Expert Breakfast Report for July 19th 2023: Prof. Bruce Russell, Dept. of Microbiology.

In an entertaining and most informative session, Prof. Russell emphasised the value of travel in the Medical and Scientific arenas, as well as touching on many other useful pointers, virtually all stemming from comments by the Members present.

Prof. Russell’s opening comment was, “Why the hell are self-respecting undergraduates getting up at this hour of the morning?” - an indication that his talk would not follow the usual pattern! Indeed, instead of the usual round the table of ‘Where are you from, and what degree are you pursuing?’, he was most interested in Member’s plans beyond graduation, and probed gently into their motivations, and ‘where you want to go in life’. Without exception those present expressed an interest in helping others.

Cancer and T cells - and Rock Stars

In response to one member’s aspiration to work in cancer research, Prof. Russell mentioned the enormous strides made in this area in the last ten years, and spoke of a colleague in his department who was working on the reprogramming of T cells to attack specific cancer in a given patient, “almost like a magic bullet”. Pressing another member who said she was not sure what she wanted to do after graduating, he asked if she had had any particular dream when she was younger. When her response was that she had wanted to be a Rock Star when she was little, his response was typically one of interest, and mentioned his Asian wife, who is obviously firm with the children about doing their music practice . . .

Rural Practice versus The City

One member, hoping to enter Pharmacy in second year, said her dream was to own and operate a rural community Pharmacy. Her own background was in a rural community, and she felt, noting that Pharmacy was about knowing the needs of the people she would serve, that she was better able to do this in a rural community. Bruce then described some Australian research supporting this, that recruiting people from rural areas is the best way of providing professionals for those areas, as they were drawn back to where they came from in many ways. He was also at pains to point out that working in the city is also a good thing - “There are a lot of people in the cities who need help, too.”

Importance of Overseas Experience and Undersubscribed Scholarships.

Throughout this interchange between members and himself, Prof. Russell stressed the usefulness of gaining experience overseas, with a number of anecdotes about his own travels. For example, he has recently returned from 8 months in Japan, describing how his 10 year old and 12 year old children had been to Japanese schools in that time. There were no International Schools in the area, so off they went to a totally Japanese speaking local school, where there were no other foreigners. “They were treated literally like zoo animals! My 10 year old son was adopted by a group of Japanese girls . . who treated him like a pet. Holding his hand and dragging him around the school . . “. “I said, ‘Just roll with it - keep smiling and saying ‘sumimasen’ - which is Japanese for ‘Sorry’.” He described how his daughter has a particular facility with languages, and in around two months had mastered writing in Katakana and Hiragana. Kanji has over 80,000 characters, and would take a little longer!1

Prof. Russell said Japan is a highly unusual place for anyone to go to. “I highly recommend it - In fact, probably the biggest message I have for everyone here is to travel. Especially if you haven’t left New Zealand . . . Please, do check out scholarships! “

He did describe one of his students going to Georgia University in the US, where she had struggled a little. The Southern States have “a different attitude towards women than she was used to . . . there were two standards. Men are allowed to get smashed and fool around, and women don’t.” A significant message here is that he booked her into an Otago University Alumni scholarship which was for three or four awards, yet no-one else had applied for it and so it was readily available.

Travel, the North American Work Ethic and Voluntary Work

Another anecdote on the topic of overseas travel had to do with a very bright and ambitious Ph.D. student everyone was vying to have in their laboratory. This individual was a mature student, who had previously been employed in winemaking and brewing, but found the number of people above him in the hierarchy stifling. When his turn came to interview this person, Bruce rapidly ascertained that he wanted to travel, and explained that, because of his malaria studies, he was very well placed to expedite overseas travel. This student began working in Prof. Russell’s laboratory, and secured a post-doctorate position at New York’s Columbia University. Prof. Russell warned him that the work ethic was such that, should he not be working on a holiday, especially at Columbia - and his supervisor found out, he was liable to find his belongings packed in a box on the desk, and would be asked to leave. He is now married and working at the University of New South Wales - “and he’s had a great time.”

