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Dr Tracy Melzer was interviewed about his experience of being awarded a University of Otago Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship. These are the original interview questions and his responses.

What does your current work involve? What do you hope to achieve in this role?
I currently use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate a number of different conditions and diseases. My principal area of research is using MRI to investigate cognitive impairments associated with Parkinson's disease (PD).

Over the past few years at the University of Otago, Christchurch, and the New Zealand Brain Research Institute, our multi-disciplinary team has established one of the world's largest single-centre databases of well-characterised Parkinson's disease patients with MRI data. The scope of the original project was to thoroughly describe and characterize cognition in Parkinson's disease, now a focus of international research.

In our research protocol, each participant undergoes comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, detailed measurement of eye movements, and MRI scanning of the brain. What makes this really exciting is that we have continued to follow individuals over regular intervals. We have repeated the same testing and scanning after one year, two years, and are nearing completion of the 4 year follow up. We have even seen a number of individuals 6 years after their initial assessment. This provides us with an excellent opportunity to track disease progression not only through behavioural measures, but through more objective measures like change on advanced brain scans.

This well characterized database now allows us to start asking very interesting and important questions, such as can we detect markers that signal cognitive decline before it occurs, thereby allowing us to identify suitable candidates most likely to benefit from novel therapeutic trials.

Where do you hope your career path will go from here?
I plan to continue in academia with the longer term goal of heading a lab dedicated to MRI development and application, with a particular emphasis on the application of MRI to characterizing, staging, and predicting disease.

I hope to spend a bit of time overseas before ultimately returning to live and work in New Zealand.

What attracted you to this field of work? Were there specific people that were an influence on your choices?
It took me a while to arrive at brain imaging. I come from a physics background. I have always had a broad interest in science, and medical physics turned out to be a nice fit, with applications to the real world.

I originally came to NZ to enter the Medical Physics programme at the University of Canterbury. During the Medical Imaging course, I met one of my future supervisors, Dr. Richard Watts, a specialist in the physics of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The fascinating physics making MRI possible originally sparked my interest in the imaging technique. From this initial attraction to the physics evolved an even greater passion—that of developing and applying new techniques to extract the most amount of information from MRI, with the ultimate goal that these images can tell us something about the disease process, informing clinical practice or therapy testing, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Imaging is amazing. It has completely revolutionized medicine. And the field continues to advance at a startling rate.

What excites you about it?
There are at least two types of excitement for me. The first and most tangible are the things that occur day-to-day. For example, like a lot of scientists, after investing large amounts of time and energy into a particular analysis, the excitement and anticipation of seeing the results is great. Especially if they are positive results! Working with various colleagues from different fields and backgrounds can be very exciting. Conversation and collaboration with world experts can be inspiring. In addition, I thoroughly enjoy testing out new ideas and seeing if they work.

On a larger and longer scale that sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day is an underlying excitement about the potential that my research has to make a difference in an individual's life. That my work may someday inform clinicians or disease management that would ultimately reduce suffering is not only an excitement but also a responsibility.

What role did receiving a postdoctoral fellowship have on your career path up to this point?
The fellowship has had a pivotal role in where I am today.

Many of the competitive fellowships in NZ require citizenship or permanent residency. At the conclusion of my PhD, I had neither. Receiving this fellowship meant that I could remain in NZ to follow our unique group of Parkinson's disease patients over time. Similarly, during my tenure of the fellowship, I secured permanent residency and the ability to continue to work and live in NZ. Had I not received the fellowship, I most likely would have been forced to move overseas for work.

During the fellowship I was able to publish a number of articles and join a number of international collaborations. During the fellowship I produced the results that would allow me to secure:

  • A Canterbury Medical Research Foundation Fellowship
  • A Lotteries Health Research grant
  • The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand's Philip Wrightson Fellowship
  • A Health Research Council Emerging Researcher First Grant.

Without the Division of Health Sciences postdoctoral fellowship, none of this would have been possible.

What were the most valuable things that the opportunity provided you with?
The cross sectional group of patients that I worked with during my PhD comprised a unique cohort in the world. The opportunity to follow this cohort over time was one that I should not pass up. One of the most valuable things that the fellowship provided was the opportunity to remain in NZ and continue to study this unique group of patients over time.

What types of impact did this opportunity have on your research direction and prospects?
As mentioned above, securing this fellowship provided the ground work for successful grants and fellowships to date. It also opened the door to substantial collaboration.

What things did it enable you to do that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to do?
This comes back to the research environment and research programme. Nowhere else in the world does there exist the cohort that we have established here in Christchurch. The fellowship also allowed me to complete and publish multiple articles based on my PhD. As the fellowship and my PhD were so closely intertwined, this increased my productivity.

