Coming back to make a difference

28 October 2015, Gut Health

Dr Liz Forbes-Blom, born and bred in Gisborne, leads the Gut Immunology team at the Malaghan Institute.  She credits her journey from school girl in Gisborne to leading researcher in this highly promising area of immunology to the support of many people, but one of the most important factors she says are the Kiwi scientists who made it possible to have an international career, here in New Zealand.

“You don’t have to go back too many years to see the default position for scientists with PhDs was to leave New Zealand and not come back.  There were few career pathways and if you had ambitions to be world-class it meant you needed to be at world-class facilities in the Northern Hemisphere.  Brilliant discoveries would be made by a Kiwi and some other country would reap the rewards. But that has changed over the last ten to twenty years and I owe a debt to my older colleagues, and the wise heads that supported them, as the New Zealand-led medical research community is now internationally recognised.

In the final year of her PhD study Liz was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to undertake research at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the USA.  She came back to New Zealand in 2007 to take up a postdoctoral fellowship position with the Malaghan Institute.

“I knew I was coming back to a pretty special place because the Malaghan Institute had a vision. When Professor Mike Berridge returned to New Zealand in the mid-1970s researchers were still applying for funds from Britain to investigate our own health here. He, Professor Graham Le Gros, and others are pillars of our medical research community had a vision. Sir Paul Callaghan wanted New Zealand to be a place where talent wants to live.”

“I see in my younger students a confidence and expectation that we will make breakthroughs here and research has the potential to translate into new therapies or treatments. It is an exciting time in immunology. We have the backing and the interest from so many people to put New Zealand on the map with Gut Immunology. The adult gut has 70 percent of all the body’s immune cells and constantly sorts out what is friend or foe, but it is a hugely under-researched field. I can only guess where we will be in twenty years' time. Each student expo or open day we have brings twice as many people to our door and in another generation I expect this will have only increased.

There will be school kids from Northland to Stewart Island – and Gisborne today, who will achieve who-knows-what for New Zealand. It’s wonderful to think of the growing momentum that has come from a few scientists and supporters who shared this vision.”