OPINION: Hunter's world-leading researchers

THINGS move fast in the world of medical science, with bold new targeted treatments being developed almost daily. 

But something that never changes is the basic need to support researchers.

Support with funding, support with the “tools” of their trade, and I would add to that list “support with awards”.

The work of our world-leading researchers deserves to be recognised loudly and broadly. Across a raft of diseases and disorders, their findings have changed the way healthcare is delivered. It has contributed to government policies and public health interventions.

On Tuesday night we presented the 2012 Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Award for Research Excellence and the HMRI Award for Early Career Research, the ultimate compliments we can pay our peers.

A glance at the honour board from past years shows  names like Professor Amanda Baker and Associate Professor Mark Baker from 2011, Professor Paul Foster and Associate Professor Peter Greer from 2010 and, prior to that, people like Chris Levi, Rodney Scott, John Forbes, John Aitken, Peter Dunkley, Roger Smith and Rob Sanson-Fisher to name a few.

This year’s winner, Professor John Attia, thoroughly deserves to join that list since he crosses the boundaries between asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental health, public health, stroke and other ailments.

John is a prolific epidemiologist who provides expertise in research methodology, analysis and molecular genetics. His advice is sought by biomedical and clinical researchers around Australia and the world. 

Over the past year he has juggled an extraordinary workload with teaching duties and a contribution rate of almost one medical publication per week; five of his most-recent papers appeared in the respected international journal

 Nature Genetics.

John’s work has direct benefit to public health outcomes and building capacity in our health services.

The Early Career award, meanwhile, went to another public health researcher, Dr Luke Wolfenden, who works with Hunter New England Population Health at Wallsend and is a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle.

Luke has led, or continues to lead, numerous innovative studies centred on smoking cessation, alcohol consumption, and obesity prevention.

He managed Australia’s largest child obesity prevention program, Good For Kids, Good For Life, and also conducted a telephone-based intervention to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Another trial aims to encourage greater physical activity among kids in childcare.

A computer-based smoking intervention Luke developed continues to operate at John Hunter Hospital more than five years after his research finished.

Participating in the judging process this year furnished me with an even higher appreciation of the scope of work being performed within HMRI’s various campuses.

We are privileged to have so many highly qualified and skilled researchers hitching their lives to the Hunter region in what is a highly mobilised international industry.

My goal is to not only retain them but bring more here. We have everything researchers need from a career sense ... a university working closely with a health service; a buoyant economy with a supportive community; modern infrastructure; a setting in which collaboration and free thinking can flourish ... and, of course, the most incredible lifestyle.

Across all seven research programs, HMRI is perfectly positioned to deliver translation. Translation is more than a buzzword, it’s a benchmark. 

The community relies on it, the state and federal governments expect it, and it drives our researchers to succeed. 

Professor Michael Nilsson is Director of the Hunter Medical Research Institute