A chat with Professor Anne Kelso – NHMRC CEO

Franklin Women roving reporter Louise Randall, research scientist at The University of Melbourne and The Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, had the daunting task of chatting with Professor Anne Kelso, incoming CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council. However, it turned out not so daunting at all as Anne warmly shared with Louise her career journey so far, thoughts on her next role at the helm of the NHMRC and words of wisdom she has received and is eager to pass on to current and future health and medical researchers.

Clinical photographLouise: We are so excited that a medical research scientist is to be the Chief Executive Officer of the National Health and Medical Research Council. Your research career started in immunology with your PhD at the University of Melbourne. Can you tell us about what got you into health science and how your research has evolved over the years, please?

Anne: I was always interested in science at school. My mother was a scientist before she had a family. She was from a different time when most women stopped work when they were married or when they started to have children. She really introduced me to biological sciences and I thought it was really cool when I was a kid. I was particularly interested in microbiology because it was a whole microscopic world that you couldn’t normally see. I got the idea that I should be a microbiologist and that’s exactly why I enrolled in science and majored in microbiology. But then during the third year, I found the lectures that were the most interesting and the most challenging were those on immunology. So then I did my honours year and PhD with Bill Boyle who was the reader in immunology in the Department of Microbiology at that time. So that early interest as a child was carried through and I was very happy with that choice. Looking back, there were many areas of biological science that I would’ve loved just as much. Perhaps, if I was starting again now, neuroscience would’ve been the equivalent of immunology back in those days. Immunology is still very exciting but neuroscience feels like the next frontier. Perhaps I would make a different decision today.

Louise: What made you first take on executive roles in the health and medical research field, such as the Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Vaccine Technology and then Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza?

Anne: I was a very happy bench scientist. I enjoyed that very much. I didn’t at first deliberately plan to move away from being a full time bench scientist. But, when I was about SRO level, I was at the WEHI and I started to get involved in other things like the Australasian Society of Immunology (ASI) and I was eventually President of that society. I was involved fairly early on in the Australian Research Council biological sciences panel, which also really broadened my view of biological sciences. If you are only ever involved with NHMRC, you have a relatively narrow view of what biological science is about but that really broadened my view a lot, realising the huge diversity of work that is done in Australia funded by the ARC.  So from starting to be involved in some of those external roles and getting a broader view of what science was all about, I started to think more about my place and how I could contribute most. I then moved to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR). I set up a lab there and got involved in other things like the International Union of Immunological Societies. I started to think that I was getting involved in a lot of external committees, which was very interesting but piece meal and not very substantial, and that I would quite like to have a go at doing something on a bigger scale. Then, when Michael Good resigned from the directorship of the Cooperative Research Centre for Vaccine Technology (CRC-VT) to become Director of QIMR, I applied for the Directorship of CRC-VT, got it and then had an amazing 6 years running that organisation. It was a huge experience, very hard work. I learned a lot especially about how collaborative projects work and about the commercial world as well, because we were trying to commercialise research and develop IP. We set up a start-up company, VacTX, with intellectual property that David Jackson from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology [University of Melbourne] and his collaborators had developed. So a lot of interesting things [were happening]. The CRCVT closed in 2006. So then I was thinking, “Well, am I going to go back to the lab, back to my old life, or am I going to try something else?” And I thought it was a good time to try something else. So I looked around and this job at the WHO Collaborating Centre came up and it seemed like a really interesting fit for me. I’d learnt from the CRC-VT experience that I didn’t really want to go into the commercial world. I was more interested in the public good/public health aspects of that work and I was also interested in having a role that was more of a leadership role but didn’t involve a huge amount of administration and was more closely connected to the science. This Centre turned out to be a good example of that. It’s not a big admin job. It’s very closely linked to the science always. It has an important national and global public health role. It introduced me to WHO in Geneva and around the Asia Pacific region. That’s been fascinating. It was a great opportunity. I’ve really loved it.

Louise: Are there specific skills/qualities in addition to your understanding of the technical sciences that you needed to call upon in these executive roles?