Were there contacts, connections, networks, that were opened up to you?
The awarding of this fellowship coincided with 2 events that dramatically accelerated my career and the establishment of collaborations. First, the imaging community had gained momentum and many investigators were now looking to use imaging as a key measure in their studies (both from University of Otago, Christchurch, and the University of Canterbury). Secondly, The Director of MRI Research at the NZ Brain Research Institute (my PhD Supervisor) left NZ to work in the USA. With his absence, I took over the duties of managing the MRI research occurring at the NZ Brain Research Institute. This was a fantastic opportunity.

During the tenure of the fellowship, in addition to the PD programme, I became involved in a wide range of imaging projects that included:

  • Cognitive enrichment (Prof John Dalrymple-Alford, Psychology, Canterbury)
  • Multiple sclerosis (Prof David Miller, University College London; Dr Debbie Mason, CDHB)
  • Preterm birth (Profs Lianne Woodward and Terrie Inder, Harvard)
  • Very low birth weight (Prof Brian Darlow, Paediatrics, Otago)
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (Prof Richard Porter, Psychological Medicine, Otago)
  • Mild traumatic brain injury (Dr Debbie Snell, CDHB)
  • Stuttering (Dr Catherine Theys, Canterbury)
  • Sleep apnoea (Prof Richard Jones, CDHB and Otago)

I am also a named investigator in the recently funded Brain Research – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa CoRE; inclusion was facilitated by the work I completed during the fellowship.

Were there any downsides, sacrifices or difficult choices to make?
There seems to exist a general feeling or recommendation that one should move labs between PhD and postdoctoral work. I did consider this, but the strength of the longitudinal cohort continues to be unique.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to postdoc work?
I would give the advice that almost everyone gives: Make sure you love what you do. Make sure you think the research you are doing is important.

I would also bring up less glamorous topics; I would advise that potential post-docs be prepared for financial uncertainty. Be prepared for grants that are not funded and be aware that you will probably be on fixed-term contracts that last 1-3 years. It is a reality that you quickly become aware of, but I don't think I appreciated the fact that there is very little job security.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Billings, Montana, USA. It was a great place to grow up. Close to the mountains, hot in summer, cold in winter. Montana is a great place to be if you like outdoor activities. I find Montana and New Zealand similar in a lot of ways.

What interested you in the world as a child?
Anything outside. Tramping, fishing, skiing, cycling, soccer, plants, birds.

Did you have a clear vision as a child of what you would like to be doing as a career?
I still do not 'know what I want to do'. I love what I do; I am passionate about imaging and application to diseases in particular, but I also have many other passions.

I had no idea what I wanted to do as I child. I have always liked science and knew that I would do something science-related, but had no idea of where I would end up. I can't really say how I ended up in a research/academic career. It wasn't a conscious choice—it was more like making the choice that allowed me to do as many of the things that I loved as possible. Academia provides a career path in which you are forced to constantly learn new things, which I like.

What subjects did you enjoy most at school, and as an undergraduate?
I feel quite lucky in that I loved school. In terms of my younger years at school, I don't have that many memories. However, I will never forget my 6th grade (age 11) science teacher—we did lots of hands-on experiments. The day a severed antelope head with maggots arrived in an aquarium will live on forever. I don't remember what we were supposed to learn as the maggots ate the flesh off the skull, but it smelled horrible for the entire time that the head was in the classroom. In high school I loved physics and calculus. I can still remember how cool I thought Green's and Stoke's theorems were when I understood them.

As an undergraduate, I really benefited from the American system that requires every student to take classes from different disciplines. I was always based in the sciences, but thoroughly enjoyed literature, history, and music as well. My undergraduate degree is in physics. I particularly enjoyed electromagnetism—I think that is what ultimately steered me towards medical physics and eventually MRI.

Why did you choose Otago, or the group you worked with, for your postdoc?
I think I basically answered this one in earlier questions. Additionally, I choose to work with the PD group at the NZ Brain Research Institute because (1) the cohort is unique, (2) the group was ahead of the curve in considering the effects of cognitive impairment in PD, (3) they had designed the study to address this pertinent question, and (4) they are a great team to work with (not only exceptional scientists, but good people as well), crossing multiple disciplines (neurology, psychology, statistics, physics) and multiple institutions.

Did it prove to be a good decision?
It was an excellent decision. It has sparked a number of successful grants. I have secured subsequent funding for myself. I have become a member of a number of national and international collaborations, not least of all the newly funded Brain Research – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa CoRE. And I get to live and raise my family in NZ. Also, at this early stage in my career, I feel fortunate to work on the number and calibre of projects that I do get to work on.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
Spending time with my wife and two daughters.

We have recently, along with our daughters, become connoisseurs of different playgrounds around Christchurch and New Zealand. We are also intimately familiar with the local zoo.

I also enjoy running, fishing, surfing, cycling, tramping, and playing the violin.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I love NZ and feel privileged to live and work here.

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