What attracted you to medicine?
My whole family is in healthcare, so it was really a natural progression to undertake a career in medicine, but really being able to make a difference in people’s lives was what ultimately attracted me.
What did your path look like to get into medicine?
I didn’t have a typical linear trajectory into medicine as my passions during high school were music and the arts. I was able to get into medicine at The University of Melbourne as I had excellent scores in music performance. I even continued my passion for music on the side, studying music performance at the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne and performing with the University orchestra, which was really fun. After completing my medical degree, I took up further postgraduate training focusing on surgery during my internship and did my internship and surgical residency at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I then embraced the challenges of radiology in the second part of residency training at St. Vincent’s Hospital before relocating to the United States where I undertook a fellowship with the New York University & Mount Sinai Medical Center specialising in neuroradiology.
I took up a position in 2009 at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) as Professor of Radiology, Biomedical Engineering and Neurology and became the Director of Neuroradiology, Imaging & Informatics Core for the USC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADCR) as well as the Medical Director at the Stevens Institute of Imaging and Informatics. In 2018, I returned to Melbourne (Australia) where I hold a joint appointment as the Director of the Radiology and Nuclear Medicine Program at Alfred Health, and a Professor of Radiology in the Departments of Neuroscience and Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering at Monash University. I am currently the lead of the iBRAIN (Bioinformatics Research in Artificial Intelligence and Neuroimaging) Laboratory at the Central Clinical School, Dept of Neuroscience (Monash University).
How did you get into high mortality rate cancer research?
In the first 10 years of my work career I had the privilege of working with Professor Patrick J. Kelly, a neurosurgeon and the Chair of Neurosurgery at New York University/Bellevue Hospital who invented the stereotactic headframe for neurosurgery which revolutionized how brain cancers were treated. It allows neurosurgeons now to map a tumour in the brain with CT and MRI so that the least damage is made during the actual surgery. He was one of the foremost authorities in brain tumour surgery in the US, if not the world and he won the Karolinska Institute’s award for his pioneering work.
And so my career was shaped by his influence because, you know, we saw a lot of brain tumours at NYU. And so we end up doing a lot of MRI scanning and a lot of research and a lot of advanced imaging. So we saw both the more common brain tumors and then also the rare or lesser known tumours. As I started working at the Alfred Hospital, I’ve got to work with several departments including medical oncology, directed by Mark Shackleton, Neurosurgery, directed by Martin Hunn and Neurology, directed by Terence O’Brien which has been great and allowed us to all grow teams so we can collaborate and do research into lesser known brain cancers. I am currently applying my underlying skills and knowledge I learned in the US and apply statistical modelling (artificial intelligence techniques) to aid in the prediction and progression of brain tumours to improve outcomes for patient care and prognosis.
Why is there a need for more awareness and funding into lesser known cancers?
In my position as a radiologist at the Alfred Hospital I come across a lot of different cancers, ones that are lesser known in the pancreas or thyroid. It allows me to focus a little bit more on these types and investigate avenues for diagnosis and therapy a bit harder as I know that there are not that many therapies that are available for treatment. I feel that there’s things that we have learnt in my field that I want to be able to try something different. It’s why I see that there is a need to attract more funding for these lesser known cancers that aren’t as common, have lower life expectancy in patients and are very hard to treat so I can do this and use it in a creative and innovative way. This is only possible if there is additional funding.
What do you enjoy doing outside of practising medicine?
I’m actually quite a creative person, with my background being in music and arts in high school – I studied piano and the clarinet. In the first three years of my medical degree at The University of Melbourne I was also studying music performance at the Conservatorium of Music. It was this creative side that moved me towards research and its ability to generate novel and creative thinking. Most people think that radiologists simply look at imaging scans and report on a particular diagnosis, but it isn’t that clear cut. Being a radiologist in particular allows me to think somewhat out of the box and with an element of imagination.
I’m a keen golfer and I have actually been involved in a small side project looking at the beneficial effects of mindfulness on performance with a friend I met in the US Erik Anders Lang. We discovered after looking at the brain of around 20 – 30 golfers using MRI both before and after mindfulness that their golf improved and that there is an increased brain volume in certain areas. We think this is probably a result of a reduction in stress hormones, steroids and anxiety that allow an increase in blood flow to the brain and an increase in the volume in certain areas (www.betheballmovie.com). A colleague of mine has found that adding mindfulness to conventional chemotherapy and radiation makes patients do better with improved outcomes from cancer therapies.
I find golf to be a perfect combination of enjoying the journey, being outdoors, soaking up the wind and the sun, relaxation with friends, discipline, not allowing what has happen affect your state of mind and really just being in the moment.