Wednesday 30 October 2019 7:58pm
Professor John Reynolds prepares to give a third-year Anatomy lecture at the University of Otago’s Dunedin campus during Semester 2.
Any university is, by design, a domain of high achievers, of those with a thirst and a quest for pushing the boundaries of what can be understood, what can be learned and what can be taught.
And while recognising high achievers is not something New Zealanders do often or do well, it is worth acknowledging these people and their contribution to our lives and society.
One of these people is Professor John Reynolds of the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy. Professor Reynolds has recently become one of the few New Zealanders concurrently funded by the country’s three major research grants, from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; the Health Research Council and the Marsden Fund.
Professor Reynolds is one of only three University of Otago researchers who have held all three grants concurrently; the other two being Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and Professor Greg Cook.
With a sum in excess of $7 million the grants demonstrate the value Professor Reynolds is adding to his chosen fields: learning; memory mechanisms; Parkinson’s disease and stroke. But the value, as he sees it, is in what comes out the other end of that research.
"I’m really interested in finding new treatments for people with neurological disorders. Because there is so little available."
“I’m really interested in finding new treatments for people with neurological disorders. Because there is so little available. New drugs are few and far between and some incredible opportunities can come from the brain learning how to rewire its circuits.”
That process is called plasticity, and all three grants focus on plasticity and how it can be harnessed to help neurological disorders, Professor Reynolds says.
Despite so much research ongoing, Professor Reynolds still finds time to teach. Though that is “part of the job” it is also a personal passion – especially the teaching of first year students. He was quick to offer himself for the position of Director of Health Science First Year (HSFY) Programme when it was established in 2017.
“I spent a long time talking to my wife about that, about taking on another thing. And she said, ‘You have to, because you’ve got the passion.’ And if you’re passionate, you should follow your passion.”
As well as leading the programme, Professor Reynolds has also contributed some teaching time to it.
“Teaching is hard work but it’s very pleasurable watching students grasp a concept they’re struggling with, or have just been introduced to. You get a lot of pleasure out of doing that and you learn a lot about young people.
“I really enjoy the challenge of giving good education opportunities to very large classes. I feel a passion to do the best for these students in this very complex and busy programme, to make a difference in supporting the welfare of and options available for students going through HSFY.”
With such a full work load it’s reasonable to consider Professor Reynolds a master of time management. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not very good at it. Basically, you have to prioritise by the deadlines and urgent items that come up. What I do, I use the ‘spinning plates’ analogy. Every aspect of my working life I consider a plate I need to keep spinning. You have to make sure you pay attention to a lot of different things. And you have to be resilient and responsive.
"They [laboratory staff] do the nuts and bolts and they keep it going and they are the most wonderful bunch of people. Because they really respect how busy I am and they don’t complain. At least not to me!"
“Because things come out of the woodwork very unexpectedly. For example, you might get asked to do a public talk or to mark a thesis, and as academics I feel we have a duty to give back to the public and students, so I try to always prioritise those. But we just have to fit things like that in to what’s left of our lives, really. The reality is, in my opinion academics can’t do all aspects of their jobs within 37.5 hours. It just isn’t possible.”
Nor can they do their jobs without a team of brilliant people around them, Professor Reynolds says. “Incredible people” are to be found throughout the University and he offers particular praise for the “fantastic, supportive people” at the Department of Anatomy and in the Health Sciences Divisional Office.
The 10-strong team at his laboratory, what he calls “the engine room for all of my research”, is also called out for praise.
“They [laboratory staff] do the nuts and bolts and they keep it going and they are the most wonderful bunch of people. Because they really respect how busy I am and they don’t complain. At least not to me! They’re incredible people.”
He sees one of his roles at the University to be looking after those people. In fact, looking after people is a common theme with Professor Reynolds, as it is the goal of all the research being conducted in his laboratory.
“We want our laboratory to contribute to a new way of providing drug therapy for Parkinson’s disease and other disorders where targeted drug treatment is required. We also want to provide novel stimulation therapies for stroke and tinnitus.”
Alongside “incredible” colleagues, like Associate Professor Yiwen Zheng and neurosurgeon Professor Dirk de Ridder, those goals are getting ever-closer to being achieved, he says.
And while such achievements are worthy of considerable celebration, so too are the people behind them.
Professor Reynolds' major concurrent grants:
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment grant
Targeting drug delivery within the brain
$4,859,256 over four years (2016, 4 years)
Health Research Council grant
Manipulating rewards to treat maladaptive brain disorders: Focus on tinnitus
$1,192,994 (2019, 3 years)
Marsden Fund grant
Beauty vs the Beast: how does our brain prepare us to respond appropriately to beauty or fear?
$959,000 (2018, 3 years)