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The quiet achievers: behind the scenes at SVI

Posted: 10th March 2015

Although rarely lauded outside of the laboratory, research assistants and technicians are fundamental to medical research. They are multi-tasking, problem-solving, level-headed facilitators. They make order out of lab chaos by collating and managing collections of specimens and complicated data outputs. They are often responsible for the day-to-day training of new people who join the group: the successes of students are often directly attributable to the quality of the oversight they received from the lab’s battle-weary research assistants. They are one of the few constants in laboratories, providing continuity as students and postdocs transit through the lab and move out into the research world, bolstered by the training they have received.

SVI is lucky to have an excellent group of expert research assistants, some of whom have worked at the Institute for the majority of their careers. Here we highlight the importance of their role by focusing on just four of SVI's 44 hard-working research assistants.

Pat Ho joined the Bone Unit in the late 1980s, having been a highly regarded technician working in Hong Kong, at Prince Henry’s and at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Professor Jack Martin says that Pat has been an instrumental part of the lab’s advances. She played a major role in developing and applying a new assay that has been used in the lab and elsewhere for years. Jack says, “Pat has shown enormous skill and versatility in her 25 years working with us. She has contributed to virtually every aspect of the Bone Unit’s research, predominantly in cell and molecular biology. The expansion of her skills reflects the fact that she always wants to learn new methods. Pat has co-authored at least 24 papers and has been rightly acknowledged on many more.”

Stacey Fynch is a lynchpin in the Immunology and Diabetes Unit. An animal technician, Stacey has worked at SVI since 2005 after gaining experience at Melbourne University. A/Prof Helen Thomas says, “Stacey makes an extremely important contribution to the research success of our lab. Her biggest responsibility is to manage the resources that we use for our research: a very complicated and time-consuming job. Stacey also keeps the lab of more than 20 scientists ticking and helps everyone with their experiments. She does all of this with a great degree of skill; for Stacey, no job is too difficult.”

Research assistant in the Bone Cell Biology and Disease Unit, Ingrid Poulton joined SVI 18 years ago directly from school, and was initially employed to help wash tissue culture glassware. She was plucked out of that role to learn bone histology under the guidance of A/Prof Natalie Sims. Natalie says, “Ingrid prepares, cuts and stains bone sections, a very specialised skill because of the difficult medium – bone is obviously tough and cutting through it to give meaningful slices that can be used for research is technically very challenging. Ingrid is one of the best there is. Her work is essential for the high standard of bone analysis at SVI, and she is the one who teaches the many national and international visitors who come here to learn those methods.”

Ankita Goradia was one of the first members to join the Stem Cell Regulation Unit when it was established at SVI in 2008. In addition to managing the laboratory and overseeing more than 12 other members of the Unit, she has been centrally involved in a number of projects related to bone cancer. Dr Carl Walkley says "Since 2008 the group has grown and is in a continual state of flux as students and post-docs start and finish their studies: Ankita has provided continuity over that time. She is highly efficient and can be relied on to successfully complete complex and intricate experiments. She keeps the day-to-day running of the lab on track and ensures everyone has what they need to get their experiments done.”

Next time you hear of a medical breakthrough in the media, take a moment to think of the people who may not front the press conference, but whose work behind the scenes is indispensable.