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 More...