24 August 2022
Mike Zablocki is General Manager of the Malaghan Institute, a job he never imagined he’d be in when he turned up for an interview as a part-time database administrator role 20 years ago.
He has seen the Malaghan Institute through some of the most pivotal years of its development, contributing to its growth from a small little-known charity to a renowned independent biomedical research institute. Through it all, Mike has been a driving force of preserving the open-minded, dedicated culture that has existed since the institute’s formative years for the current team of more than 130 Malaghanites.
Originally from the UK, Mike first joined the Malaghan Institute in 2002, having returned to New Zealand for good after a world-wide backpacking trip. At the time, the institute had only 30 or so staff and was nestled away behind the concrete walls of the University of Otago, Wellington.
“If you had told me on my first day, that I would be working here for the next twenty years, I would have run for the hills,” says Mike. “That quickly changed, I came to love the quirky personalities and shared sense of purpose that existed among the staff."
“No matter how different and unique the people who work here are, we all strive towards that common goal which sustains us.”
Mike soon started to take on different roles within the organisation, becoming its one-man IT support, then manager of the small operations team. “In those first few years everyone had about nine jobs. It was a very steep learning curve but we kept each other going,” he says.
One of the biggest changes over the last twenty years was moving into a tailor-made building on the Victoria University of Wellington campus in 2004.
“This was a much-needed move, and a breath of fresh air,” says Mike. “Our previous space was getting too cramped, especially the labs. There was no room to accommodate any more equipment and we were growing every year.”
As the institute grew, so did Mike’s responsibilities and his team. He started to report to the Trust Board where his deep and broad knowledge of the organisation informed key strategy decisions. “The more time I spent working here, the more I understood the workings of the organisation, and the more I wanted a hand in steering it,” says Mike.
When Mike first joined the institute, independent research organisations fell through the cracks between funding available for university research groups and crown research institutes. Mike and the Malaghan Trust Board worked hard to influence government to introduce long-term stable funding for independent research organisations, something that was introduced in 2014.
“This really changed the trajectory of the institute’s growth and potential,” says Mike. “We went from existing mainly on donor funds and fragmented grants to having that extra safety net which allowed us to stretch our wings and take our research further.”
In July 2016, he was made General Manager, a new position created for an organisation now employing more than 80 staff.
One of the things Mike has most enjoyed during his time at the Malaghan Institute is his growing understanding of the scientific research underway at the institute.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the best science education. For that reason, I stopped learning science by the time I was 15,” says Mike. “Working here has encouraged me to understand the areas of research that scientists are working on, it’s been a very enriching experience.”
In fact, in 2019, Mike put his economic background, writing skills and his science he had picked up to write a grant application to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment focusing on the potential economic and health impacts of establishing CAR T-cell therapy as a standard of care in New Zealand.
“Of course, I leaned heavily on my colleagues for the science sections but there was still much of my own work in there. I had no idea how competitive it would be but we ended up securing $5m. For someone who historically has been more involved in keeping the lights on, it was incredibly gratifying to make a meaningful contribution to this particular area of research.”
“I want the Malaghan Institute to lead the way in bringing treatments to New Zealand that are not yet available in our healthcare system and making them accessible for all who need them. ”
Mike says the thing that’s kept him at the Malaghan Institute and the reason why so many employees stay for many years is that we’ve got something here we all believe in. “No matter how different and unique the people who work here are, we all strive towards that common goal which sustains us.”
This was made most evident when the initial results from the institute’s CAR T-cell clinical trial showed positive outcomes for patients.
“The sense of satisfaction and joy that we all shared was palpable. No matter what role in the organisation people did, that was an achievement for us all,” says Mike.
Mike is looking forward to the years ahead at the Malaghan Institute as it continues to play a leadership role for health research in New Zealand.
”I want the Malaghan Institute to lead the way in bringing treatments to New Zealand that are not yet available in our healthcare system and making them accessible for all who need them. And I would like to see us collaborate with more organisations, especially hospitals. This will allow us to take our research and apply it to help more people, bridging the gap between health research and healthcare.”