The academic unit of Human Development and Health has more than 180 ‘core’ and project specific staff, in conjunction with many affiliated hospital staff and many, many students, all broadly researching human development with a focus on its impact over a life time from both a nutritional and genomic perspective.

I became departmental lead two years ago and there are some secrets to share. To start, it is a collegiate mix of people with very varied backgrounds from a basic science education to a past in clinical service. It means that hypotheses can develop at the bedside and be investigated at the bench, or be discovered in the lab and translated into research in the clinic. We have experts in population science where hypotheses can be formulated based on observation and then tested in clinical trials or through scientific experiments.

This potential for exploration to develop and flourish in many directions adds hugely to the mix of opportunities. Of course, research doesn’t prosper without the right facilitative environment and we are blessed with dedicated support staff who enable researchers to find a path through the maze of new software, legal restrictions and infrastructure constraints.

A focus on our five newly promoted professors provides some pertinent examples of how it can work. Professor Mark Beattie diagnoses and treats children with inflammatory bowel disease. Questions like – ‘why does one child respond to treatment X and another doesn’t?’ has led directly to basic research in genomics with collaborator, Professor Sarah Ennis. The group take a ‘systems’ approach to stratification of disease discovering new genes and mechanisms.

Professor Rohan Lewis, on the other hand, a basic scientist working on placental physiology has identified new pathways of molecular transport in his placental research laboratory. Understanding mechanisms provides potential answers to complications of pregnancy such as intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy.

Professor Diana Baralle is affectionately known as the ‘Queen of Splicing’. She researches basic science mechanisms underlying the ways cells are able to read DNA sequence but she takes examples from patients with genetic disease who see herself and clinical colleagues in the clinic. Research using these natural human mistakes mean that patients can receive diagnoses and novel molecular mechanisms can be uncovered.

Professor Ying Cheong investigates the cause and treatment of infertility using her clinical observations to research improved outcome. For example, working with engineering she is researching a new method of sensing the natural environment of the womb to help diagnose and treat women with difficulty conceiving.

Professor Karen Walker-Bone in occupational rheumatology works closely with mathematics and statistics. Epidemiological observations of workplace hazards now leads to intervention trials to reduce workplace disability. All five are fabulous role models, showing the breadth of different specialists in the unit and are an inspiration to our undergraduate medical students, postgraduate scientists and our clinical academics of the future.

So, my take home message for this missive is that research today requires more than just personal drive to succeed, it requires the ability to work well and communicate effectively with other people and above all a willingness to learn how to speak many new scientific languages.

Karen Temple, Head of Academic Unit of Human Development and Health and Professor of Medical Genetics

Human Development and Health update

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