“Serious fun”: celebrating Dr Graham Mitchell

“Serious fun”: celebrating Dr Graham Mitchell

Illuminate newsletter index page, September 2019
September 2019

Dr Graham Mitchell AO commenced as a PhD student
at the Institute in 1966.

In a science career spanning more than half a century, Dr Graham Mitchell AO has left an indelible mark on many aspects of Institute life.

When he commenced his PhD in February 1966, the Institute was a very different place. There were a mere handful of senior research staff and, as Graham recalled, everyone knew everyone else’s name and much of their background.

“What has primarily inspired me are the people here,” Dr Mitchell said. “I have worked with many great scientists who have gone on to do extraordinary things. There is a real atmosphere of enquiry, inventiveness and innovation.”

Graham joined the Institute after topping veterinary science at the University of Sydney. His PhD supervisor, Professor Jacques Miller AC, soon found in Graham a fellow graduate from whom he would learn a lot.

“Our collaboration proved incredibly fruitful: we identified thymus-derived cells and antibody-forming cell precursors, when no CD markers or other markers existed at the time,” Professor Miller said.

At a recent celebration marking Graham’s official retirement after 12 years on the Institute’s board, Professor Phil Hodgkin – joint head of the Institute’s Immunology division – reflected on the impact of the work of Graham and Jacques.

“It profoundly changed the field of immunology,” Professor Hodgkin said. “As a result of their work, immunologists were confronted with a new set of questions they hadn’t even dreamt of, and we’re still working through the consequences today.”

Historic photo of group of people working in laboratory
Dr Graham Mitchell (standing back right) in the Institute's
immunoparasitology laboratory.

A new research agenda

After five years of postdoctoral experience in California, England and Switzerland, Graham returned to Australia, and the Institute, in 1973 at the invitation of then-director Sir Gustav Nossal.

“I indicated to Gus that I wanted to do something different,” Dr Mitchell said. “What I had done as a postdoc didn’t excite me as much as developing, for example, a vaccine, a new drug or a diagnostic test.”

Under Jacques’ guidance, Graham set up a new lab concerned with the immunology of parasitism.

“The timing was perfect. We had international money coming in, and there were no vaccines and few drugs in development. There was little to help the millions of people around the world affected by parasites who, though most in need, are the least able to pay for treatments,” Dr Mitchell said.

“Most of my life’s successes, through no doing of my own, have been a matter of luck and good timing, and the capacity to recognise good fortune and capitalise on it.”

Professor Alan Cowman, an Institute malaria researcher and deputy director, science strategy, said Dr Mitchell built a parasitology research program that became recognised internationally as one of the best. “He was truly an incredible, well known and respected scientist in the parasitology field,” Professor Cowman said.

Graham’s subsequent career included roles as director of the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens, director of research at CSL, chief scientist in Victoria and co-founder of Foursight, a business focused on the commercialisation of research. In 2007 he joined the Institute board, starting a new phase of his involvement in our research.

(L–R) Dr Graham Mitchell at his recent farewell morning
tea, with Institute director Professor Doug Hilton and
former director and long-time mentor Sir Gustav Nossal.

Always looking forward

In reflecting on Graham’s time on the Institute’s board, recently-retired board president Mr Chris Thomas AM highlighted Graham’s many career skills.

“He has always been acutely familiar with the many interfaces of science with commercialisation,” Mr Thomas said. “He’s a real collaborator who always brought wisdom to the discussion.”

From his position of retiring from the Institute’s Board, Graham said he looked to the evolving direction of the Institute with great enthusiasm.

“As well as the growth of the Institute and new technologies, what is also apparent is the rich diversity of researchers at the Institute compared to my early days,” Dr Mitchell said.

Looking to the next generation of emerging medical researchers, Graham said the key was to always keep an eye on one’s next steps.

“At the end of your PhD, you should be the world’s expert on a very small aspect of your field. And that should be an area that the rest of the world wants to know about. So when there is a conference in your field, they call on you – in other words, stay current and relevant.”

Graham’s signature mantra, and perhaps the final word on research, is to have what he calls “serious fun”.

“There has to be rigour and commitment and you’re often using public money. Therefore you have to be mindful of a return on investment as well as getting it right," Dr Mitchell said. 

"Nossal, Miller and (Professor Don) Metcalf really pioneered the approach of building a case progressively – very careful, very rigorous. But there was fun too. Laughter is a key element of my time at the Institute.”

Alumni network

Graham Mitchell is one of the newest members of the Institute’s alumni network. Learn more about our alumni program at www.wehi.edu.au/alumni.

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