Stemming the brain drain

SUPPORT: Dr Nikola Bowden, left, with Brian and Fay McGuigan, who are backing a 10-year HMRI research fellowship. Picture: Simone De Peak.
SUPPORT: Dr Nikola Bowden, left, with Brian and Fay McGuigan, who are backing a 10-year HMRI research fellowship. Picture: Simone De Peak.

The people of the Hunter have always understood what it means to roll up their sleeves and work together.

THE WAY FORWARD: The Women in Medical Research Fellowships aim to redress career inequality impacting female researchers.

THE WAY FORWARD: The Women in Medical Research Fellowships aim to redress career inequality impacting female researchers.

There is strength in unity and HMRI’s success is testament to that.

Over the last 20 years  HMRI has led the way in research for cancer, stroke, heart disease, asthma and much more, setting the standard for innovation and collaboration, and raising the profile of Newcastle as an intellectual centre of world repute. 

Looking to the future, the launch of the first Women in Medical Research Fellowships, on and in response to International Women’s Day, demonstrates HMRI’s  wider commitment  to ongoing research excellence, inclusivity and gender empowerment.

Aimed at  redressing career inequality and stemming the ‘silent brain drain’ impacting female researchers, HMRI has established a funding pool  to support both part-time and full-time fellowships for female mid-career researchers over three, five or 10 years.

Uniquely, the scheme includes a research support grant, along with secured salary, to help sustain the recipient’s own research project. 

This could lead to further research grants, government funding and commercialisation opportunities.

HMRI director Professor Michael Nilsson says the goal is to recruit and retain top female scientists and clinicians by providing job security with flexibility for family commitments.

“The translation of medical research requires continuity over a sustained period, as one discovery often leads to another,” Professor Nilsson says.  “So if half of our intellectual capital is potentially being wasted at the critical mid-career juncture, then HMRI wants to be a leader in stemming that flow.

“It’s not a glass ceiling, more like a leaking floor – women drain out of the academic system particularly at the mid-stage of career progression. 

“Significantly, more than half of all PhD graduates are women yet fewer than 20 per cent are professors in senior leadship roles.”

University of Newcastle researcher Associate Professor Nikola Bowden received the Vanessa McGuigan HMRI Research Fellowship in Ovarian Cancer last year, supporting her work for 10 years. 

Without it, she feared having to shelve her project and change career paths.

“I can’t say enough about how important a Fellowship was to me at this point of my career,” Associate Professor Bowden said. 

“At a time when financial support is scarce, it gave me certainty and the confidence to continue my research, focusing on better treatments for patients.”

Mid-career researchers often have to devote considerable time to applying for grants at the expense of their projects, whereas fellowships guarantee their funding.

“Medical research can’t reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all,” Professor Nilsson adds. 

“Diversity leads to innovation, so a gender imbalance will have a consequence for today’s research agenda and tomorrow’s clinical practice.

“We’re inviting companies, foundations and members of the community to help secure equal futures for the next generation of women in research.”

The evolution of HMRI mirrors that of the region.

HMRI rose from the ashes of BHP and like its industrial forerunner in the 20th century, is set to define the Hunter in the 21st.

With a proven formula for success established, HMRI  provides  the central “hub” for research funding, strategy and infrastructure across the region, enabling researchers, healthcare professionals, policy makers, industry and the community to work together to address health issues, locally and across the world. 

HMRI research programs  facilitate collaborations between all levels of research to translate scientific advances and new health knowledge into better clinical care, products and improved health care guidelines. 

And Hunter researchers   lead the way on the local, national and international stage in delivering health and medical research and technology closely aligned to community health needs.

This mechanism is driving the evolution of Newcastle and the Hunter from  industrial roots to an intellectual centre of excellence.

 There is much to be proud of already and so much more that can be achieived.

Professor Michael Nilsson will hand over the HMRI director reins later this year to take up a position as global innovation chair with the University of Newcastle's Centre for Innovative Technologies in Rehabilitation Settings.

His successor will be handed the responsibility of building on a platform of innovation and collaboration, steering into the future an organisation that continues to improve the health and enrich the economy of its community, and be a catalyst for positive change.