“I’ve seen so many of my students come in with one idea about what they want to do .. .and followed it, and then been open to new ideas and new challenges, and then grabbed those opportunities. But the opportunity to travel is one you should never give up.” Bruce went on to say his only major career regrets were when he had turned down an opportunity to travel, for whatever reason - such as feeling too busy at the time. “Certainly in the Medical and Scientific areas, travel, and getting in contact with other like-minded people is absolutely essential. . . .Even if you have seen a place as a child, going back as an adult and a professional is very different. . . . .At some stage of your life, try to do some voluntary work.” On a CV, the fact that you have done voluntary work shows that you care about other people and can work in a team “for greater goals.” There are Volunteer Organisations that can offer placements, perhaps in an area where you will later be looking for a post.

And Now, a Romantic Interlude . . .

Bruce told us that his own goal as a child was to join the Military, and almost went to Oceanography at the Australian National Defence Force Academy - “and then I fell in love with a girl in High School, and we decided to run off together and do Marine Biology at James Cook University (JCU), wading through coral reefs and playing with dolphins. I forgot all my dreams of joining the Military, and just chased that girl. Much to the horror of my parents, we raced up to Townsville (one of the JCU campuses) and moved in together, which was also a big ‘NoNo’ where I came from, and basically my parents said, ‘Well, you can fund yourself’. . . - And I did. I worked as a kitchen hand at on Pizza Hut, cut chickens up for KFC, and did all of these revolting jobs late at night to put myself through my Undergrad.” And after all of that, he realised that, while he had an interest in Marine Biology, it was not sustained, because it was his girlfriend’s dream, not his. “And I wasn’t good-looking enough to become a Marine Biologist! It seemed that all the people who were chosen . . . for the trips out to such places as the Great Barrier Reef . . looked like Australian surf models . . . I have to say it, cute looking people. . . And I wasn’t that.“ And then he realised, “as I was cracking open the skull of a green turtle to look inside the brain for parasites” that parasites, animals that feed on other animals, seemed fairly interesting. “Fast forward, I finished my degree and then got into the Military.” This was for several reasons. He was fed up with being poor, the Army had scholarships - they would pay him a proper wage, and pay him to finish his degree. Australia had not been involved in any deployment for some time, ”and within two months of my joining, they sent me on a peace-keeping mission to Bougainville - where I was shot at in a helicopter . . . but most of the time, I got to visit really amazing places (such as) in a helicopter looking down at volcanoes. Later he was sent to East Timor for two years.

Bruce diagnosing malaria in Bougainville in 1998. The decade long war in Bougainville resulted in the collapse of the health infrastructure and malaria became a major problem.

“My girlfriend had got involved with a guy who wanted to do Marine Biology, and I ran off and spent four years overseas, leaving my beautiful Australian woman by herself, and so she found better options than me.” (Laughing).

Post-Doctoral Work - Malaria, Drinking Blood, and Taking Opportunities.

He worked on contract to the U.S. Army, did his post-doc at the National Academy in Washington, another at the Thai-Myanmar border for Oxford, and four years in West Papua, which has the largest gold mine on earth, operated by. a multinational company. West Papua is a province of Indonesia, a situation not popular with the West Papuans. Prof. Russell described them as culturally very rich, but materially poor. They come out of the forest for malaria treatment, testing for which they have blood taken. If they are not given the results as quickly as they expect, they demand the blood be returned as there are cultural sensitivities about blood. ”I’ll never forget the time we took too long, and the guy came back and said he wanted his blood back. We gave him the lithium heparin tube of his blood back, he took the top off, drank it, then left.”

After some more travelling, he ended up in Singapore, and strongly recommended it to anyone interested in research. Salaries are high, taxes low, and they have some of the best research infrastructure he has ever seen, and he earned more there as a post-doc than he does now as a professor.

Bruce explained that the reason he had told us his story was this: “No-one would have predicted, from where I started, where I would have gone. I had initially dreamed of becoming an oceanographer with the Australian Navy, and now I’m a Professor of Parasitology at a southern New Zealand university, I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would be where I am today. The thing you always need to be mindful of is opportunity, - opportunity to travel. That’s my biggest regret; that I didn’t travel when I was younger.

