A year after being named Australian of the Year in 2017, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim reflects on a busy, but rewarding year.
24 January, 2018
If they handed out Australian of the Year for being a good bloke, Alan Mackay-Sim would be a very strong candidate. That he’s a world-renowned research scientist whose work on stem cells and their application to spinal cord injuries is at the forefront of medical science, pretty much tipped him into the gig.
When he accepted the award almost this time last year, he congratulated his fellow nominees (he described them as his seven new best friends), and famously said ‘I'm sure the only difference between us is my moustache’.
Impressive moustache though it is, Alan Mackay-Sim is an extraordinary man across so many levels, that he and ‘Australian of the Year’ seem destined to get together sooner or later.
For this ground-breaking research scientist, the award and 2017 have proved to be extraordinarily busy, but fulfilling, as he has used every opportunity to promote the importance of science in general and specifically his work on stem cell research to the wider Australian and world community.
“I feel very fulfilled, but I’m also looking forward to having a less busy life,” says Professor Mackay-Sim as his ‘year in the top job’ draws to a close, and the announcement of the next Australian of the Year approaches.
Professor Mackay-Sim was awarded the honour for his tremendous body of medical research and most specifically for his work on olfactory ensheathing cells – cells found in the nose that enable the sense of smell, but which die and then regenerate throughout life. His research has concentrated on the application of these cells to the regeneration and repair of the nervous system, looking at a number of diseases such as Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease, but he is perhaps best known for the application of his research in treating those with severe spinal chord injuries.
"For this ground-breaking research scientist, the award and 2017 have proved to be extraordinarily busy, but fulfilling."
"Alan Mackay-Sim has shared his time and his knowledge, spreading the word that science and research in particular is of paramount importance to the entire community."
“I essentially made it into a full time job,” says the Griffith University emeritus professor of his AOTY award. “I know Ian Frazer [Australian of the Year 2006 for his work on a cervical cancer vaccine] and saw how he used it as a platform to educate and inform, so I decided to take a similar approach.”
“It’s an evolving process, in that your diary dictates what you do, as you receive invitations for various interested bodies and organisations wanting you to attend and speak at their events.”
“One of the things I wanted to do was to promote in the community the importance of science to our future, our children and the economy and I hope I’ve achieved that,” he says. “You create these ripples and you hope that they go on and make a different and register with a much greater audience.”
From students to teachers, to business groups and international business forums. Alan Mackay-Sim has shared his time and his knowledge, spreading the word that science and research in particular is of paramount importance to the entire community at so many levels.
“I haven’t restricted my speaking engagements to just science or biomedical,” says Mackay-Sim who has made a point of speaking to a broader audience as well as those specifically interested in biomedical science.
In addition to promoting the practical benefits of science to our collective future, Mackay-Sim is passionate amount revising the whole funding model of medical research, so that those at the cutting edge of science, can actually get on with the task at hand and not be bogged down with having to seek funding.
“There are a lot of things that look very promising in the lab, but need clinical trials to further the research,” says Professor Mackay-Sim. “Those clinical trials, or getting things to the clinical trial stage is very costly. This would be a very different funding model and would be a much more commercially driven way of getting funding into biomedical research,” he says.
This approach would see other ‘players’ approached and brought in to the fold to help fund ongoing medical research, rather than relying solely on government funding. The cost savings [in terms of preventative medicine], says Professor Mackay-Sim, not to mention potential return for the private and public sector could be significant. But the more important aspect, and the one that is closest to the Australian of the Year’s heart is that of perpetuating and promoting ongoing research.
“In terms of achieving it all in one year, that simply won’t happen,” says Mackay-Sim, but laying the foundation of a better funding model to promote ongoing medical research is what’s important. And he is not focused solely on promoting stem cell research, but all medical research that will benefit countless Australians and people around the world.
“I learnt from Ian Frazer and he said you don’t have to achieve everything in your one year, because you lay the foundations during that year, and these things do take time.”
“That [Frazer’s advice] took the pressure off me to be honest, not having to accomplish everything in a year. But that will be my goal for next year, to build on this and really get things going.”
The Professor is not one to take things easy, and his enthusiasm for all things is infectious. After making his outgoing speech ahead of this year’s Australian of the Year announcement, Alan and his wife Lisa will prepare for a visit to the UK where he has been invited to address the Royal College of Physicians on the occasion of their 500th anniversary.
So many highlights in one busy year, but tellingly, the standout for Mackay-Sim was that ‘the community valued the award’ and the fact that ‘a scientist got it and that they valued my research… that the community valued what we do as scientists’.
A more worthy Australian of the Year would be near impossible to find, and one whose work, influence and passion will have a profound and positive effect on the community long into the future.
Below: Three extraordinary Australians: Professor Alan Mackay-Sim at Audi Hamilton Island Race Week, flanked by Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG (left) and Allan Sparkes CV, OAM (right).
"The more important aspect, and the one that is closest to the Australian of the Year’s heart is that of perpetuating and promoting ongoing research."
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