Anne: I think there are a lot of different ways to do that and there’s not a single style of person or set of skills that a person needs. We all find a way and I guess most people come into these jobs without a lot training in management or leadership but just find out on the job how to do it that best fits with their own personalities and work styles. For me, in both of those jobs, CRC-VT and the WHO Collaborating Centre, and I am sure again with the NHMRC, there’s just a huge amount to learn. You have to want to do that and be excited about having to engage with a lot of other information and interact with people who you can learn from. I think that one thing that you need to do is to put the organisation first and that suits some people well but not others. Some people, as researchers, their most important focus is their own research and that’s great because they put all of their energy into that and that’s a great outcome. To run an organisation like this or the CRC-VT, it was really important to identify with the whole of what that organisation does. The success of the organisation was your own success and your own success was the success of the organisation – it was mutually beneficial. And so I think it is important to feel that way. A wonderful model of that was Gus Nossal as director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) because he always saw the success of his people in the WEHI as his own success, I think. It was really what he was most proud of. Not so much the glory that he obtained but the achievements of his people in the Institute. I think that’s a great attribute for a leader and what you need to do to enjoy the job and get the most out of it. Beyond that, some people like to come in and reform things dramatically, other people want to work in a gentler way to shape the organisation, some people are wonderful spokespeople and others are more internal. I don’t think there’s a single perfect style. We all find our own way. It is important to want to advocate for your organisation and to be comfortable speaking to people about it.

Louise: Are they something you acquired over your career or did you seek additional training?

Anne: When I became the director of the CRC-VT, I did a fantastic course with the Mount Eliza Business School. Just a live-in, one week, leadership course and I learnt a lot from that. I learnt a lot about myself and I learnt a lot from the other people who were on the course that week who came from all different walks of life, some very high up in big businesses and others in much more lowly roles like mine. It was a great experience and very useful. I guess you learn from that, too, that at every level people who are learning to become leaders or managers have very similar problems and issues that they are dealing with. I think the Leadership Development Course at Mount Eliza Business School was by far the most useful thing I’ve done. In the end it came down to managing people and developing strategy through people.

Louise: Are there any mentors or colleagues who you have turned to for advice/guidance? Any words of wisdom that have stuck with you and that you would like to pass on?

Anne: With Gus Nossal, who I was very privileged to work with in his lab for more than 5 years at the WEHI, it seemed to me that his theme was generosity. I think, as a single word to take through life about how to approach the scientific world, generosity was a very good word. Then when I was first in the CRC-VT, the chairman of the board was a wonderful man, Sir Bruce Watson, who was also a great mentor to Michael Good. Bruce said that the secret to good management is courtesy and that sticks with me as well. I think it is so true when I look around at people who are inspirational and do a wonderful job. They so often have that characteristic of courtesy that underpins what they do. It sounds like a small thing but I think it’s much bigger than that. So those are the two things that stick with me as themes of how to behave – generosity and courtesy. [They are both] great to aspire to, anyway.

Louise: What are you looking forward to most in the role as NHMRC CEO?

Anne: The first thing is that I’m really impressed by how passionate the whole medical research sector is about the NHMRC. It’s not surprising, we all depend on it, and we all want the NHMRC to be strong. I am very impressed by the engagement with the NHMRC and how many people would like to talk about what they think would be best for the NHMRC. I think that’s extremely helpful. I’m looking forward to that big extended conversation about how we deal with some of the challenges that the NHMRC and the medical research sector are facing at the moment. This is something that we are all in together and I would really like to do a good job on behalf of the sector. It makes a difference that there are so many people who want to engage with and talk about what they see as the issues and look for a good way to do it. Isn’t it good that everyone has an opinion? People are thinking about it.

Louise: What do you think will be one of the biggest challenges you will face in this role?

Anne: I think it’s the challenge that we’re all facing at the moment. There is a research budget of roughly $800 million that NHMRC disperses. We have a very vibrant research community and we’ve had growth in that community so now we have far more applications than can possibly be funded. It’s always been true but of course it’s worse now than it has ever been, at least in terms of success rates. In fact, of course, an enormous amount is funded around the country. But how do we manage that $800 million most appropriately for where we are today in health and medical research? How can we best invest in the future? How do we manage what might be some years where funding is relatively flat? There are a whole lot of issues around that. So I think that is the single biggest challenge.

Louise: If we were to ask your family and friends to describe you, what would they say?

Anne: They might be amazed that anyone might offer me a job! I think they know that I love my work and I am committed to it. I think my brothers would just be surprised. You know how it is in families.

Louise: Your career progression appears to have evolved in a positive and systematic way. Could you please comment overall on it?

Anne: In retrospect, it can look like a logical progression when you make each of these steps in a career. I didn’t design a career. I started out as a research scientist and I loved it and I thought I would do that forever. Then your thoughts change about how to contribute, what you enjoy and what the opportunities are and you try something different. You look back and think, “Oh yeah, that was sensible.” You can pretend that it was all planned but it wasn’t and it could’ve been a different decision and have been just as interesting and rewarding, just a different pathway. Actually, that’s really a comment about science in general, isn’t it? There are so many pathways that you can take. There isn’t one best pathway. You find your own way, try to enjoy it and make a contribution, whatever you choose to do. So I’ve ended up taking several big steps and each of them has been relatively terrifying. I’ve never been certain that I would be able to do the jobs but, in the end, it’s very exciting to have a go and it has worked out so far.

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