Steve Wesselingh

Steve Wesselingh | Insights from Industry Leaders

Executive Director of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

Professor Steve Wesselingh is currently the inaugural Executive Director of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Prior to taking on this role in late 2011, Steve was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University from 2007-2011.

Steve recently sat down with Ccentric consultant, Pam Lubrainschik to discuss his career. Some of the questions they discussed include:

  • Why did you decide to study medicine?
  • What influenced your decision to work predominately in academia?
  • As inaugural Executive Director of SAHMRI, what do you hope your legacy will be?
  • Digital Health is a rapidly developing field. From your perspective, what role do you think it will play in ensuring better health outcomes?
  • Diversity is a prominent issue.  How have you seen the teams and organisations that you work with evolve and manage these issues?
  • When you are recruiting for a senior executive to join your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person, apart from technical skills and experience?
  • Who has inspired you the most in your career?
  • What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?

Why did you decide to study medicine?

Well, I actually didn’t decide to do medicine. I was very interested in science, but also actually interested in people and working with people. In Year 12 I put medicine first because it seemed to combine that science stuff and also seeing people and helping people and also opportunities to travel and I was lucky enough to get a score that got me into medicine. So that’s when it started.

What influenced your decision to work in predominantly in academia?

I guess there were a couple of influences. The major one actually was after I’d trained as a physician, I went to Papua New Guinea for a while and probably hadn’t done much academic medicine up until that point. But my experience in PNG, particularly in Goroka in the Highlands, was the impact of research and science on healthcare and on the health of people in Papua New Guinea, made me think that you know, maybe a research career or a combination, clinician-scientist career was something that would be interesting and have an impact and there are a couple of difficulties and they still exist actually. One is that there isn’t a defined career path and there’s no job that pays you to develop into a clinician-scientist. And then there’s quite a lot of time involved, and also time where you might not be doing the things that your peers are doing. So, for instance, to be truly successful in academic medicine, I think you have to do a PHD, you know, you’ve got to go back to being a student. I really enjoyed that. But you do have to go back and do that three, four years of being a student after being a doctor for some time. I also think you need to have experience in other environments, which almost invariably means going overseas, so doing a post-doc, I was lucky enough to do my post-doc at Johns Hopkins. I learnt a lot of science at Johns Hopkins but I also learnt about a really successful culture and an amazing teaching hospital.

As inaugural Executive Director of SAHMRI, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Well, I think there are probably two legacies. One’s physical and the others the existence of SAHMRI. So firstly, I think, we’ve been so lucky to be able to develop this building and now we’re building SAHMRI 2 next door, so hopefully when I leave, there’ll be this physical presence on this precinct of SAHRMI as the centre of the precinct along with the universities and also the amazing new Royal Adelaide Hospital, so a physical legacy. But buildings aren’t what make medical research institutes, it’s then building the people within this building, developing the culture of SAHMRI and I guess that culture has had, I think, two things that I’m really proud of. One is, as John Shine once put, “the translation is in our DNA”, so we’re very translational and it’s all about moving what we do into healthcare. And the other comes from Alex Brown, one of our theme leaders, and he’s the head of Aboriginal Health Equity, and it’s in the title of his theme, Health Equity. Alex is really driven, and I’ve been very proud in supporting this, but both Aboriginal health equity is at the centre of what we do, but health equity generally is at the centre of what we do and I’m not sure that’s always the case in research organisations, but it certainly is with us. I would like, if I came back to SAHMRI in 10-15 years’ time, love to see the building still here, still full of people with a passion for research, but a passion for translating their research into outcomes that improve fairness and equity.

Digital Health is a rapidly developing field. From your perspective, what role do you think it will play in ensuring better health outcomes?

I think data, digital health, AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning are going to have the biggest influence on health going forward. I think in the last 10 years, the biggest influence has been genomics, both in diagnosis and in the development of drugs and other things. But going forward, we have to make the health system sustainable, we need to have ways of improving the health system, doing clinical trials, understanding the deficiencies in the health system really rapidly. I think within SAHMRI, we have some great examples of that, the registries, our joint registry, our dialysis and transplant registry and more recently, our aged care registry are all collecting data that can dramatically influence the health system immediately. So I think data is going to drive it, as soon as you have large amounts of data and that could be health administrative data, but it also could be imaging data, genomics data, mixed data, then you need obviously high-performance computing. That’s not actually enough, you need AI and machine learning to utilise that data quickly and appropriately and then to deliver the outcomes so that the decisions that clinicians, not only doctors but all clinicians make are influenced by the data.

