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Five questions with WEHI’s new director 

15 April 2024
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WEHI director Ken Smith

Outstanding global leader Professor Ken Smith has come home to Australia, to lead WEHI into an exciting new era.

A WEHI alum, he is back in Melbourne after almost three decades in the United Kingdom, where he had been Head of the Department of Medicine at Cambridge University since 2010.

With deep international scientific links, Prof Smith brings a global outlook to his role as the institute’s seventh director in its 109-year history.

What attracted you to the role of WEHI director and drew you back to Australia?

I grew up in Victoria and I enjoyed living here, so coming back to my roots is part of it.

But the main attraction was the fact that WEHI is such an outstanding institution.

WEHI has almost doubled in size since I left, after completing my PhD here, and this reflects its growing impact on global health and medical research. But while it has grown, it still has the same ethos and the same focus on scientific excellence.

What’s changed alongside the institute is the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct, which has truly developed into a world-leading place to do research.

So WEHI is operating in an incredibly exciting context, in an internationally renowned precinct and at a time where research outcomes can be accelerated through new technology, approaches and collaborations.

The role of director was a real opportunity for me to bring the skills that I’ve developed over the years to make a difference here and lead a new chapter for WEHI.

 

“WEHI has almost doubled in size since I left … and this reflects its growing impact on global health and medical research. But while it has grown, it still has the same ethos and the same focus on scientific excellence.”
WEHI Director Ken Smith

What are your priorities for your first few months at WEHI?

WEHI has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding fundamental research in cancer, immune health and infection, and many other areas. The focus on discovery in our areas of strength will continue.

I’m looking forward to enhancing our many international connections, as these collaborations with the brightest minds across the globe are critical to advancing our great research.

But while I have many plans in my head, my first priority is getting to know people here and across the precinct, and the medical research sector in Australia more broadly. I am keen to hear a wide range of perspectives before finalising any strategic priorities.

There are so many talented students, staff and collaborators. I intend to spend some time getting to know them, to hear about their views and to reflect together on some of the health challenges of the future, and our role in these.

All scientific institutions need to reboot and refocus regularly because you can’t stand still in science – we always have to change. So I look forward to exploring how we can best enhance, leverage and evolve our work through our next strategic plan.

Like the Red Queen says in Through the Looking-Glass: it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Are there any particular research challenges that are front of mind for you?

There are two key things I’m interested in doing and thinking through.

I want to support us working even more closely with our hospital partners. This provides the opportunity to conduct discovery biology in people and to speed up the translation of fundamental research to treatments and advances that benefit patients and the community.

The second thing is thinking about what medical problems we’ll be facing in 20 years, and what current and future challenges will come with climate and environmental change and its consequences.

I look forward to sharing more of my thinking as I get my feet under the desk and hear from staff, students and partners.

“All scientific institutions need to reboot and refocus regularly because you can’t stand still in science – we always have to change.”
WEHI Director Ken Smith

At WEHI, we’re lucky to be backed by many passionate donors and supporters that enable us to do fantastic research. What’s your message for them?

We’re so grateful for our donors’ support, and we know that all we achieve at WEHI is thanks to their incredible generosity and trust in us.

I’m looking forward to working with our supporters to make sure we can bring WEHI’s agenda forward, while at the same time, delivering the kind of impact they want to come from their gifts.

Finally, as a leader, can you share with us what drives and inspires you at the start of each day?

Running a scientific institute is a really positive job because ultimately, my ambition is for everybody in the institute to be spectacularly successful.

Being part of people’s development, seeing them make a real impact on human health with their research is the most rewarding thing. Doing it at an institutional level just amplifies that.

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