ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part I: The Plan

29 May,2019

ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part I: The Plan

This year, the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) celebrates its 10th anniversary. To mark this milestone, current Director of Research Professor Peter Currie reminisces on the struggles and achievements of ARMI over the past decade, his personal mission as Director to grow the research community in the institute and in Australia, and the future of regenerative medicine research. This is the first part of a three-part series.

Professor Peter Currie

Back in 2009, ARMI was established as a bold new initiative within Monash University. Why was this perceived to be important? What do you think is ARMI’s purpose?

ARMI’s purpose is to provide cutting-edge biomedical research in the area of regenerative medicine, which is always difficult to define. One of the problems we have as an institute is that we are “all things to all people.” But we want to restore our regenerative capacity in organs and tissues that have suffered any insult. So our task as an institute is to come up with therapies or technologies to restore human health to conditions where there’s been disease, insult or injury. We don’t care what that injury is, we just want to fix it.

Being a part of Monash University lends the institute a global outlook. How do you see ARMI’s place in the world and in the global regenerative medicine research ecosystem?

When Professor Nadia Rosenthal started ARMI, there was only one other place in the world that had the words “regenerative medicine” in the institute title, and now, there are hundreds. So that is a very good question, so how does ARMI now fit in a global and, an exciting and expanding environment? We have leadership in a number of areas. ARMI is well known for our quality of science, but I think the place where we have work to do is achieving impact for human health. I think that is a task we really need to achieve. We need to keep building brand credential. Without high-quality scientists, we won’t get anything. So I think in the marketplace of ideas, we are up there, definitely. But what we need to do is be more nimble and quick in turning our ideas into something real.

“We are extraordinarily comfortable with the quality of our science and our brand in the global academic milieu of regenerative medicine for a relatively small institute of 20 groups.”

We are extraordinarily comfortable with the quality of our science and our brand in the global academic milieu of regenerative medicine for a relatively small institute of 20 groups. We punch way above our weight on most metrics. So we have in the first ten years of our existence, and I had this as a cornerstone, as a non-negotiable, we have become known for our output of high quality science. We always must have excellence at our core. Because without that building block, we are nothing. Once you’re known for that, you can leverage that for other things. And that must be maintained, that must be the core of the institute.

Science is notoriously fickle, so how does an institute maintain this standard of quality?

We’ve built expertise in different areas. We have different disease focuses now. We’re more robust, we rely less on the productivity from a small number of labs and we’re an internationally-focused institute because the vast majority of our group leaders are from across the globe. And that in itself has helped us develop our reputation as an international environment. And we leverage all of that. So now it’s time to turn that amazing biomedical engine and use it in the next phase- to turn amazing discoveries into amazing treatments.

Was bringing in international group leaders part of the original strategy?

It was absolutely part of the structure that Nadia developed and what I also endorsed as Deputy Director and now Director, this idea of the internationalisation of the research agenda. Australia is an amazing place to live. It has great research infrastructure. It’s actually a well-kept secret; the quality of the research infrastructure that is. But attracting scientists to Australia is a difficult task as they wonder if they’re going to fall off the edge of the Earth when they get here.

Walking into an environment that feels internationalised and with connections that are immediately obvious, with brands that are immediately obvious and thoughts that are spread throughout the global milieu is a part of making a person from anywhere in the globe comfortable intellectually here and overcoming that natural instinct about being a long way away from the centres in the US and in Europe. But if we can just demonstrably show them that we have a little bit of each of that place here and we’re connected in real ways, then that fear dissipates and the network grows. So we didn’t want to be just an excellent Australian institute. We wanted to be an excellent international institute of regenerative medicine. And so we’ve consciously not cared at all where people come from. We’ve consciously had a recruitment drive to try and bring people in from around the world.

It’s been a very usual mantra in Australia of developing PhD students and then have them train overseas as postdocs and get them back as lab heads. We have no desire to adopt that model whatsoever. We want to attract the best researchers globally to Australia. We don’t care if they come from Australia or if they come from Zimbabwe, as long as they’re the best. We want them inside our institute. And I think that has been a difference and I think that does come from Nadia’s international focus, having worked across many different countries and understanding many different research environments and myself who’s also done that. It was something that particularly motivated me to be involved with the project. I didn’t want to be part of yet another small research institute in Australia. I wanted to perform with a different focus, with a different engine, with a different ethos that ran counterintuitive to what was currently going on, a lot of which I didn’t think was a healthy aspect of the Australian research environment. I think creating a little bit of everywhere here was a part of Nadia’s idea for the get-go.

“So now it’s time to turn that amazing biomedical engine and use it in the next phase- to turn amazing discoveries into amazing treatments.”

So you don’t subscribe to ‘the brain drain?’

I just think it’s like business like everything else. We’re hooked into a global network. People go where they want to go. So our task is not to moan about it. Our task is to fix it and to create an environment that’s competitive. The brain drain is a consequence of people believing that we can’t have a research vision and future in this country. It’s complete balderdash. They can. It’s always been the case since I was an undergraduate- there’s been incredible researchers here, maybe not as many as in the US or the UK or Europe, but intellectually the equal of anything you’ll find overseas. We just had a “little man” syndrome. People often think you must go overseas, make it over there, come back. I think that day is gone. It was true in the past, but it’s not true now.

I’m a great believer of “if you set your ambitions low, you’re almost certain to achieve them.” All of us have worked in a global science economy. I don’t believe science in Australia is lesser or subservient to anything. I think there are incredibly intelligent people all over the planet and I don’t think you become instantly less intelligent when you move back to Australia. And resource-wise, every place I’ve been, everybody’s complained about funding. To be honest, over the last ten years, we’ve had a very stable and reasonable level of funding compared to the global marketplace. We might not have the highest that have happened in other systems, but we certainly don’t have the lowest. So I think there are a lot of things that are very positive about the Australian research environment and I’m very bullish about it. And you know, I think what we’ve shown here in ARMI is that if you have a milieu, where you have ability to select high quality talent and you provide them with competitive resourcing in the global context, you can recruit anybody.

I think that’s what the experiment the Nadia set up with the EMBL Australian initiative and all that is clearly showing that if you set up the model right, provide them with the right template, a brand that they can recognise, an intellectual framework researchers are familiar with and the resources that are as competitive as they’ll get anywhere. You will attract anybody to Australia.

How much serendipity do you think is required, as opposed to strategy, to run an institute? There is only so much one can lay down.

Correct. You hire people, you do your best due diligence and the institute is just a bunch of crazy people trying to do science. Like atoms colliding. It’s like setting an atom bomb off in the middle of the institute. And we’re just waiting to see how people react. 

And you know as we all know, scientists can be a bit on the Bell curve. So my job is to provide a safe and harmonious environment for that growth to occur. But like all things in science, the odd pairings that arise between people deliver the highest impact science- they are very often serendipitous or the findings that lead to interactions between people tend to be serendipitous. The best phrase in the lab is not “Eureka.” It’s “oh my god, that’s strange.” That’s the thing that always leads to the highest impact science.

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