Students are the lifeblood of research

5 September 2013

Professor Des Richardson from the Sydney Medical Schoolhas a potent anti-cancer drug on the cusp of commercialisation, a major career milestone for anyone working in the field of cancer research. Yet he believes teaching his PhD students is just as important a contribution to society.

"I strongly believe one of the greatest contributions of my career has been through teaching PhD students who then go on and make their own discoveries and subsequently mentor others," Professor Richardson said.

"I'm just one individual, so my research and contribution is finite, whereas my students will generate their own thoughts, expand the research into new areas and go on to do groundbreaking work."

Professor Richardson has worked in some of Australia's major research institutes, including the Heart Research Institute, yet it is his passion for teaching that has kept him at the University of Sydney for the last eight years years.

"At research institutes there are far fewer opportunities to mentor and supervise students. Without my PhD students my research would have faltered, they are the lifeblood of my research. I provide the basic structure and ideas and my students help to bring out those ideas and generate even more."

Since he recruited his first PhD student in 1998, Professor Richardson has trained 36 PhD students. Many of his students have gone on to receive prestigious research fellowships, including Dr Zaklina Kovacevic.

Dr Kovacevic started with Professor Richardson as an Honours student. She went on to complete her PhD with him and is now undertaking her joint NHMRC and CINSW Early Career Fellowships in the same lab.

"Zaklina's research examines how a protein called NDRG1 blocks cancer cells from spreading. She is building on my previous research and has extensively added her own thoughts and ideas," Professor Richardson said.

Her studies have added to the body of knowledge into cancer treatment that Professor Richardson has been building over the past two decades. The treatment he has developed involves a new anti-cancer agent called DpC.

"DpC attacks cancer cells and prevents them from spreading. This is important as it is the spread of the cancer cells through the body that is the major cause of death. We believe they have the potential to be the 'next generation' of drugs to treat cancer," Professor Richardson said.

Since 2011, Professor Richardson has been collaborating with Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. Three surgeons from Shanghai have joined Professor Richardson's lab to receive research training for their PhD studies.

"The students are outstanding, they are 'the top of the top'. They arrive with no training in scientific research and within one year they are able to conduct their own research and write a paper for a top journal," he said.

"They then go back to China, train others to do research and become supervisors themselves."

"I want to teach my students about the love of science and how to do things properly. I'm always telling them to do one more experiment and to have another control. I'm pretty fussy about that, I want their studies to be done correctly.

"I hope my students say that they were taught well and the research they undertook was important and remains true today."

Professor Richardson's outstanding teachingwas recently recognised by the Office of Learning and Teaching when they awarded him a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning. He will be presented his awarded along with the eight other award recipients from the University on Tuesday 17 September. He was also the recipient of the 2013 Vice Chancellor's Award for Research Higher Degree Supervision.