Mark Hutchinson: Silo Buster

20 August 2020: Re published with permission from The Brilliant

For 20 years, Mark Hutchinson has been breaking down territorial boundaries. His career has thus become not just a case study in highly original research, but a simultaneous battle against intellectual bureaucracy.

Right at the very outside of his scientific career he hit a wall that he sought to dismantle.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science (first-class honours) from the University of Adelaide, he decided to stay on for a PhD in Medicine. His intended research required him to merge both immunology and pharmacology.

He was immediately blocked. The two fields were in separate faculties. Immunologists were in science. Pharmacologists were in health science. A PhD across both fields was deemed not possible, for purely bureaucratic reasons.

“There was nothing,” he told The Brilliant. “The immunologists were immunologists, and they did not talk to the drug people, and the drug people thought that immunology was something you did in a dish and that was it.”

Unusually, for a brand new graduate, he pushed back: “I was clearly putting things forward when I shouldn’t have.”

I really liked the systems approach applied in immunology, and I loved how the drugs acted with receptors. The immunologists were always talking antibodies and cytokines and these big, annoying molecules. And I knew the elegance of the chemistry from the pharmacology. So why on earth weren’t these two talking to each other?”

Looking back, he describes himself as, “a really annoying, enthusiastic student.”

It worked. His unwavering support for interdisciplinary research helped him then and it has helped him ever since in his chosen field, the treatment of pain, addiction and depression.

Self-evidently, these three fields overlap. Hutchinson believes it is now clear that treating disorders of the central nervous system requires researchers to be experts in immunology, neuroscience and drugs.

The diseases he is studying are neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders, and the treatments of pain, anxiety, depression and drug addiction.

That work also leads to solutions for the hundreds of autoimmune disorders including dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Hashimoto’s disease,” he says.

If researchers are to tackle these disorders, he believes a deep understanding of chemistry is critical: “It’s easier for a chemist to pick up the biology than it is from a biologist to pick up the chemistry because chemists build literally from the atom up rather than biology systems down.”

Dismantling siloes means constructing new solutions

While Hutchinson is an early pioneer of convergent research in Australia, global leaders in convergence are traditionally from Israel and the US – primarily because their education system allows students to cross the discipline divide that is so entrenched in Australia.

But he sees a massive opportunity for Australian universities and research institutes. They already conduct world-leading immunology and pharmacology work, but researchers must also be prepared to fully immerse themselves in different disciplines and scientific languages.

As Director of the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP), that is precisely what he has done. Over the past seven years, he brought together engineers, physicists, chemists and biologists to use light to measure and understand what is happening at a cellular level.

CNBP scientists don’t just work siloed on projects according to their backgrounds; they spend significant time understanding each other’s science, research and challenges. And the results have transformed their approaches to the key CNBP research themes of wound care, IVF and pain research.

RMIT University’s Professor Andrew Greentree, a CNBP chief investigator and science theme leader, says that while specialisation is a good thing, “it doesn’t always give you the tools to make connections – and that’s really what the Centre has done. It’s helped us reach out across disciplines and make breakthroughs in ways that we just couldn’t have before.

I’ve never had an experience with a group like this. It’s really amazing. I’m learning as much from biology and chemistry PhDs as I can teach them. It’s a two-way street,” says Greentree.

Hutchinson says creating a new collaborative culture is critical to CNBP’s success. “I want researchers to trust each other. I want them to come up with the ‘out there’ ideas and to learn and embrace the learnings of failed experiments and ideas.”

A mission to change funding mindsets

With 15 spin-outs and start-ups, 30 flourishing industry partnerships and researchers refusing to be defined by a single discipline, Hutchinson is looking to broadly apply CNBP’s approach to science in funding and industry engagement.

There’s a COVID recession. There are going to be cuts. Scientists will need to broaden their sources of funding and not see collaboration with industry as dirty,” he says.“It is normal for an engineering faculty to work with the mining partners, but in the fundamental physics, biology, chemistry, and biomedical spaces, if you’re working with industry, somehow you’re tainted.

“This is rubbish because if you can’t have a true impact through to the boardroom, you’re not going to end up scaling any of your solutions.”

To build funding pitches, he also believes that researchers need to be able to easily define the impact of the funding they have received. “In the last 20 years, I have changed how pain is viewed as an immune and neuronal problem, and identified new mechanisms and translated drugs that are now used to manage and address addiction via immune pathways.”

He now plans to take human precision pain medicine knowledge and apply it to livestock. In what he calls “the next frontier”, ethical meat, which addresses animal wellbeing and welfare, will transform farming globally and give enormous marketing and profitability advantage to the local agricultural industry.”

The CNBP’s current areas of research range from quantum theory to IVF and cardiovascular disease, he adds. “I want to convince government to invest in the mini-Marks of 2020 so that in 20 years, our economy could be science-based rather than ‘dig it up and send it away’-based.”

To train the next generation of mini-Mark thinkers, barriers between disciplines must be dismantled, and measures put in place to ensure new barriers aren’t built down the track.

As a student, I was absolutely a square peg rammed into a round hole,” Hutchinson says. “And I wonder what I could be now if I was actually given a square hole to operate with, or I could have created the hole into which I inserted myself.”

This story was originally published via The Brilliant –