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On the importance of failure - an Occasional Address

Faculty of Medicine & Health, Graduation Ceremony, May 2nd 2023 - Occasional Address

Deputy Chancellor, Senior Vice Dean of Medicine & Health, colleagues, distinguished guests, graduating students & families.

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of these unceded lands, the rolling planes on which UNSW Sydney sits, the Bidjigal and Gadigal communities. Bidjigal I believe means plane dwellers in the Dharug language – one of the languages native to this area of NSW. So today, as you walk around the campus with your friends & family, pause to consider the incredible history witnessed by these rolling planes, and the debt of gratitude we owe to it, privileged to be able to study, learn and work freely in such a unique place.

This is my first occasional address. Let me clarify that. This is the first time I have been to any graduation ceremony, including my own. I will explain why.

I grew up in Bristol, a small city in the Southwest of England. My father was an eminent Paediatrician, my mother was and still is an abstract painter. I was brought up to ask questions at the dinner table, to study the world. Consumed by David Attenborough television shows I decided very early on that I would be a biologist. Though I went to a very modest state school, with help I managed to beat the odds and gain a place at Oxford University to study Biology. Guaranteed life-long success clearly would ensue?

Not necessarily. What I want to stress today isn’t success. It’s failure. Most Occasional Addresses I’ve watched in preparation for today, stress that graduation is one of the most important days of your life. OK, for some of you it might be. But I can imagine there are a few here that carry – as I did – a sense of failure. Perhaps you’ve not done as well as you expected? Perhaps you feel you should have done medicine instead? Perhaps you have no idea what tomorrow brings and that scares you?

At the end of my degree at Oxford, I was due to enjoy this very same ceremony. Two things, however, conspired to change my path. The first was the sudden death of my father. I felt bereft and uninterested in any form of celebration. Consumed by grief, all I could focus on was that I wasn’t training to be a medic, like him. The second was that I didn’t do well enough in my final exams. A PhD in Cambridge studying Biological Anthropology was promised to me, but it required a Distinction – and I’d fallen a few grades short. It was too late to enrol in postgraduate medicine. I was lost, feeling a deep sense of failure.

With no fallback plan I picked myself up and wrote. Pre-email, I mailed letters to every research lab I could find on the internet that looked interesting. To my surprise, a few months later a letter came from a parasitologist in Jerusalem offering me a 1 yr job in his lab. I said yes. This single year changed my whole life’s journey. Working with Palestinians and Israelis on the ancient relationships of Levantine goats – a fascinating subject I assure you - and living in one of the most complex and amazing cities in the world, I realised a profound lesson. You have to follow your own path. I was discovering a world of parasites, population genetics, and ancient human history. Maybe I didn’t need to become a medic after all.

With fresh perspective, my luck changed, I acquired a Ph.D. back in the UK jointly in Oxford and London to explore human genetics & malaria (a subject that I still work on today). Now, clearly my success was guaranteed!

At the end of my Ph.D. I submitted 3 applications for fellowships to study malaria further and applied to several jobs. Rejection followed rejection – I had failed again. Perhaps I was deluded, maybe this path wasn’t meant to be. Medicine?

Another year out followed. I considered throwing in the towel and finding an alternative career. Then, on a chance recommendation from a friend, I was introduced to Professor Alan Cowman, the world leading authority on malaria parasite cell biology. Over coffee he took a chance and offered me a 2-year position in his lab at the WEHI in Melbourne. I said yes, telling my mother soon afterwards that I’d be back from Oz in 2 years, she needn’t worry.

Within 2 years, I had met my now wife Andrea, I’d become a resident, we got married a few years later and our first child was born and my mum forgave me for living in the lucky country. Clearly now I could assume things would run smoothly? I worked my guts out in Alan’s lab and after 5 years, I had discovered and described a small protein – called RH5 – that I believed was destined to be the foundation for a universal malaria vaccine. We submitted the paper to the most prestigious journals we could, waiting for the almost certain accolades to follow. But, after 6 months of waiting we received a brutal rejection – worse still, another group published on Rh5 before us. I had been scooped. We rushed publication into an Australian journal – colleagues advised I move on. Failure?... Not so fast!!

RH5 is now in clinical trials in Tanzania, and its working. I’m not involved with those trials, but that paper I published is one of the most highly cited papers from my career. What am I trying to say?

As CS Lewis (the famous author) said “Failures are sign posts on the road to achievement.” or as civil rights activist Maya Angelou said, "It may be necessary to encounter defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

I now passionately believe failure is a key part of any journey. Or to quote Einstein, “Failure is success in progress.”

So, for those of you here reflecting on how everything has gone your way – relish that feeling, celebrate it, but don’t take it for granted. It won’t always be like this, but thanks to the amazing lessons you’ve undoubtedly learned here at UNSW through teachers and friends, you should feel confident that you can achieve great things. And for those of you nursing a sense of failure or uncertainty – well, you went one better than me, you showed up to your graduation, you smiled for the camera, and you can say to yourself, this too shall pass – or as Richard Feynman said, the most important thing in life is not being afraid to fail.

As the Head of School of Biomedical Sciences, I want to close by saying something about the Biomedical journey itself.

My father used to tell the story of the starfish - his metaphor for the importance of being a Clinician. This is the story:

As an old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a young girl picking up starfish and putting them into the sea. He asked the girl “why are you doing this?”. She answered that the stranded starfish would die if left out in the morning sun. 'But the beach goes on for miles and there are thousands & thousands of starfish,' countered the old man. 'How can your effort make any difference?' The child looked at the starfish in her hand and placed it safely into the waves. 'It makes a difference to this one!'

It’s a powerful story – make a difference to one patient. Save one life! But I’ll let you in on a secret (and I might ask any clinicians present to close their ears). There is a way to save not just one but every starfish on that beach and it isn’t necessarily by becoming a medic. In the COVID pandemic, it wasn’t clinicians that changed the game, it was biomedical research, it was finding the cures and treatments, the vaccines & diagnostics and the decades of research that came before – which included a HUGE amount of failure! Dame Sarah Gilbert who developed the AstraZeneca vaccine is a researcher, not a clinician. So, whether you stay in biomedical sciences, pursue medicine (I do still love clinicians) or go onto something completely different, the perspective you’ve gained these last few years should still empower you to make a profound difference to the world.

So, in closing, whatever today means, go from here. You’ve got a jump start on life with a degree from UNSW, use it well, be prepared to fail, fail often, and get up again. Blaze your own path.

Thank you.


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