is pretty extraordinary. It’s super pleasing to see all those papers outlined and to see the postdocs and students present their work. We continue to produce high quality postdocs and students. The numbers may go up and down but there’s no denying the quality.
Q: Any final comments?
A: I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the professional staff. They’ve had to work from home a lot of the time and it’s been very demanding. So thank you to the admin and support staff. I also found the support from the executive team incredible. We have a good collective decision making process in the executive and amongst the group leaders and I would like to acknowledge the people who stood up and led over the past few years.