Professor Derek Richard is the Scientific Director at the Cancer & Ageing Research Program, at the Queensland University of Technology.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I studied at the University of Dundee in Scotland. After obtaining my PhD I moved to University of St Andrews in Scotland where I was appointed a post-doctoral fellow.
I worked on an organism called Archaea, that is normally found in volcanic pools. I was working on understanding how this ancient organism protected it’s genetic code from damage.
Essentially, the Archaea lived in boiling sulphuric acid pools and we knew that these conditions would cause a large amount of genetic damage. The team at St Andrews discovered a critical protein that the archaea used to protect it’s genetic code called SSB.
When we looked at other life that had the same protein we found that humans had the exact same protein, it had remained unchanged over 2bn years of evolution.
I wanted to carry on working on the human protein so I moved from St Andrews to QIMR in Queensland and published the first paper to describe the human protein in Nature in 2008.
In 2011 I move to the Queensland University of Technology where my team started to try and understand the role of this protein (which we named hSSB1) in cancer and ageing.
I am currently a Professor at QUT and Director of the Cancer & Ageing Research Program. In 2020 we will start clinical trials of our world’s first cancer therapeutic targeting hSSB1 and we will also start clinical trials for a potent drug that aims to cure COVID-19.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
My day to day life can be very different. One of the largest components of my work is raising the funds to support the research team.
Most people don’t realise that researchers are no paid from University central funds, we have to bring in the funds needed to support our salaries. Even, as a Professor, i have to pay my own salary.
To do this I write grants, I rely on donations from the public and I engage with industry. Ellus & Krue has been a fantastic partnership as it has allowed us to make a real difference to people through the products we develop as well as raise much needed funds for our ageing and cancer research.
I also have brain storming sessions with my staff and students, really mapping out what their latest discoveries mean and in taking that knowledge from the lab to the clinic. Our team has 53 researchers so that is a lot of work.
I also write scientific papers, give public tours of our research facilities, teach and sit on committees and boards.
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
Working within a University can provide a degree of flexibility. If I have an urgent job to do I will often work from home. It gives me uninterrupted time to think and be creative.
I am a big believer in maintaining a work life balance. I have my family who are extremely important to me, my sport which is water polo and then other interests I share with my family including cooking, fishing, walking and looking after our large collection of pets.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Planning trumps long hours every day and that’s how I run my life. Set realistic weekly and daily plans and tick the projects off as you complete them (it is amazing how a simple tick gives you a feeling of calm and achievement).
As a scientist you want to keep your mind as fresh as possible. So working long hours is not productive. I always make sure that I have my priorities right. Family trumps everything.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
Over the past year I have used a number of strategies to better manage stress. I do this by compartmentalising stress into a box in my brain. Stress grows with the time you dedicate to thinking about it.
Most things we worry about never eventuate and don’t deserve the time we dedicate in worrying about them. They go into a box deep in my mind. Then there are other stress points that may happen but are out-with my control so yet again don’t deserve time in my mind, so they are packed up into another box.
There are worries that we can influence but we too often dwell on them without doing anything about them. For those, I think of a solution. What can I do to remove the worry. Put in place a plan if possible.
Whenever a worry re-surfaces in your mind it is important that you pack it away as quickly as you can. Don’t dwell on it, don’t over think it, just pack it away. I developed this method from a way I manage pain.
A few years ago I was very unwell, but was lucky and recovered. However, I have a lot of issues with pain and there is no medical solution, so I employed this technique to put the pain away in a box.
It actually works really well. It takes a bit of practice but the result is no painkillers needed.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
Gaia by James Lovelock. Great alternate look at life on earth and how life changed the planet we live on.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
I am sad to say that it is my iPhone. I use it to plan my day, communicate, capture important thoughts, organise, get to meetings, the list goes on.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
I learned a lot from Mark Douglas BA Dip T Dip App Psych MAPS MIMC. He is a psychologist and specialises in my profession. He allowed me to self-reflect and grow as a person and as a leader.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
Never place your mind in one basket. If you dedicate your life to work and things are not going well then you will become stressed.
As a scientist I know that stress drives physical illness and you enter a negative loop that’s hard to escape. My advice, balance your life with family, friends, sport and hobbies. So if work goes badly then it is only a small part of you.
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