ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part II: The Growth & Current Challenges

29 May,2019

ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part II: The Growth & Current Challenges

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 second part of a three-part series. You can read Part I here.

Professor Peter Currie

What has been the most unexpected outcomes that ARMI have delivered in the time that you’ve been Director, but in the whole ten years?

We weren’t supposed to be 20 groups in ten years. I mean, that just is completely unexpected. The growth has been due to the support of the faculty and of Monash University. It’s been a foundational part of the success. It is down to the university support. There hasn’t been an institute in the country that’s gone from 0 to 250 people in ten years. You can’t point to one because it’s a very difficult thing to do. And like I said, one of the things about setting up the EMBL training initiative was that we recruited EMBL group leaders, but then we recruited around that recruitment because people really loved what we were trying to set up.

And I think a lot of that is the sense of the new and what I’ve always been very big on is having an internal culture that is self-driven and when you recruit a lot of young scientists and say ‘Well this is your place. What do you want to do with it?’ It just has a bit of a feed-forward mechanism.

So that was surprising- how quickly that was embraced, how much support the university gave and of course, all our funders at the beginning. I know at other places that I’ve worked, they have an envy at the way we’ve been able to grow and I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about that.

“We weren’t supposed to be 20 groups in ten years. I mean, that just is completely unexpected. The growth has been due to the support of the faculty and of Monash University.”

There is probably no other research institute or even faculty that has grown and scaled like this.

It’s part of the Monash University and the Dean of Medicine’s absolute desire to have Monash as the leading biomedical research university in the country, which they’ve managed to achieve in the last few years in some areas. So all credit to the leadership at Monash University for the vision and sticking with it. Sometimes what happens is that there’s a good idea, a bit of money is thrown at it, then you’re left to your own devices to make of it what you will. And that’s how most places grow for two or three years and then are throttled in the cradle and die. The support from particularly the Dean and Edwina Cornish was unstinting.

So do you think there’s a valley of death for institutes?

Absolutely. My biggest fear on taking the directorship was that the growth would halt and we would bleed quality and people would go elsewhere and the institute would slowly wither. That’s every director’s fear- that the tap will be turned off, that the pastures will be greener elsewhere and all this time and effort you have spent building an internal culture recruiting incredible people is wasted but that hasn’t eventuated because of the support that we’ve been given.

In the time that you’ve been director, you’ve introduced more commercial language and exposed a lot of the researchers to the realities of why translation is the key.

Indeed and there I think we’ve been a bit more successful in the recruitment of individuals like Mikaël Martino who understands that landscape and is an incredible scientist, but also understands the translatability of his science. So I would love to have more of those type of scientists inside the walls, but ARMI as the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute has always wanted to show leadership not only in science, but also in the commercialisation of that science. That’s also been a foundational mantra for the institute.

I think there Silvio’s [Tiziani] done an incredible job, totally supported by me, in trying to coalesce what regenerative medicine industry we have and to be a conduit to the science that’s going on within individual research environments for that nascent industry, that’s also hooked into the global environment.

So I know with interest that CCRM Australia [Centre of Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine Australia] is going to be part of the MRFF [Medical Research Future Fund] initiative and I think we’ve shown real leadership on that. That’s a mature proposition now and so that was an excellent piece of work and I think we know now from being friends of industry and wanting to learn and wanting to engage, it’s a tricky task to pull off. But at least I hope everyone knows through those efforts that our doors are open. We are not a closed academic environment. We want to know how we can facilitate, what we can do, how we can interact and also we can work with them with our discoveries.

“We are not a closed academic environment. We want to know how we can facilitate, what we can do, how we can interact and also we can work with them with our discoveries.”

What are the key achievements that you are most proud of? Thinking about your personal research impact as well the institute’s and how they sort of marry together.

So let’s start with the institute- I’m really personally proud of the young culture of the institute. A culture whereby it’s not the old fuddy duddies that are driving the show. It’s the new, incredibly exciting young talent that are driving the agenda. That will be true of any place I lead. I’d like to find good people and get the hell out of the way. It’s exciting to me to see individuals grow and embrace that and realise, “Oh, you mean I can do that? You’re going to let me do that? Oh you know, the last place I was at, I had to sit there and do nothing. We gotta find a way.”

I think that is really the culture that I was trying to set up and it’s slow to evolve but there’s an excitement in seeing that evolve and then the collaborations out of that internally from individuals within the institute. If you look at our papers internally, there’s nearly every single paper that has two or three other group leaders on it from ARMI. And I find that as a really positive badge of success. They all came in together. They all face the same challenges. They knew that they would be better collaborating than each trying to crack the walnut themselves. They’ve worked together and everyone’s profited from that. And I think that’s a great incredible internal culture that I didn’t have to self-direct. I didn’t have to set up divisions and say, “You two do the same thing, so you two cooperate.” They did it themselves. So I hope for more of that.

So empowerment is very much a principle of yours. You’re not micromanaging.

Some people don’t like that about my management style. Some people would rather I pontificate and say, “We’re going over here, you follow me, this way.” And I just think it’s crazy that you invest one person with all the knowledge of the world and entrust them to deliver that outcome. Because that’s not where we’re at. Research is a creative activity. Anyone who’s involved in creative activities…that can’t be top down driven. Maybe we could run a bank that way and balance the books. But you certainly can’t drive creativity by telling him what creativity is. So I think it’s very important to find good people, provide the resources and the environment to the best of your ability and just step aside and let it happen.

So you’re really looking for a growth mindset and leadership is probably the secret sauce?

Absolutely for me. If I look around, what do I value about my ten years here? It is absolutely that ironclad backing of the leadership. I would have left years ago if I felt it was something I didn’t have that. I had the freedom. Now of course, there are boundaries and there had to be. They were explained to me- what they are and why they are and they were all reasonably understood. But more or less, within that framework, if I had a good idea or a good recruit or a good process, I got a good hearing from the university and often got the resources to achieve that. Once recruited, I’m not gonna tell you what to do, how to do it or why you’re collaborating with that person or why you’re spending your money that way, besides running on the positive balance sheet but apart from that, it’s their kingdom to populate and create. Some people don’t see it that way, some people will want to know where we’re being led and why we’re being led and who’s in charge and where the next meal coming from. I’m not that person. Even in my own life. I’m not like that at all. I set the research agenda in terms of the general things that the lab does.

“But I really am inspired by the talent and creativity of my group. That’s what I feed off- their ideas.” 

But I really am inspired by the talent and creativity of my group. That’s what I feed off- their ideas. So when I recruit PhD students, I’ll often get a lot of e-mails saying, “Your lab is so good, you publish in so many journals and I’d love to come publish a good paper.” Well, you’re not coming to this lab because that’s not what we do. So if someone writes to me says, “I’ve read your paper, I really like this idea and I’ve been thinking about it. I want to work in this area and I really think this will be good.” Even if they’re 100 percent wrong in my opinion, that really floats my boat. So they will come in and I’ll say, “Well what do you want to do? And so we’ll start from there. And that has already been published, let’s not do that one. This one, it’s technically challenging for these reasons, but if you want to do it, sure, give it a crack. This one over here, that’s a really good idea.” So that’s how it evolves because I think it’s a fool’s errand to believe that you’re the only person in the room with a good idea. I think if you start thinking like that, you’re doomed. So really what you want to do is using incredible creativity and intellect of the people that want to come into your life or want to come to your institute and feed off them. I think that’s the key.

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