Diversity is a prominent issue. How have you seen the teams and organisations that you work with evolve and manage these issues?

Well, I guess there are two areas that I’d like to particularly concentrate on in relation to diversity, but I think diversity generally is important. One is gender equity in science and that’s a big issue at a funding level, at a career level, early career, mid and particularly late career. So, we’ve been really proud here at SAHRMI to get our bronze award, our SAGE bronze award, if you don’t people don’t know what that is, it means that we are measuring and improving gender equity in science actively. We got that award a few weeks ago so that was tremendous. The other thing that I think we are very, very proud of is in the Aboriginal health space and we have our Aboriginal health equity theme within that theme, there are about 50 people, 30 are Indigenous. So, 30 people in the one theme are Indigenous and then across the building, we have about 35 Indigenous people out of four or five hundred people who are employed by SAHMRI, and that makes me very proud that we’re building that capacity. A lot of them are very young and still developing in terms of their science but I think that’s one of the most important things we’re doing. A lot come from Adelaide and South Australia but we also from all over Australia, for instance, two of our most outstanding female Indigenous researchers are Torres Strait Islanders, so it’s a really interesting group of people from all over Australia.

When you are recruiting for a senior executive in your team, what are the key attributes you look for in the person apart from technical skills and experience?

I think it’s a really important one, you need to look back and see what people have done in the past, what have been their particular strengths. But ultimately, I think, and you can call it whatever you like, people skills, emotional intelligence and those sorts, the ability to work with people and the ability to read people, ability to work with difficult people, the ability to work in a team, those attributes are incredibly important.

Who has inspired you the most in your career?

I guess because the impact someone has on you early in your career obviously has a much bigger impact than someone later in your career and so when I went to Papua New Guinea, there was a guy called Michael Alpers who actually came from South Australia and he developed or was leading the Institute for Medical Research in Goroka. And I got there, I think he’d been there for about 15 years and subsequently stayed another 10, so he led that institute for 25 years and then retired. And the work that he did in that environment in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, developing evidence around things I mean, his biggest bit was on Kuru. I could explain that if you want me to, but also on meningococcal vaccines and a whole lot of other areas was just amazing. I thought, you know, that’s the sort of research and evidence that dramatically changes health in that environment or around the world. He probably should’ve won a Nobel Prize, by the way, but the person he worked with was a guy called Carleton Gajdusek on Kuru and Carleton won the Nobel Prize, I’ve always thought Michael should have shared that.

Kuru is similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob or Mad Cow Disease, it’s a preowned disease of the brain that causes people to have very funny movements and eventually dementia and they die. That happened in a particular region, in the four highland regions of New Guinea. Some people do call it cannibalism, I call it transumption, which really meant that when people died, the family prepared the body and did consume some of that body, but they didn’t actually go and kill people and eat them, which is what cannibalism is. They were relatives and which is why for a long time they thought it was genetic because basically the women and children’s prepared the body and then they had a very complex funeral process, but it involved the consumption of the body or parts of the body and that’s how the prion was transmitted.

What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?

I think the most important thing is to do what you really want to or what you’re really passionate about because I often talk to younger clinicians in particular who say, well, I can’t do infectious diseases, as an example, because all the jobs are taken or I can’t do cardiology, or I can’t go into global health because there are too many global health people. But firstly, it’s very hard to predict where the jobs are. And second, if you choose your job on the basis of whether you know there’s an opening, you’re not going to be passionate about it and the people who really succeed, the Ian Frazer’s of the world or Ingrid Schaefer’s of the world are doing things they love and therefore do them really well, and become internationally renowned, or internationally significant or make a difference. If you don’t do that, then I think if you aspire to leadership, you’re going to find it a lot harder.


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