Professor of Neuroscience
I am a research professor in at the Eccles Institute for Neuroscience within the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University in Canberra Australia. Part of my work involves commercialising new vision testing technologies.
Briefly describe your career journey so far
In High School I took every science and technical course available but had ideas about doing architecture or city planning. In those days they were graduate courses so I had to do a degree first. I determined that as an UBC Arts student I could take more electives so I started a BA but also did some biology courses. After two years I switched to science and had an interesting couple of years taking senior biology courses and other junior courses. I was interested in physics and parallel evolution. I liked invertebrate zoology because you could see many different phyla doing the same things. I realized that often physical limitations drove parallel evolution: it doesn’t matter what you make a bridge out of, if you don’t obey physics it will fall down.
I became interested in light and eyes. Although still a biology student I did a directed studies course and my Honours degree in the optics lab of Prof David Balzarini in the UBC Physics Dept. David gave me a desk and a lab where I learned optics hands on, and I worked there in the summers (it beat my previous summer jobs in construction). I became particularly interested in eye design and the optical fibre properties of photoreceptor cells. The best lab studying those things was at the ANU in Canberra, so I applied for a PhD scholarship and got it. There I switched to studying insect brain neurons sensitive to image motion. I discovered that they dynamically adapted their dynamic range and gain to maximise their limited information capacity, an idea introduced to me by my original PhD supervisor, Simon Laughlin who soon departed for Cambridge.
Towards the end of my PhD I investigated whether similar dynamic control occurred in mammalian cortex in the labs of Prof Geoff Henry. I later worked with Geoff who was originally an optometrist. He introduced me to the idea of the eye disease glaucoma. Soon after that I realised that another dynamic adaption mechanism that occurs in the retina the retina could be exploited to make a new test for glaucoma. After a patent and several years working with the medical instrument company Welch Allyn Inc, we produced the basis for the FDT/Matrix perimeters (visual field tests) now marketed by Carl Zeiss Meditec. An interest in multifocal methods, whereby many stimuli can be presented to different parts of the visual field at the same time, caused my colleague Andrew James and I to start looking at improving those methods to make more objective visual field test devices. We settled on using a non-contact method: videoing the responses of the pupils. That led to 6 patents and a startup-company, nuCoria Pty Ltd, and about 12 years of research.
What are some of the ways you build and nurture your professional network, and how has this benefited your career?
The overwhelming message is start talking to people! Of course try to know what you are talking about first. To that end begin reading journal articles about things that interest you as early as possible. As an undergraduate you can always fiddle essays and such to be about things of interest to you (and for which you already have a heap of articles you have read!). That way you find out who to contact, i.e. the authors of the papers in fields you are interested in. I think having a web-page or Linkedin profile can be quite valuable, and learn to have business cards. If you interact with someone and they have a link to your details (from your email or business card), then they can quietly check you out in their own time. Have material ready to send them, like essays in topics dear to them that you have written based on the journal articles you have read. Also try to go to conferences. This may be tricky as an undergrad but if one is nearby go. Try to find mentors who can give you advice about things that develop in real time in your life. Don’t be afraid to talk to business people. They are interesting too.
How have you been able to leverage the skills and knowledge acquired in your degree and during your time at UBC to grow your career?
The fact that I studied a diverse range of things at UBC, from Canadian literature to quantum mechanics (trying to figure out what I liked) helped me learn how to interact with people of diverse backgrounds. Probably the most valuable interaction I had at UBC was my years in the lab of Prof David Balzarini in the Physics Department. I also had advisors in Electrical Engineering, Zoology, and Botany and did projects with them related to waveguide properties of things in their fields, all directed to my interest in the light-guiding properties of photoreceptor cells in eyes of various species. From my years of having a desk in David’s lab I got to interact with many physicists, which greatly broadened my horizons. Among the things I got introduced to was information theory. Optics and information theory were the keystones of my PhD and my later research. Basically I treated the great depth of scientific knowledge across many disciplines available at UBC as a smorgasbord from which I fed my interests.
What are the strategies you use to remain resilient during challenging situations?
I think maintaining a positive attitude is very important. I’ve had setbacks but generally speaking, after a little reflection, you can see what you learned from the thing that didn’t work out and use it to your advantage later. For example when I first went to David Balzarini’s lab I had an incorrect idea about the optics of scallop eyes. To figure out is was wrong I had to first learn a lot of optics. So my idea was wrong but I learned a lot of optics and had fun doing it. Every cloud has a silver lining, just look for it.
Why did you decide to become a mentor? How has this experience been beneficial for you?
I have been a supervisor or advisor to 67 research students (PhDs, Honours, MBBS, etc) and 10 postdoctoral fellows, so mentoring goes with the territory. I have been a member of a few formal mentoring schemes and they were a blast. It is very rewarding to see your charges going out into the world and shaking things up. Also, a lot of people mentored me over the years and I couldn’t have done what I have without them so one is obliged to repay those debts.