Otago University Looks After Its Students

“Otago (University) is a great launching pad. The degrees here and the way you are cared for here is unbelievable. Otago is undoubtedly one of the most student-friendly places I’ve been to. I worked at National University of Singapore as an assistant Professor for four years, where the attitude towards students is rather different.” When he began working here, Prof.Russell said he was “shocked” at the care taken in, for example, the construction of exam questions and the care and time taken in the processing of exam results to ensure students had the best chance. “At the end of the day, honestly, this University really, really looks after its students.” Nevertheless, he considers that a student planning to undertake a Ph.D. or any higher qualification should not confine their search for a suitable place to Otago, or even New Zealand. Look for those scholarships - “If you’ve got a scholarship to an Ivy League University, and you’ve done something interesting in your career that differentiates yourself, such as voluntary work, go for it.”

Bruce told a cautionary story about voluntary work. At one stage he worked at an ante-natal clinic on the Thai-Cambodian border where he was involved in the diagnosis and treatment of malaria. Women in pregnancy are particularly susceptible to the complications of malaria, which kills both the women and their unborn babies. Every 2 minutes someone dies of malaria. During his time there he received a number of requests from American students to work at the clinic, with various reasons being given. However, the medical staff at the clinic, many of whom had begun as members of international medical groups such as Médecine sans Frontière and stayed on for years, pointed out that the students were trying to get into one of the Ivy League universities, and wanted this on their CVs. “Don’t do it just because you want a CV filler; do it because you want to do it, and because it fits yourself and your character. . . From what you have told me here, you all want to help people, which is great.”

After Bruce’s time in the army he worked on the Thai Myanmar Border as a Post Doctoral fellow. During these trips he often befriended the local wildlife including this orphaned baby Gibbon who would be happy to hang around for hours.

Question Time - Technology in the 3rd World, Why Malaria? Teaching Style and Helping Others

In response to a question about the biggest challenge in getting the necessary technology into poor countries, Prof. Russell noted that “It’s all about political will-power. If you want your people to be better looked after, it will happen. But if your objective in life is to line your pockets, and dump huge quantities of money [into a secret bank account], like in many places, it won’t happen.” Prof.Russell noted that a UOB account in Singapore was now the place for one’s secret bank account, Switzerland no longer being secure from the US State Dept. (For anyone interested, UOB = United Overseas Bank).

“The biggest problems are corruption and mismanagement of funds. The ‘Big Three’ are Tb., HIV and malaria. By the time I have finished my (1 hour) talk, 60 people will have died from those three. It’s a tragedy which is completely preventable, because we have diagnostics and treatment for all three.” Covid was very revealing, as large amounts of money became available from donors to fight it. Yet this money was not available for the ‘Big Three’. “Malaria and Tb are poor people’s diseases. Covid became a rich person’s disease.” Worst of all, the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and lab. techs needed for the Big Three were offered a doubling of their salaries to tackle Covid instead, and the Big Three clinics were cleaned out.

Asked how he came to study malaria, it emerged that he had originally been working on dengue fever, then, when in the Army: “I was actually told to get into malaria, because there is a need.” One look down a microscope at a malarial parasite was enough to convince him, and he still likes looking at them.

The ring form of Plasmodium falciparum inside red blood cells. — Image by: John Cross

He currently has a Brazilian student working on a form of malaria found in Old World monkeys that can jump between those animals and humans.

The final question, as time ran out, enquired how Bruce had developed his teaching style. “I’m totally, totally against the idea of filling buckets in teaching. I want to start fires inside your heart to really encourage you. A lot of people think that to do a Ph.D. is for brainy people. It is not. It is pure tenacity.”

“Every single one of you has indicated that you want to help others, and that’s a very beautiful thing. Don’t let go of it.”

1The Japanese language has three types of characters: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.  Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic symbols, each representing one syllable while Kanji consists of ideograms, in which each ideogram has a certain meaning.

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Posted: Monday July 24, 2023